Podcast Episode

The Lensrentals Podcast Episode #27 – Making Retouching More Accessible with Sef McCullough

Published September 3, 2020

Each week Roger Cicala, founder of Lensrentals.com, hosts conversations about the art and science of capturing images. From photography to videography, film, history, and technology, the show covers a wide range of topics to educate and inspire creators of all kinds.


Interview with Retoucher Sef McCullough

Retouching isn’t something we regularly talk about on our blog or our podcast. Here at Lensrentals.com, we’re all about gear, and the tools you can use to help create your images. But still, retouching is a very big puzzle piece to the whole picture, and we figured it was finally a piece we should address. And we also thought that there was no better person to talk about retouching with more than Sef McCullough.

Sef Retouching Podcast Episode

Sef is a professional retoucher and educator that has worked in the photo and digital art industry for over 15 years now. With clients like Nike, Google, Coca Cola, and Target, it’s easy to see why we were so excited to have Sef on our show. But beyond that, Sef is also a brilliant educator on retouching practices, as well as the business of being a professional retoucher. Working with PRO EDU, Sef has helped produce 4 different tutorial series about retouching practices and gives all the tools needed to up your retouching game to new heights. But Sef also manages several other mediums to help educate and coach those who are looking to improve their retouching. 

Retouching work by Sef McCullough. Used with Permission

Sit down and enjoy, as Zach and Sef talk about the art of retouching, the tools you need to get started in high-end retouching, and various other tips and tricks to improve your workflow. 


Sef’s Website
Sef’s Instagram
Sef’s Facebook Group



0:50 – Zach and Sef talk for the first time after running in similar circles! Sef talks about how he got his start in retouching over 15 years ago, going from a fine art painter to getting a job because he “Kind knew how to use Photoshop.” In his new job, Sef learned digital production from how to build sites to vector animation. After graduating he got a job in the retouching department at Wieden + Kennedy

3:20 – Sef built his client list and contacts at W&K.

4:20 – What tools does Sef recommend to a newbie who wants to become full-time professional retoucher.

6:50 – What skillsets do people need to master to get started in retouching? You’ll need to look around and see what kind of opportunities are around you. Fashion and beauty are the most prominent right now, but there are a lot of other commercial retouching opportunities as well.

9:05 – Everybody thinks if they want to get into retouching they need to make a portfolio of all this crazy creative composting work before they show their portfolio to someone who might hire them. I say that is the wrong way to go. When your’ trying to break into a retouching job it’s going to be a foot in the door type thing, and nobody wants to hire a creative butterfly at that stage, they want to hire someone who knows how to deal with images, how the production pipeline works.

11:00 – A lot of the job is just knowing the fundamentals and having the eye to see what needs to get fixed, and fixing it with basic tools.

12:00 – Why deep looking is important.

12:20 – Sef isn’t afraid to show people how he works, his workflow, layers, and preproduction. He realized he was uncomfortable with the way that retouching as a craft was locked behind closed doors, and that he benefited from having those private spaces opened to him because he looks like the other people (Most men) who were already working in these spaces. Reflecting on this made Sef want to share what’s he’s learned for free in an effort to break that culture of elitism and secrecy.

15:20 – Keeping an abundance mentality when trying to authentically create.

16:10 – How does Sef combine his clients vision for a product with staying true to his own style as well? Some retouchers are operators who are happy to do process work all day, but Sef got tired of doing things a robot should be able to do.

18:15 – Sef sees photographs as raw material for making art. Projects that are open to him putting his perspective into his work are some of his favorites to work on.

19:30 – Break. Visit lensrentals.com/podcast for a discount

20:20 – Licensing licensing licensing. What kind of licensing do you have as a retoucher? A brief overview of how retouching has come from a very unsexy technical darkroom background to becoming digital art. The only thing Sef retains licensing over are his layered working files, and even that has surprised some of his clients.

23:05 – Enjoying showing people how he builds files Sef has decided that using his client work is an ethical way of teaching his audience and is not in breach of any law or contract unless it’s been mentioned specifically.

23:40FrequencySeperation.com Going from a shortcut that blew photographer’s minds, to being used less by some, separating frequencies that have separate profiles is just processing a photo in Photoshop by splitting your image up into layers. One for tone, one for texture. It allows you to work in away that’s way more flexible and less painful.

25:45 – Sef sees frequency separation as a structure vs a specific tool and the future of how we work on images. And why shifting your mindset makes it so that people feel freer to tackle harder changes they need to make with their images.

28:05 – Sef has a platform to teach photographers to become better retouchers. What would Sef advise to a photographer to hire a retoucher?

31:00 – Why you should do your homework on your target clients to understand what their visual voice is before you approach someone and show them your portfolio.

32:40 – If you take steps toward where you want to go, execute it to a high degree and add something that helps you get a little further each time to where you want to be.

33:15 – Wrap up.


The Lensrentals Podcast is a production of Lensrentals, founded by Roger Cicala. Our production staff includes Drew Cicala, Ryan Hill, Sarah McAlexander, SJ Smith, Julian Harper, John Tucker, and Zach Sutton. Other contributors include Roger Cicala, Joey Miller, Ally Aycock Patterson, Joshua Richardson, and Philip Robertson.

Thanks to Jacques Granger for our theme song.

Submit a topic idea, question, or comment, leave us a voicemail at 901-609-LENS, or send us an email at podcast@lensrentals.com.


Author: Lensrentals

Articles written by the entire editorial and technical staff at LensRentals.com. These articles are for when there is more than one author for the entire post, and are written as a community effort.

Posted in Podcast Episode
  • John Dillworth

    Excellent podcast. Nice to move a bit away from gear talk. Thanks

Follow on Feedly