Calvin Hollywood on his world-famous photo editing techniques

A blonde-haired girl with freckles looks at the camera, wearing a t-shirt.
Calvin takes a lot of portraits and spends no more than 30-45 minutes retouching each image. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood

Calvin Hollywood was working as a boot-camp instructor in the German Air Force when he decided to make a career change. "There's a video on YouTube," Calvin says, "where I'm sitting in a uniform in the kitchen and I say, 'In five years, I'd like to be a professional photographer. When you see this video in five years, I'll have made it.'" Before he knew it he became an online photo retouching sensation, and people around the globe wanted to know how they could get the 'Calvinized' look.

A friend introduced Calvin to photo editing in 2005. He liked it. The problem was that he didn't have any photos to edit, so he started taking his own – just so he had something to retouch. He shot everything and anything, from cars and clouds to his own feet. Photo editing took over his life. He taught himself in the days before YouTube tutorials, reading books and searching forums for retouching advice.

A man is dressed in a black leather cape and carries a cane.
Calvin takes on a wide variety of projects throughout the year, such as photographing horror nights at Germany's largest theme park, Europa-Park – as seen in this picture, Hausherr (host). Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood
A man with gold-painted skin wears strings of rope around his neck.
Calvin plays with colour and colour adjustment in this image, Slave, where he added a golden colour cast with a selective colour adjustment layer. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood
Christian Ziegler’s

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After a while his interests switched, and he began to see himself less as a retoucher and more as a photographer. "I saw there was a market for me to become a professional in photography and retouching combined. So, as an artist, photography was my first goal.

"My style of photography was very special. In Germany, it was not a well-known style but there came a point where I said, 'Hey, I can be creative.' And that was the beginning of everything." Calvin creates looks that are both illustrated and stylised – work that combines the best of modern retouching with traditional photography.

We asked Calvin to discuss the methods and motives behind his images.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
"I find ideas for images in movies and music. I also get a lot of inspiration from other photographers. Usually, I form a final image in my mind and I write down all of the things that I need to make it real. Then, I look for a team and I go for it."

A woman wears a red dress in front of tropical bushes and trees, and a topless man crouches in the bushes behind her.
Calvin's recreation of Tarzan and Jane was another film-inspired shot, this time involving careful lighting and staging on set (as well as retouching) to help create the look he wanted. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood

What's your preferred subject matter?
"I prefer to shoot portraits because I love the communication with people. I love to meet interesting people – I always learn a lot from my subjects."

How long does a project take to complete?
"Sometimes I shoot commercials or big campaigns, where I retouch for days. In the last few years, I haven't had so many jobs like this – maybe five or six times in a year. Most of the time I shoot portraits of artists, fitness guys and sports people, whose images could potentially take a lot of time to manipulate. However, most of the time it's no longer than 30-45 minutes on each image. I'm very fast, so my 30 minutes is maybe 90 minutes for other people. My workflow always starts with RAW conversion, then fixing problems, then adding a 'look', and then it's done."

Calvin's photography techniques

How do you compose your images?
"The most important thing is to get the shot right with the camera. All I can do with the camera and lighting, I try to do – then what I can't do, I'll do in retouching. In my early days it was the opposite, but now I'm more of a photographer than a retoucher. When I shoot composites and photo manipulations, I have to shoot every single image with the same lighting and the same perspective. Then I bring everything together. When it's one shot, I try to find the right location, the right lighting, the right light modifiers, and the right time to shoot."

A muscular man models underwear.
Calvin often takes photos with maximum sharpness in order to increase the retouching possibilities of an image. This image, titled Bertrand Iron, was taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood

What gear and settings do you use?
"I have the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, the Canon EOS 5DS R, the Canon EOS-1D X and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. I use the Canon EOS 5DS R for the high-resolution images and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV for all other pictures and movies, because I also film and record video. I don't have typical exposure settings – it depends on the image. I hate to manually focus, so I use the autofocus. I have my own Picture Style settings because I like to see the best sharpness in the image. So when I shoot RAW, the image I see in the camera is a JPEG and includes the Picture Style."

How do you set up your Picture Style?
"I use a Picture Style with the maximum sharpness, a little bit lower contrast and a little bit lower saturation. I want to keep as much detail in the shadows and highlights as possible, all with maximum sharpness. Then I can see what is possible later when retouching. When I don't do this – when I don't sharpen or use a Picture Style that includes maximum sharpness – I have to guess whether it's the best I can get, or whether I'll need to fix it later."

How do set up your lighting?
"I have different kinds of lighting setups. It depends on the set and what the picture is for, but my favourite is a three-light setup: two strip lights from the back, and one main, soft light coming from the top-front to get this gritty, edgy look – my unique style that looks a little bit more like a painting, an illustration, or 3D."

A dark, moody portrait shows a man dressed as Wolverine from the X-Men films.
Calvin Hollywood recreates fantasy fiction, as seen in his portrait Wolverine. On Calvin's website, he shows a step-by-step breakdown of the editing process that turned a studio portrait of model Dan Star into this moody movie-style shot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood

What do you admire most about photo editing software?
"My favourite aspect is that I'm able to take images beyond normal reality, to put more into the picture than is possible with photography alone. So I can make photos into art and create a particular look. I don't think there's much room for improvement in image manipulation. I think the future is more and more about getting faster with one click. I'm very interested in easier ways to do something; to extract images from the background, or something like that."

Calvin's secrets and advice

What's your secret to creating a successful image?
"Well, it depends. Sometimes it's the story behind the image. In the early days I shot a lot of images with a story inside. Now, when I'm shooting portraits, I like to think that people wonder: 'How did he do that? How did he create this lighting? How does it work?' What I want people to see is the difference in my portraits to other photographers' portraits."

What's the best advice you've received?
"You have to take many, many pictures. So carry your camera with you all the time and take pictures of everything: of your feet, of the clouds, of everything. And don't delete them. Check all the pictures later and try to figure out what you can make better."

A man and woman are seen driving a car, sunlight streaming in from behind.
The unique look of Calvin's images relies on his use of lighting, as exemplified in this image, titled Driver. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood
A woman wears a white dress in front of a waterfall.
The photographer enjoys taking photos with a story. This image, Dress and Water, was taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. © Calvin Hollywood

What tips would you give to a photographer who wanted to capture images like yours?
"Don't focus on retouching. My typical style of pictures look retouched, but the most important thing is to try to figure out the lighting. Try to be focused on the subject you shoot: the kind of models, the clothes, then the lighting, and, after all that, the retouching. That's very important for my style of photography."

What are you working on next?
"My next plans are to shoot more portraits. I love to shoot athletes and artists – it doesn't matter if they're musicians or magicians. I like to inspire people out there and one big thing I want to do is more free work, because when you're a professional you normally forget to spend time doing free work. But, at the beginning, we all started with free work for ourselves, and for the portfolio. Most professionals just don't have the time, but it's very important."

Napisal Steve Fairclough and Gary Evans

Calvin Hollywood's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Calvin Hollywood's kitbag


Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail. The ultra-high resolution enables extensive cropping and still delivers sharp image quality.


Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

A short telephoto focal length, combined with a large maximum aperture and fast autofocus speed, make this an ideal optic for any photographer shooting portraiture.


Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

This standard zoom lens goes just that little bit further, whether you’re shooting photography or video. It's ideal for capturing exceptional image quality across an extended zoom range, while travelling light.

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