We had the pleasure to speak with Alexey Tsarev, founder of Paragon Retouch. Together with Oleg Sharonov, who created Retouch4me he is working on plug-ins for photo retouching. The Retouch4me plug-ins help to make the process of photo retouching faster and more efficient. We spoke about the founders’ career path, the technology behind the plug ins and their advantage.

Production Paradise: Could you tell us more about your career path? How have your former careers impacted your current work?

Retouch4me: Oleg Sharonov, the founder and author of Retouch4me plug-ins, is a professional software developer who started his career creating a virtual synthesizer and developing plug-ins for music. During his career, he became passionate about photography, and while learning retouching techniques, he started noticing the shortcomings of the existing tools for color correction. So, in 2013 he developed 3DLUT Creator. The program uses a unique approach to color correction – it maps out a color wheel, or rather a color cylinder if you look at it in 3D, with a 3D coordinate web. Hence the name of the program – 3DLUT Creator. Each node of the web represents a specific range of tint values. By dragging the nodes around, you can control a specific tint with high precision, without affecting other colors in the image. This method allows for the transition between the colors to be smooth and there’s no need to mask objects anymore. It also prevents artifacts from showing up, which is a common problem when doing color correction using conventional tools.

Oleg’s interest in the techniques and tools for photo retouching continued throughout his career, including a desire to improve them and speed them up. The programs for automated retouching that were being used back then would often ruin images by blurring them or changing the original skin texture. This is how the idea to create Retouch4me plug-ins emerged – plug-ins that can mimic the workflow of professional retouchers with the help of artificial intelligence, but at a faster speed. Heal was the first plug-in that came out in 2020.

In 2021, a new company RELU was established in Estonia. The company combined the skills, professional experience and desire to change the industry of photo retouching of two teams – Oleg’s team and the team of Paragon Retouch, a hi-end retouching studio founded by Alexey Tsarev. So far, the company has released 11 Retouch4me plug-ins and a panel for Photoshop that makes the process of using the plug-ins easier and faster.

Production Paradise: What do your plug–ins offer to the customer? What are they capable of?

Retouch4me: Retouch4me plug-ins have three main advantages:

  1. Maintaining the natural look of images. The plug-ins keep the skin texture intact and don’t replace it with artificial texture.
  2. The plug-ins speed up the process of retouching, making it faster, and they can be applied in batch processing to retouch the entire shoot.
  3. All the plug-ins use a non-destructive approach to retouching, which is considered a golden standard among professional retouchers. You can control the applied effect and create layers for further adjustments and masking.

Production Paradise: Can the Retouch4me plugins compare to retouching by hand? How reliable are your plug-ins? How do you make sure the quality is good?

Retouch4me: If you are a beginner and not familiar with techniques like dodge&burn or frequency separation, the plug-ins will do the retouching for you better and faster. You will be definitely impressed with the result, which will be comparable to what a professional retoucher would do. On the other hand, if you are a professional high-end retoucher, the plug-ins will become an additional powerful tool for you. They will perform most of the monotonous work, saving your time and leaving room for technical adjustments and art.

Thousands of happy users, including experts in photography and retouching, as well as journalists, bloggers and educators, can attest to the quality and efficiency of our plug-ins. Our software helps them save lots of their time for vacations, family and hobbies.

Production Paradise: Can you give us some insight into the technology? How were the underlying neural networks trained in order to provide good results?

Retouch4me: As mentioned above, the main goal while developing the plug-ins was to teach them the workflow that professional retouchers use. First, the neural network teaches itself using a large volume of photos to distinguish different areas in a picture – the background, people, skin, clothing, different facial parts etc. And then it ‘learns from professionals’ – by processing it countless before and after photographs that were edited by professional retouchers. And of course, our neural networks know how to save the retouching results on separate layers, as if it was done manually.

Production Paradise: Who would you recommend your plug-ins to? And are they compatible with other software?

Retouch4me: We recommend our plug-ins to everyone who is doing photography and understands the importance of retouching. To be more specific, we would group those people into the two main categories:

1. Photographers and retouchers who are working with large-volume photography, such as wedding, school and e-commerce photographers – those who need to edit and submit lots of images quickly. For them, it is an extremely time-consuming process and this is when Retouch4.me plug-ins come in handy. It is not a secret that very often wedding photographers do in-depth retouching of only a portion of images while just color correcting the rest of them. And sometimes the guests at the wedding lack retouching. Meanwhile, everybody wants to look good in the photos. So our plug-ins set a new bar in retouching for wedding photography. Now you can auto-retouch images and save time for yourself, while the results impress everyone and make them happy.

For photographers who do lookbook photography we have two very important and useful plug-ins – Clean Backdrop and Fabric. The first one cleans up the background (removes dirt and stains from cyclorama) and the second one smooths out wrinkles on clothing. Combined with the plug-ins that deal with skin, and applied in batch processing, you can achieve quality results while doing it times faster.

2. High-end retouchers and commercial photographers who edit their images by hand. For these people, as mentioned above, our plug-ins can be an additional powerful tool. No need to spend hours on dodging and burning, crafting and shaping depth and dimension, removing enlarged blood vessels from the eyes. Instead, you can focus on artful and creative color correction, creating atmosphere in the frame and making it stand out, leaving all the monotonous work for the plug-ins.

Retouch4me plug-ins work as a stand-alone software but are more effective when used with popular editing programs like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One and even Affinity.

Production Paradise: What do you think – how will AI impact the photography industry?

Retouch4me: All of us are witnessing this impact right now. AI is everywhere – in smartphones, major centralized systems, medicine, entertainment industry and even code writing.

While speaking about photography, let’s take a look at it retrospectively. From the get-go photography was based on the idea of getting images instantly, but the path to this concept has been long and challenging. In the beginning, the goal was to discover highly sensitive materials for quick exposure, then it was about speeding up development process and getting a print. All this led humankind to digital photography. However, up to this day the final stage of the whole process – editing and retouching – takes a significant amount of time. Meanwhile, the bar for quality of retouching keeps going up as the resolution capabilities of camera sensors and screens is growing. This is why at Retouch4me our intention is to speed up the process of retouching with the help of neural networks while providing high quality.

A lot of people are wondering if artificial intelligence will eventually replace creative professions. We believe that the answer is no. We even released a video about myths and realities about AI on our YouTube channel. You should check it out. Creative people should not worry. Let AI be your powerful ally – use it as a tool to implement your creative ideas and to speed up your workflow.

Production Paradise: Do you have any more exciting projects planned in the future?

Retouch4me: Yes, of course. Sign up to our social media and you will be the first to find out.

We would like to thank Alexey and Oleg for taking the time to speak with us. If you want to learn more about the work of Retouch4me, make sure to check out their website as well as Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.