AI-Powered Photo Magic vs. Good Old Fashioned Elbow Grease

The Ultimate Showdown Between Online and Manual Photo Retouching
Published on Apr 07, 2023 by
Rahul Bhargava

The eCommerce photo retouching industry is undergoing a renaissance, with AI-powered tools revolutionizing how images are created, edited and retouched.

This transformation is reminiscent of the advancements in AI language models pioneered by cutting-edge models like ChatGPT. Just as ChatGPT has transformed the world of content creation, artificial intelligence is now making waves in the photo generation & retouching space, bringing about exciting new changes.

While manual retouching is and will remain important for photo retouching, there's no denying that AI-powered retouching tools are rapidly emerging as a crucial component of eCommerce photo retouching workflows.

This article will delve into AI’s impact on retouching and provide a better understanding of where each tool is best suited.

Benefits of Online Retouching

Batch Process eCommerce Images

Though batch processing applies to many eCommerce verticals, the best way to understand it is in the context of fast fashion. With their armies of designers, fast fashion brands are releasing new collections at an unprecedented pace, sometimes weekly.

According to this study, major fast fashion brands released between 1,000 and 4,500 new products monthly between January 2019 and November 2020 on US sites. Customers expect fresh designs across all categories, and businesses are stepping up to meet this demand.

Frequency of New Product Listings Online in US

The sheer volume of new SKUs and tight turnaround times puts pressure on the creative operations of eCommerce companies to produce multiple images (4-7) for each SKU. Photos on or off-models need to be edited by retouchers at these companies in droves with tight deadlines.

This is where eCommerce product image batch processing becomes a lifesaver for retouching professionals.

Cropping and resizing a batch of, say, thousand fashion images for an eCommerce marketplace can take between 70 to 80 hours based on a senior retoucher spending, an average of 5 minutes per image or 5000 minutes on a 1000-image batch.

Online batch image processing simplifies a multi-step and repetitive process to a few clicks, boosting productivity for photo retouchers. The AI-powered tools serve as a virtual assistant or a sidekick to retouchers at eCommerce marketplaces, helping them boost productivity on routine tasks like cropping by a factor of 2 to 3X.

Speed Up Workflows

Regular product releases aren't the only challenge for eCommerce; it also faces seasonality issues. In 2022, total eCommerce sales reached an estimated $1,034 billion, with $270 billion (roughly 26%) occurring during the holiday season. Naturally, retouching teams can feel enormous pressure during these high-demand periods.

A professional retoucher typically spends 7 to 8 minutes on a single photo on tasks that are common across all types of photo retouching processes. These include:

  • Background removal, 
  • Background replacement, 
  • Content-aware resizing, 
  • Custom cropping using an image cropper tool, and 
  • Unrecognizable face crops for on-model photos
How long does it take to retouch one eCommerce product image?

The new generation of AI-powered online retouching tools excels at all the above-mentioned tasks.

Online photo editing operates much faster, allowing for cropping, background removal & replacement, resizing, and exporting an image in just seconds via 100% automated jobs. This helps speed up the eCommerce retouching workflows and reduce the stress on professional retouchers allowing them to focus on high-end retouching tasks.

Consistent Output

Retouching workflows cover a broad spectrum of tasks. On one end are low-end, repetitive tasks such as background removal, cropping, and basic image resizing. For example:

Mid-end retouching: Background removal
Mid-end retouching: Background removal

On the other end, there are more complex and skill-dependent tasks, such as model skin retouching and intricate color grading. For example:

high end retouching example: skin blemishes removal
High-end retouching: Skin blemishes removal

Each type of task requires different levels of expertise and attention to detail, but both are crucial to delivering professionally polished final product imagery.

The repetitive nature of low-end tasks can lead to physical and mental fatigue for the retoucher. Exhaustion hinders retouchers’ performance and reduces the time available for more creative and challenging high-end tasks.

Consequently, the quality and consistency of retouchers' work may suffer, diminishing the overall impact of their retouching efforts.

AI photo editing has emerged as a game-changer for eCommerce creative operations. AI-powered tools can easily tackle repetitive tasks, freeing up valuable time for the retoucher to focus on the creative aspects of their work. AI's consistent and tireless performance ensures that the final output's quality remains high, even as the retoucher's workload increases.

Easy to Learn

Mastering photo retouching on software like Adobe Photoshop can take months or even years. In contrast, online AI-powered photo retouching tools like can be learned in a matter of seconds. Therefore, it is no surprise that eCommerce creative operations and retouchers are incorporating online photo retouching to expand their toolset and keep up with the fast-paced world of online sales while ensuring visually stunning and engaging product images.


Manual retouching involves performing each step sequentially. For example, the retoucher may start by removing and replacing the background, then adjust and scale up the object of interest in the image canvas, and finally crop and resize the image. The retouching steps can become even more repetitive when working on images for different platforms, as each platform may have specific marketplace product image guidelines that need to be met.

Marketplace Sizes

AI-powered retouching tools can automate all these steps, making the process more efficient by generating final images for one or more marketplaces in one shot. Tools such as offer one-click automation features that can simultaneously remove and replace backgrounds and smartly resize images with just a single click. can also recognize faces, which can automate unrecognizable or headless face crop requirements for many marketplaces.


