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before and after image for Experience Life cover images

In early February, posted a video documenting their experiment of transforming four regular women into “cover mode.” Each of the women was given the full treatment — hair, makeup, wardrobe — in preparation for her own professional photo shoot. A Photoshop expert then retouched the images to make them “cover-ready.”

Watching the process was interesting in and of itself, but it was the reactions of the four women upon seeing their cover shots that were the most intriguing:

  • “I feel like it doesn’t even look like me.”
  • “I think because I know myself, this looks really different.”
  • “Why would you want to make someone look so different?”
  • “I like my freckles — I think they add character — and the fact that they’re gone, I don’t even know who that is.”
  • “Just as a normal person, seeing yourself changed and your identity changed — it’s pretty shocking.”

The overall message of BuzzFeed’s video, which you can watch below, had team members here at Experience Life nodding our heads in agreement: Yes, we should celebrate who we are as individuals, including those characteristics and self-perceived flaws that make us unique in our own beautiful ways. 

It was also a reminder of why we appreciate Experience Life‘s commitment to celebrating real people and offering real solutions for healthy living — an approach opposite to most health-and-fitness magazines, which are full of unrealistic images and empty promises.

We aim to convey Experience Life’s no-gimmicks, no-hype approach via the words and imagery and to be as realistic as possible. We’re by no means claiming perfection with this: There have been times when readers have called us out; that feedback is duly noted and considered as we develop and design future issues.

Keeping the BuzzFeed experiment in mind and with the goal of transparency, we asked Experience Life’s creative director, Lydia Anderson, to shed some light on the magazine’s policy around image editing. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: What is Experience Life‘s policy about retouching images that appear in the magazine?

A: Experience Life is all about real people and real stories. We keep our Photoshop work throughout the magazine focused on image quality (brightness, color correction, clarity) rather than altering bodies and faces. We do fix lighting and poor-quality images, retouch obvious blemishes, and/or remove background distractions if they take away from the subject matter. We may also extend backgrounds for the visual space they need.

Q: How about when it comes to the cover? Does it depend on who the cover subject is? Do cover subjects ever request certain changes?

The before and after shots of Samasource founder Leila Janah cover shot (July/August 2013).
The before and after shots of Samasource founder Leila Janah’s cover shot (July/August 2013).

A: Our cover policy is to keep our cover images bright, beautiful, and appealing without compromising or changing the physical appearance of our cover personality. Our cover personalities are not models, and we don’t want to alter their appearance simply because we can or because other magazines do it. Some of our covers have requested Photoshop work to flaws that are of personal concern to them, and we honor those requests.

Q: What do we retouch on our covers? What’s off limits?

A: I will Photoshop skin tone, color balance and correction, hard shadows (when distracting), brightness, and clarity. I’ll fix clothing wrinkles, bumps, and folds that are missed at the shoot and are distracting, as well as background distractions and densities so cover lines are readable. I’ll soften wrinkles on our older cover personalities but will not eliminate them all together.

Off limits? I won’t add muscle tone, blur entire faces and then add detail back in, change body type and shape, or change the shape or size of facial features (other than removing small bumps and blemishes).

In the example above, for instance, here’s what I did:

  • Changed the color of the background for brightness and a more daytime/summer feeling
  • The photo overall was very blue/gray, so I adjusted the color balance of Leila’s hair and skin tone
  • I lightened Leila’s makeup and lip color, which all appeared much heavier in the photo than in the sunlight at the shoot
  • Softened under-eye shadows
  • Cleaned up eyebrows (by request).

Q: Why do you think handling photo “retouching” in this way is important as a brand?

A. As the creative director for Experience Life, I’m at almost every cover shoot. I have the honor of meeting our cover personalities, and they are all amazing people! Getting to spend a day with them is wonderful because I also execute the Photoshop work on their images: Knowing their personalities helps me pick the photos that truly show their spirit. When I retouch the images, I am constantly thinking about who they are as a person — I want that person to shine through on each cover. Experience Life’s mission is about supporting the enjoyment of a balanced, sustainable, and satisfying way of life and that mission needs to be reflected in our art and photography, as well as our editorial content.

BuzzFeed’s Experiment:

TELL US: What are your thoughts on image retouching? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet us @ExperienceLife.

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