Creative Lives — Retoucher Sophie Lawes: “It’s the kind of job you do for life; I don’t know anyone who isn’t still learning”

Posted 30 May 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

While the photographer may be the star of the show for a high-profile photoshoot, there are many eyes, hands and minds that determine the quality of the final outcome. Retoucher Sophie Lawes is one of these contributing forces – it’s her job to fine-tune photographs down to the last minute detail. Part of the in-house team at retouching and CGI studio Stanley’s Post, Sophie’s work occasionally takes her into the wee hours of the morning, but the collaboration and creativity more than make up for it. Having recently moved to Hertfordshire, Sophie spoke to us about mastering an almighty commute and learning the ropes from the deep end, in “the kind of job you do for life”.

Sophie Lawes

Job Title

Retoucher at Stanley’s Post (June 2010–present)

Based

Hertfordshire (commuting to London)

Previous Employment

(“I’ve been a waitress, an ice cream lady and a pizza delivery girl!”)

Education

BA Photography: Editorial and Advertising, University of Gloucestershire (2007–2010)

Social Media

Sophie

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I am one of a handful of retouchers at Stanley’s Post. Our job is to help create and optimise great images and campaigns for our clients – usually advertising agencies, brands, photographers, photographer’s agents and other creative businesses. We like to get involved at the very beginning of a project if possible, and work with the whole team every step of the way, from the pre-production, to the shoot, to the edit and finally to the retouching. 

What does an average working day look like?
An average day…is there such a thing? Usually I am based in our office in Covent Garden, often working very closely with our clients. If I’m not in the office then I would probably be out and about taking briefs, having pre-production meetings or on set, which could be absolutely anywhere.

I recently made the big move out of London to live in Hertfordshire (scary!) and now it takes me about an hour door-to-door: by car, train and then by foot. My morning ritual is heavily dominated by my commute, I try to enjoy the little things, so I make sure my 30-minute walk through London is as enjoyable as it can be, by taking a detour through a park or listening to a podcast. It’s also nice to get a bit of gentle exercise to start the day. I think if your ideal working day is not your typical working day, then you need to have a re-jig and do something about it!

How did you land your current job?
In my third year at university we had to look for work experience, and I knew I wanted to work in post-production. As I began to trawl the internet looking for somewhere to get experience, Stanley’s Post came up top. I pestered them to have me in for a week, and I absolutely loved it, from then on I knew retouching was for me. When I graduated I was offered the position of junior and runner here, and since then I’ve spent seven years working my way up the ranks.

“Stress levels can be extremely high with tight deadlines, but I take them as an opportunity to develop – flapping doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Where does the majority of your work take place?
Most days I’m working at the office. I’m lucky in that it’s a great work space in Covent Garden, a very chilled environment with lovely retouching suites, which makes spending many many hours in front of a computer screen in a dark room a lot easier.

What are your working hours?
A retoucher’s day can sometimes be extremely long – it can run into the early hours of the morning! This definitely varies from project to project, it’s all down to deadlines and how tight the timings are. Luckily it’s a creative and enjoyable role, which really takes the sting out of the tail.

How collaborative is your role?
Retouching is super-collaborative. An example project for me would involve working directly with the client – which could be anyone from a photographer, a photographer’s agent to an ad agency creative or account manager. I will also always work with one of our in–house project managers who oversee our time on the project. This keeps our minds free to focus on the creative and not get caught up in timings and budgets. The project manager will decide how many retouchers are needed, this can be one person or possibly the entire team – this is the really collaborative side of my job, as we have to work together as a team and all have the same creative vision, it’s the best bit.

Images retouched by Sophie and the Stanley’s Post team; client: Nike Middle East; agency: Wieden+Kennedy; photography: The Wade Brothers

Images retouched by Sophie and the Stanley’s Post team; client: Nike Middle East; agency: Wieden+Kennedy; photography: The Wade Brothers

Images retouched by Sophie and the Stanley’s Post team; client: Nike Middle East; agency: Wieden+Kennedy; photography: The Wade Brothers

Images retouched by Sophie and the Stanley’s Post team; client: Nike Middle East; agency: Wieden+Kennedy; photography: The Wade Brothers

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What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect of my job is having the freedom to be creative and work collaboratively with a full team to produce the best work possible. Stress levels can be extremely high when dealing with tight deadlines, but I find it important to relish in these moments and take them as an opportunity to build and develop – flapping doesn’t get you anywhere.

What skills are essential to your job?
People skills; getting along with others and building a rapport makes it a much easier process. Interpreting other people’s visions or notes on how they want an image to look is crucial, it takes years to develop and it’s something that Stanley’s prioritise wholeheartedly. Other skills include understanding the technical aspects of photography, and of course knowing Photoshop like the back of your own hand, the list goes on!

What tools do you use most for your work?
The basics would be: a high-spec Mac, usually a mac pro (some of the files we work on can be huge – 20GB is quite normal!); a Wacom Tablet: Photoshop (obviously), Illustrator and InDesign; Capture one is often used to catalogue and edit shoot content; a comfortable chair and a speedy kettle go a long way too.

Retouch work for Three; photography: Daniel Sannwald; agency: Wieden+Kennedy

Retouch work for Three; photography: Daniel Sannwald; agency: Wieden+Kennedy

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How I Got Here

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I have my degree in photography, and although this isn’t the route that every retoucher takes into their career, it’s really useful. Having a good knowledge of the technical aspects of photography and being able to get myself in the studio and shoot bits and pieces can be a life-saver!

What were your first jobs?
Before Stanley’s Post I did do a couple of weeks’ work experience at another retouching house, my role was mostly tea bitch, but I still learnt a lot from being there.

Was there anything in particular that helped you the most at the start of your career?
Honestly, it’s the company I work for now. They took a chance on a young photography graduate with an interest in retouching and trained me up. Because of this I get to go to work each day and enjoy it. That’s pretty special.

“Retouching is the kind of job that you do for life; it’s addictive and takes years and years to master.”

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I know that near the beginning of my career I was sometimes chucked in at the deep end, not really knowing the ropes, but working through it and learning on the job helped me develop. I’m a firm believer in a sink or swim approach.

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
My job depends entirely on technology; things are constantly developing and changing, but these changes are often quite gradual. I find that as long as you keep learning new skills and researching new technologies, it’s quite easy to adapt and stay current.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
I have always looked up to the more senior retouchers in our company, some of whom have been doing it longer than I have been alive – and even made the transition from traditional retouching on film to digital retouching. So I guess my goal is to get a couple of decades under my belt and hopefully pass on some of my knowledge to the next generation of retouchers.

Retouch work for Finlandia; photography: Sam Barker; agency: Wieden+Kennedy

Thinking Ahead

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Retouching is the kind of job that you do for life; it’s addictive and takes years and years to master, I don’t think I know one retoucher who isn’t still learning.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a retoucher?
My advice would be to gain as much as experience possible, even if it’s not in retouching. If you spend two weeks working in a CGI studio and two weeks working with a graphic designer, everything you learn will contribute to a well-rounded knowledge and put you a cut above the rest. My other bit of advice would be to stay passionate about what you’re doing. It might sound cheesy, but when it’s 11pm and you have a million things to do before you go home, you need to make sure that you have the motivation to get it done.

Posted 30 May 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Sophie Lawes, Stanley’s Post

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