Nick Saglimbeni Interview: Retouching Magazine Covers and Shooting Celebrities

photoshop skin smoothing - Nick Saglimbeni

Nick Saglimbeni is an amazing photographer, retoucher and photoshop skin smoothing expert from Los Angeles who has the privileged job of shooting with some of the most famous people in the world. Notably, he’s shot some of Kim Kardashian’s most iconic photographs. You can learn Nick’s secret retouching techniques in Mastering Retouching, his course on high-end retouching.

When did you decide that photography was going to be your profession, and why?

My father was a hobbyist photographer, and it was always so exciting when the family would get together to look at his photos on a big screen from the slide projector. It was a very different time—no web, Facebook or instagram—which meant far fewer photographers and seeing new pictures was really an event. As I grew up, I followed his lead and took pictures of everything that interested me. When I moved to LA, I was fascinated by the diversity of the city—so many beautiful people of every ethnicity and background. Most photographers were focusing on Caucasian models and actors at that time, and so I sort of stumbled into an emerging market.

photoshop skin smoothing - Slickforce Studio

After graduating, you started SlickforceStudio. How did you start your business at a time when most kids have tons of school debts and are struggling to find jobs?

Well, let’s be clear: “starting my business” didn’t mean I had any money or was without school debt. It meant finding a tiny $500/month studio in the shadiest part of LA, partnering with friends that had things I didn’t, like lights and computers, and learning to be proficient in everything from lighting to retouching to printing because I couldn’t afford to outsource. I sold my car to afford the studio bills, and took the bus for 3 years. But I never started the studio to get rich. I started the studio because I was genuinely excited that people liked the way I made them look and feel. When you’re a starting (or starving) artist, all you want is for anyone to care about your work. When that started to happen, I just naturally gravitated to where I felt my audience was. I didn’t overanalyze it.

For someone who wants to shoot magazines and commercials, what are the steps he or she needs to take?

First, you have to accept that you will never make money in magazines. Do it for the exposure, and think of every shoot as a stage where you can show the world what you can do. Second, the business is changing at record speeds, not just because of technology, but also because—let’s face it—now there are just so many photographers. The art form changes daily.

If finances are a concern, don’t quit your day job…yet. Instead, save your money so you don’t need to make money shooting. Then, your photography will probably turn out much better. Creativity loves to flow without rules or resistance, and your job as an artist isn’t to build the best studio or make the most money, but instead to remove the barriers which prevent you for creating directly from your source. It’s a struggle even for established artists, and many artists lose their edge as soon as they get successful. As a new artist, your audience can only find you if you are consistently putting out your best work.

photoshop skin smoothing - first celebrity client

Who was your first celebrity client and how did you end up shooting with them?

I gained notoriety early in my career for my work with urban and Latino publications. I was delivering work that their readers liked, and so a lot of my early shoots were with known models in those industries like Vida Guerra and Jessica Burciaga. That led to a series of hip-hop shoots, where I was able to work with artists like T.I., Birdman and Nas.

photoshop skin smoothing - Mastering Retouching

What is something that you teach in Mastering Retouching that other retouchers don’t teach?

There’s actually quite a lot that I haven’t seen covered in other tutorials, but I am most proud of the fact that we feature lessons on women of color—specifically the “Dark Complexions” and the “Exotic Features” volumes. To this day, I still hear, “Retouching all women is the same,” but anyone who says this is either ignorant or is just lying to themselves. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, nor are any two people. And each person you shoot will have different concerns about how they look versus how they want to look. Mastering Retouching arms with you solutions to so many retouching scenarios, many of which you won’t know you need until your client asks for it. With twelve volumes and growing (7 in Mastering Retouching and 5 in Mastering Compositing), it’s literally a post-production library in itself.

photoshop skin smoothing - first professional photography project

How did you come up with the “Slickforce” technique of retouching?

My very first professional photography project was a calendar featuring music video dancers. One of the models was gorgeous but she had a lot of dark hair on her forearms which she wanted removed in post. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to remove it while retaining the underlying skin quality. This was 10 years ago, so there were no Patch Tools or Content Aware Fill. I experimented with many different brush strokes and techniques until this one particular method seemed to work really well. Over time, I found that it could be used on nearly everything: skin, clothes, cars, whatever. It was like the Windex of retouching.

Who was your mentor when you were first learning retouching and what was the most important thing you learned from him or her?

I’ve had many lighting mentors over the years, but I actually have never had anyone teach me retouching. On set, you have to be very time-conscious, because people are waiting on you. But when you’re alone in your post-production lab, you have all the time in the world to experiment with new techniques. You can be a mad scientist.

photoshop skin smoothing - retouchers do right

What do you see a lot of retouchers do right now that you hate?

I don’t hate anything, because retouching is an evolving art form just like photography. It is what it is, and whatever is happening now in retouching is a snapshot of pop-culture and the state of photography at the moment. I do think there is too much HDR and Filtering going on right now. I mean, once everyone is cross-processing, flaring their images, and hyper-coloring their skies, it sort of ceases to be unique, don’t you think?

photoshop skin smoothing - Retouching Magazine Covers

What is your opinion on automatic skin smoothing programs?

Personally I would never use one, because you are trusting an algorithm to “finish” your artwork. The greatest thing about our techniques is that they are nearly as fast as the auto programs, but can be tailored to an artists’ individual style. It’s a mistake when photographers think of retouching as an afterthought that just needs to be outsourced or rushed through. It’s just as much a part of your art as the photography itself, and you should approach it as such.

Check out Nick’s blog and portfolio for more information about him and to see some of his stunning photoshop skin smoothing work.

And if you want to learn retouching from Nick, make sure to check out Mastering Retouching, which is on sale at PhotoWhoa for a VERY limited time.

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  • George Baker

    Beautiful work by Nick.

  • Guest

    Your work is indeed great… Really loved it… As i read the interview, i realized that you do the retouching on your own.. How do you manage to get time to shoot as well retouch all your images? Why don’t you outsource some company in India and give them your photos to retouch.
    I have a photographer friend of mine who has given her works to KeyIndia Graphics in India. She said that they are inexpensive and provide with good services and quality in the photos.