As businesses tighten their belts, online image retouching can trim expenses. Outsourcing manual retouching services or hiring more in-house retouchers is expensive and time-consuming. Demand for graphics designers is at an all-time high. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that about 24,800 openings for graphic designers are projected annually. With so many open positions, competition for scarce talent is not easy on the bottom lines.

Setting up an in-house retouching team requires hardware, software, office space, and IT  investments. Additionally, there are ongoing expenses for training and supervising the editing staff.

Outsourcing low and mid-end tasks to image retouching services is not cost-effective either. It's not uncommon to see over $2/image for basic retouching options like cropping and adding a white background with retouching services. The setup & onboarding fee can be in the mid-five figures. The cost can add up quickly for retailers with high-volume image retouching requirements. Finally, many retouching services also charge a subscription fee in addition to the per-image charges, which can be in the range of $2000 per month.

Cost Compare

In contrast, the cost of online retouching tools is pennies on the dollar compared to traditional retouching. The online retouching tools' monthly subscription fee is usually $50-$250. They do not require an onboarding fee or any additional retouching charges. Having an online retouching tool can help businesses bring down the cost per image from $2 to $0.25 per image, i.e., savings of 80% or more! If you are an executive or a business owner looking to make your creative operations more cost-effective, these cost savings are no brainer. It would be plain irresponsible to ignore the business case for online retouching!

Limitations of Online Retouching

Ok, now let’s dive into scenarios where online retouching has a limited appeal:

High-end Retouching Not Yet

There are high-end retouching tasks that AI-Powered online tools can not perform well yet. Some of these tasks include adding ghost mannequins, erasing defects, and errant pixels that require a human eye, or adding textured patterns to a specific area of the image.

Invisible mannequins are commonly used in eCommerce photography to create a "ghost mannequin" effect, where the garment appears to float in mid-air without a visible model or mannequin wearing it. 

This effect is achieved by photographing the garment on a mannequin and then using photo editing software to remove the mannequin from the image while preserving the shape and fit of the garment.

Tasks like liquifying and body sculpting, hair retouching, eye enhancement, and makeup enhancement need a human touch for realistic outcomes. These techniques subtly improve a model's appearance by adjusting their body, clothes, and hair, smoothing wrinkles, and emphasizing specific features for a visually appealing image. 

AI-powered retouching tools do not yet have the ability to add invisible mannequins as well as human retouchers do. However, AI models for online retouching tools are continuously improving, and these tasks may soon become possible. But for now, these are best left to specialized high-end retouchers. 


In terms of stylistic flexibility, manual photo editing is better than AI online retouching tools. AI online retouching tools rely on pre-programmed AI algorithms to perform image editing tasks, which can limit their ability to produce unique or customized looks. 

Manual photo editing offers a greater level of control over the final output of an image. The retoucher can adjust various aspects of the image, such as color, contrast, sharpness, and saturation, to achieve a specific look or feel. This level of control allows the retoucher to create a unique and personalized style tailored to the needs and preferences of the client. For high-end retouching requirements such as the cover of a fashion magazine, this flexibility is a must-have and, therefore, best suited for manual retouching.

Tasks Where Online Retouching Outshines Manual Retouching

Background Removal and Replacing

AI-Powered online retouching tools are excellent for background removal and replacement. They can remove the background for a variety of images, including on-model images, animals, products, objects, automobiles, and graphics. These AI models can seriously challenge even the best retouchers nowadays.

Even photos with tricky details, such as hair, props, and low-contrast items, can have backgrounds removed accurately using AI.


AI cropping tools can accurately crop images from a designated point, such as a face marker identified by AI Face Recognition algorithms, while ensuring that no essential elements are cut off, resulting in highly precise outputs. For instance, when it comes to on-model photos, AI editing tools can precisely create unrecognizable faces. 

While the task is not hard for a manual retoucher, it can still take a few minutes to set it up and generate the outputs using a tool like Photoshop. Those extra minutes add up when the same crop must be done daily on 100s of images. 

Content-Aware Resizing

Content-aware resizing is an advanced image manipulation technique that identifies and preserves essential subjects, such as models or products, while seamlessly scaling up the objects of interest to the surrounding areas.

By eliminating time-consuming manual framing and resizing, the retouching process can be more efficient and produce visually captivating, professionally composed images in a fraction of the time using content-aware AI algorithms.


AI-powered online retouching tools are increasingly becoming a part of eCommerce photo retouching workflows as they reduce retouching costs by 70% or more. These tools can quickly and accurately perform background removal and replacement, cropping, resizing, and other tasks. 

Manual productivity 70 percentage improve

Despite the limitations, such as the inability to perform certain high-end retouching tasks, AI-powered online tools can be a  retoucher’s best friend. By incorporating these tools into their toolset, retouchers can free up valuable time to focus on more creative, challenging, and high-end tasks, allowing for increased efficiency and productivity. Therefore, it is highly recommended that any retouching team incorporate these tools into their workflows.