This won’t be news to anyone, but the automotive industry is big business, with many companies pulling in revenues in the billions.
This is an especially exciting and competitive era for the industry as well, as major manufacturers rush to make the EV (electric vehicle) switch.
Today’s guest isn’t responsible for designing head-turning cars, but rather for taking new designs and making them look their absolute best, getting them ready for the world stage, so to speak.
Mickael Laujin, creative automotive retoucher extraordinaire, has been working in automotive photography post-production for over fifteen years. In other words, he’s handled a great many projects for top-level international brands like Cadillac, Hyundai, Toyota, Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and more.
Following many years of international travel, Laujin is currently working as a retouching studio manager in Los Angeles, where he is also expanding his scope to include CGI (computer-generated imagery) work, which is rapidly becoming a key component of professional photography.
But before we let Laujin talk shop in more detail, we think it’s important to give readers a better look at what this work actually involves, as it tends to happen largely behind the scenes.
“I work with automotive photographers who have to respond to a client’s brief. The photographer contacts me to push the processing of these images to a whole new level. The photographer often brings me mood boards of the color moods of the images he’d like to achieve.”
The purpose of this kind of mood board is not really to give an exact representation of what the final product should look like; instead, it’s a starting point, a sort of vibe that the photographer wants to see.
From there, Laujin creates color moods, treatments, and atmospheres that will translate that mood to the viewer.
As Laujin pointed out, 90% of this work is actually highly technical, such as image cleaning and composition. But for Laujin, that last 10%, which is the color work, is by far the most interesting and inspiring.
With a background in engineering and photography, it was this creative aspect that attracted him to this particular line of work, not the cars. In fact, Laujin admits that he was never a big gearhead. Rather, the work itself and the challenges that arise from trying to complement the work of other creative professionals sparked his interest, and he continues to find motivation in this aspect.
“There are a lot of challenges in magnifying the work of the designers and photographers. Moreover, each car is different in design and paint. Photographers all have a different vision of the same subject. It’s very interesting to deal with.”
But that’s just an overview of what automotive retouching involves. Throughout the rest of this article, Laujin will provide some more detailed perspectives on what it takes to stay at the front of the pack. As you’ll soon find out, becoming a trusted retoucher is no small feat.
Work fast, work well
The first thing you need to know about automotive retouching is that deadlines are tight, very tight.
According to Laujin, this seems to be a natural progression of a workflow that has been accelerating for years.
“Deadlines are getting shorter and shorter because we live in a world that’s moving faster and faster. Everything has to move fast, just like the cars themselves. You have to be able to work fast and well. Thankfully, my 15 years of experience have allowed me to develop a speed that is highly sought after by my clients.”
So a project is handed over to the retoucher, and they have to finish a pretty staggering amount of work before the deadline hits. For a novice, that kind of pressure would probably result in a sense of panic, and panic can lead to a rush job with plenty of mistakes.
But even one mistake could mean that a retoucher won’t continue to get work from that client, and it might even affect their reputation in the industry.
So not only do retouchers have to work incredibly fast, but they also have to turn out accurate and creative work.
While Laujin still sees projects as challenges, he finds confidence in his many years of experience, and he also feels that his perfectionist streak keeps him operating at his best.
“I’ve always been a perfectionist, and not just in my work, haha. I always work the images at 400% zoom. I have a personal motto: ‘if it’s ok at 400%, it will be perfect at 100%,’ and it works pretty well. It’s the search for detail that takes an image to the next level.”
It might sound like a nightmare, but for pros like Laujin, it’s simply part of the job.
A photography mindset
Not all retouch artists are also experts in photography, but Laujin has a clear passion for photography that has served his career well.
Prior to his current work, Laujin earned a bachelor’s degree in photography, graduating at the top of his class.
Though Laujin isn’t working as a photographer on these automotive shoots, he feels that his knowledge of photography is absolutely key to his retouching work. It also makes it that much easier to communicate effectively with the photographers.
“Photography is very important to me. It’s my understanding of light and color that allows me to be in a kind of symbiosis with the photographers I collaborate with. We speak the same language and have the same passion for the image.”
Even now, Laujin still practices photography during his free time. He feels it’s a good way to keep that creative spark alive, especially since his retouching work most often requires that he work on images that aren’t his.
Having his own, distinct sense of creativity can end up having benefits in a number of areas, particularly when it comes to offering other creative services and working directly with clients. It allows Laujin a more holistic view of the process, which brings us to our closing topic.
Some retouch artists are actually quite disconnected from the actual photoshoot, the production process that leads to the photos they’ll be working on later.
We don’t necessarily want to present that situation as a bad thing. After all, the retoucher might be working remotely, thousands of miles away from where the shoot is taking place.
But in contrast, Laujin has made it a real priority to come along for the photoshoots as often as possible.
Why? He feels that being involved in multiple stages of the process has numerous advantages. Primarily, coming to shoots lets him become better acquainted with the product in question, as well as the other artists working on the project.
“I try as much as possible to be on the shoots to see and touch the product. It’s important to touch the car to understand its shape and design. It’s definitely an essential exercise for me. Also, by being present on the shoot, I reduce the amount of possible friction or problems during post-production.”
Reducing potential issues is a win-win, allowing the entire process to run smoothly, which creates results the client will be satisfied with, and for Laujin himself, it reduces the number of roadblocks that have to be dealt with during the post-production phase.
Laujin is able to get the whole picture from the very start, gaining a careful understanding of what the client wants and the ways in which the photographer has tried to bring that vision to life.
Once the shoot has wrapped, it’s back to those tight deadlines once again, until the job is well and truly finished.
As for the finished products, well, the results speak for themselves. Laujin provided us with a handful of photos that do an excellent job of showcasing the end result of everything we’ve talked about here.
The subjects of these photos almost jump off the screen. Pristine is definitely an apt word here. In fact, if you zoom into these images by any amount, you won’t find mistakes, and that’s the point: you’re left with an immediate, unflinching encounter with the subject. It’s surprisingly easy to project yourself into these scenes.
Though the finished work may come across as effortless, that’s definitely not the case, as Laujin has made clear to us here. This isn’t a profession for someone who’s not willing to use their skills to create something that’s as close to perfect as it can be.