Last Updated on April 18, 2022
Visual artists have this special ability to notice even the tiniest details in an image and give them the attention they deserve. Even if viewers don’t actively notice these details themselves, they do notice the total, collective result, and that result, that impact, is made possible by so many little details working together.
Every photograph, every image, is a collaboration between light and color, and when it comes to wrangling those elements, well, that work is best left to the professionals.
Our guest today, Mickael “Mika” Laujin, has been working as a creative automotive retoucher for over fifteen years. At a basic level, this means that Laujin edits promotional photographs of vehicles, often high-end performance and luxury vehicles from brands like BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche, to make them look even better.
I’ll be touching on photography in this article, but Laujin isn’t the photographer on these projects. Instead, a photographer works each shoot and then hands the images over to Laujin, who makes subtle but impactful edits.
However, Laujin’s comprehensive knowledge of photography craft has likely helped him become an expert retoucher. As it turns out, Laujin has a bachelor’s degree in photography, and he graduated valedictorian, both for the diploma and the yearbook.
So did Laujin leave photography behind when he went pro as a retoucher? Not at all. He’s stayed engaged with photography in his personal life, and that knowledge continues to fit into his professional work, not just in terms of how he works with images but also in how he collaborates with automotive photographers.
“Photography is very important to me. It is my understanding of light and color that allows me to be in symbiosis with the photographers I collaborate with. We speak the same language and have the same passion for the image.”
At the moment, Laujin is offering his expertise as a retouching studio manager in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and young son.
Laujin is a unique talent in the retouching space, and that also means he’s highly sought-after for numerous projects. He even tries to be present at the photoshoots; this is uncommon for retouchers, but it also gives Laujin an edge in terms of understanding the subject and the shared goals for the project.
His career has had many high points so far, but as I’ll try to explain, the core of it all is light and color, and how they can be used to tell stories and transport viewers.
Finding atmosphere in the environment
Asking about Laujin’s personal photography, he told me that it usually encompasses lifestyle, still life, and landscapes.
In every case, the choice of subject is very much about finding appealing colors, especially when it comes to landscapes.
“I do a lot of landscapes for their color and atmosphere. I’m always looking for new atmospheres, and nature is the source of inspiration that attracts me the most.”
Seeing natural color combinations in the environment has played a large role in Laujin’s color sensibilities. Indeed, when I requested some advice for burgeoning retouchers and color graders, he highlighted the usefulness of paying closer attention to the natural world.
“Look at nature and how natural colors evolve. Take the time to pay attention to the smallest details in color gradations on a macro and micro scale!”
Nature can expose artists to drastic color combinations and nuances that can be starkly different from the color palettes found in manmade projects.
Even if only on a subconscious level, these color lessons can find their way into your professional work.
Working with photographers
Developing a personal approach to color is of course very important, but in this line of work, no one operates in a vacuum. Collaboration is a necessity, especially when working on major corporate projects.
As I brought up at the start, Laujin feels that his years of experience with photography make it far easier to work alongside photographers, but what does that collaboration look like in action?
Laujin makes it a priority to be there in person for photoshoots. This isn’t super common for retouchers, but for him, it’s a no-brainer.
“By being present on the shoot, we can try to resolve problems upstream! I communicate with the photographer directly, and I learn what everyone wants to see by the end. I’ll often work as a post-production assistant on the set, and together with the photographer, we create incredible images.”
Being involved with the project from this stage also gets the creative gears turning, giving Laujin a headstart as compared to a retoucher who only sees the car and the photos when it’s actually time to start the retouching work.
Once again, having that deep understanding of photography and image creation in general means that Laujin can work together with photographers seamlessly.
When all is said and done with the shoot, then it’s time for the retouching work to really begin in earnest, and to talk about some of the subtleties involved, I’d like to return to the subject of color, in all of its intricacies.
A relationship with color
Light and color aren’t separate concepts. Just in case it’s been a while since you’ve sat in on a middle school science class, the colors we see are in fact reflected light, specifically the bits of light that haven’t been absorbed.
But artists like Laujin aren’t really thinking about all of the scientific details when working on a project. Rather, you’ll find that many artists talk about the emotional effects of various colors and color combinations.
Color palettes can express many different emotions and ideas, including particular feelings and sensations that might be difficult to express in words.
While talking with Laujin, I suggested that artists might have a kind of personal relationship with color.
“I guess so haha. The harmony of colors and their depths give me an emotional response, like a painter’s painting or a musician’s composition. Once an emotion is created, then a relationship appears. It’s this creative and emotional aspect that is interesting in retouching and grading.”
Even small changes to the color grading of a photo can dramatically alter its effects, and that’s one reason why retouchers need to be so carefully attuned to the value and impact of color.
But I wouldn’t want to imply that Laujin doesn’t also consider the technical, scientific realities behind color. These realities are intertwined with interpretation and personal experience, as Laujin explains.
“Color is related to wavelengths, and these wavelengths are interpreted by our brain. This is why the sensation of color is part of the domain of thought. From this, we understand that the symbolism of colors is based on genes, but also on the geographical environment and socio-cultural norms.”
For someone who grew up in an arid desert landscape, green probably carries a different meaning than it does for someone raised in a temperate, forestial environment.
At the same time, there are broader associations with specific colors that have developed over thousands of years.
In other words, how we each see and respond to color is a complicated process that happens very quickly. So why is all this important for automotive retouching?
The end result of Laujin’s retouching work is highly polished promotional photos of vehicles, which also carry a great deal of associational and interpretive weight.
For some, seeing a flawless car in action, in just the right light, and with incredibly vibrant color, could result in an immediate desire to have a similar experience. These photos don’t just represent the basic realities of a car, e.g. tires, windows, badging, etc.; they also spark the kind of emotional response that cars have the power to create.
A simple, straightforward photo probably wouldn’t communicate all this to the viewer, but with masterful retouching and color grading, an image can communicate more than what’s on the surface.