A seeker of true Beauty: an interview with editorial retoucher Helga Vandersluys

 

 When I saw Montreal based, Helga Vandersluys’ flawless retouching I was truly inspired and when I heard her story I was even more since she had the courage to change her life and follow her passion. I felt that there was a lot to learn from this remarkable professional from the editorial and beauty industry.
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Photos: Mike Ruiz
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DS: What drew you into postproduction?
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HV: My interest in photography as a hobby was my first introduction to using photoshop.  I enjoyed playing around with the software, took classes and read everything I could absorb in order to improve my skills and learn more.  Once I touched upon skin and beauty retouching I very quickly got hooked on this process.  When I was young, I loved to colour and when I’m working an image it brings about that same feeling of doing something I loved as a child. It may sound cliché but it was truly a situation where I found something I loved to do and was motivated enough to try and turn that passion into a career for myself.
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DS: What are the optimal conditions to receive an image file from a photographer?
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HV: A clean, sharp, well composed RAW image, in the highest possible resolution with impeccable lighting for starters.  Beyond that, beautiful styling, amazing make up and hair would be high on my wish list. Most importantly though, you want to see the photographer’s skill, unique creative style and vision shining through loud and clear even before putting a pen to a pixel, so to speak.  I believe this is what ultimately sets the tone for a successful end product.
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DS: What kind of information do  you need from photographers to understand how you will approach their images?
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HV: I feel it’s imperative that the photographer impart on the retoucher a clear idea of what they envision for the final image.  How they convey that vision to me can vary but it’s always helpful to have references even if it’s a general idea of the level of colour, lighting and detail that I should aim for.  Much as on a movie set the photographer is the director of a team of people which includes the retoucher.  Even though I am not necessarily present on set I do need to be given guidelines.
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DS: Can you describe briefly your process?
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HV: I’ll start by saying that no two images are ever retouched in the exact same way, even in a series shot in the same conditions. There will be differences in the approach I take depending on the desired end result.  However, there are certain steps done in a particular order that are consistent for the most part. Initial adjustments to the RAW file can include exposure, white balance revisions and subtle colour changes. Once imported into photoshop I usually start with any background fixes and removal and/or changes to elements that are obvious distractions.  Then it’s on to finer adjustments, clean ups to skin, hair and clothes. I work with colour, shading and lighting using many different methods and groups of adjustments layers.  Over time I’ve worked out recipes that work for me as far as getting the result I’m looking for. I do a lot of masking and painting to apply techniques selectively.  It’s crucial to keep each part of the process on separate layers and adjustable for edits later on.  Once I feel it’s complete I try to take a small break away from the image and go back to it with fresh eyes to do a final close up check for details and adjustments before sending off for comments.
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DS: How did you start working with celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz?
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HV: Mike is from Montreal, and a close friend since childhood.  He moved to the US when we were younger but we still kept in touch and I was thrilled for him when he achieved such success as a photographer.  When I first expressed an interest in retouching he was very helpful, giving me advice and letting me practice on some of his fabulous images early on. Over time, we developed a working relationship that has led to this point.  His motivation and support have been invaluable to me and being able to doing something I love, with Mike, whose images are obviously an inspiration and with whom I have a personal connection has been incredibly rewarding, not to mention fun!
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DS: Do you think you have a style of retouching or do you adapt completely to your clients?
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HV: Working so closely with Mike, my style has certainly developed in correlation with the type of images he is most known for which are very high impact and surreal.  That being said, it’s important for any professional to be able to vary their workflow in accordance with a client’s needs and I do strive towards being able to adjust for what’s required. In addition, I am constantly reviewing my techniques, finding different ways to do things and of course scouring ads and magazines to keep up to date and current.
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DS: What are your thoughs on enhancing the bodies of models and its social impact on self confidence?
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HV: Postproduction work on images has been around for a very long time, and I realize that retouching today is a topic that is subject to much debate.  It’s fair to say that I am part of a huge industry that perpetuates unrealistic images of the human body, but it’s very much a question of supply and demand.  You have to question whether retouchers are simply conveyors of existing social expectations of beauty or indirectly, shapers of them.  As a professional I do what is requested by my client. Personally, I feel it’s very important to educate young people to be as objective as possible.  I have a pre-teenage daughter, and I’ve done workshops at her school to talk about what I do.  They need to understand that absolutely all images in the media, whether of people, food or other products are to varying degrees, fake and meant to sell them something.  What they see should not be considered a realistic projection of what they should look like, in the same way that they would never expect the burger at a fast food restaurant to look like it does in the ads.  As real humans, there is beauty in our flaws and for young girls I think a little self acceptance goes a long way towards building a stronger self esteem.
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DS: Any basic rules/ advice for beauty retouching?
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HV: For beauty retouching, the usual mandate is “flawless but real”.  In reality, this is rather contradictory, because few images or people are really flawless.  In a sentence, I’d say beauty retouching for a polished result involves a very detailed effort in order to create a fine balance between achieving smooth, even tones while honouring the existing texture as well as staying true to the highlights, mid-tones and shadows to create a final product with that cover look.

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