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Interview with Fashion Photographer and Retoucher, Julia Kuzmenko McKim

Julia Kuzmenko Fashion Photography

How did you get into the retouching field?

I think it was a natural progression of my passion for the visual arts. I started painting and drawing when I was a child and drifted away from it when I went to college to study Finance. It wasn’t practical to become an artist back then, so I chose a completely different path. But many years later, I bought my first camera and started taking a lot of pictures of family and friends, and I would open them in Photoshop to see how I could make them a little better, since my lighting and posing skills were pretty bad at the time. I still remember trying to retouch a portrait of a friend for the very first time in 2006. I enjoyed the process so much, that I decided I wanted to shoot more, so I could have more material to retouch.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim self portrait

Self-Portrait, Denver, Colorado by Julia Kuzmenko McKim

The following few years I spent in Australia studying Commercial Photography, and I kept retouching every picture I took, slowly getting better at it. After I graduated and left Australia, I moved to the United States and met my future husband, an ex-U.S. Air Force navigator. He was stationed in Omaha, and I ended up moving to that smaller town, where I definitely couldn’t make a living by shooting Fashion and Beauty photography. I also didn’t want to get involved with Family, Senior or Wedding photography, so I started looking for other ways to stay a full-time artist while we were still in Omaha.

Julia Kuzmenko Setup 2009

2009, Melbourne, Australia

Thanks to the internet, I started getting a lot of retouching clients, and the more I retouched for others, the more my retouching skills improved. I was fortunate enough to be found by a few great clients, who get a lot of publicity and my work started getting published in the beginning of 2012. One of my main clients is my dear friend and mentor, Top US Stylist of 2013, celebrity makeup artist & hairstylist Sherri Jessee. Working for such an amazing top artist pushed me to become even better at my craft.

Julia Kuzmenko with Sherri Jesee

Julia Kuzmenko with internationally renowned hair and makeup artist Sherri Jessee

You have an amazing portfolio. Are there any photos that you are particularly proud of?

I am usually very critical of my own work, but I think I do have a few favorites – my Día De Los Muertos images and the Flames series:

Sugar Skull Process - Julia Kuzmenko

Sugar Skull Portrait

Sugar Skull Image

Día De Los Muertos – Photography & Post-Processing: Julia Kuzmenko McKim

Vogue Portraits

Flames – Photography & Post-Processing: Julia Kuzmenko McKim

As a photographer and retoucher, how much time do you spend on the final image?

If we’re talking about the entire process from shooting to finalizing an image in Photoshop – it varies by a lot. Such elaborate images like Día De Los Muertos took about 2-3 hours to shoot (makeup, hair + shooting), and about 4-6 hours of post-production each.

Simpler Beauty & Fashion shoots usually take more time to shoot because of the makeup and wardrobe changes. Closeup beauty shots may take up to 2 hours each, and fashion shots where the model is further away from the camera are much quicker to retouch. I usually spend most of my post-production time on evening out the skin and perfecting the makeup & hair, so if it’s not a close-up, there’s less work required.

Professional Portrait Photography Session

Beauty expert Mikala Jean Vandenbroucke working on the model’s hair
at the Inspired Home magazine shoot

What does your setup look like?

It’s different for different shoots and purposes, but here’s a fun example:

Portrait Photography Studio Setup

Is there one piece of equipment or prop that you cannot live without?

Yes, that would be my Canon 5D Mark II. If we’re talking accessories and light modifiers, I’d say a large silver collapsable reflector would be the piece that I bring to every single photo shoot.

How important is it to see your work with a ‘fresh set of eyes’? Do you post-process all your images and leave them at that, or do you take breaks and go back to your images for more tweaks every now and then?

Great question! Yes, it is super important for me to take breaks and walk away from the picture I’m working on for a few minutes. It’s especially helpful at the end of the retouching process, so I can see when to stop and not over-retouch the photo.

Portrait Photography by Julia Kuzmenko

On average, how many layers do you work with on a single PSD file?

I create dozens as I work, but I merge them after every stage of my retouching. For example: I create a few new layers as I work on the eyes for every separate part of the eyes that requires retouching in the image (eyelashes, makeup, the whites, iris and/or the catchlight).

When I’m done with the eyes, I group all these new layers and compare the before & after by toggling the group’s visibility. If everything looks great, I merge the group with the underlaying layer, duplicate it (it is now a base for the next set of new layers) and move on to the next part of the photo.

Portrait Retouching Before/After in Photoshop

You have been honing your skills in retouching for several years now and it certainly shows in your finished products. What is the most challenging aspect about retouching?

I think retouching is all about problem solving, every photo is a challenge in its own way. And the challenges are always in details and colors. That’s why I believe it’s important to know the Whys and not only the Hows of retouching, as in any type of Arts for that matter.

What is your creative process like? Do you oversee everything, from make-up and hair to styling, or do you let your team do their thing and work with what is presented to you?

I’m very fortunate to work with super-talented creative professionals, they know better what they are doing in their departments. When working on a creative collaboration organized by me, I always send out mood-boards and explain my ideas to the team in advance. Everyone gets prepared for their part and we’re always on the same page on the day of the shoot. I never have to micromanage, but if something gets completely out of the plan we initially discussed, I sure tell the artist, and we find a solution that everyone is happy with.

Fashion Photography

On the other hand, when working on a commercial shoot or a collaboration shoot organized and put together by someone else (fashion designer, hairstylist or makeup artist), I follow the direction of the organizer. If they are suggesting something that I know isn’t going to look good, I always share my thoughts on how to make things better, and again we always find a solution that everyone is happy with.

Australian singer & songwriter Tyla Bertolli

Australian singer & songwriter Tyla Bertolli
photo by Laura May Grogan, post-production: Julia Kuzmenko

I think this is the best way to work together when a lot of creative professionals are involved.  “My way or highway” attitude just isn’t acceptable. I’d never act like that with my team, and I would never tolerate such approach from anyone as well.

What advice would you give to beginner retouchers?

“Practice not until you can get it right, but until you can’t get it wrong.” I’m not sure who said that, but that’s the sure way to success in many fields, including retouching.

What can an average photographer expect from your ebooks?

My eBooks teach exactly what helped me to become the retoucher and digital artist that I am today. There are so many panels, tools, plugins, techniques, and even more self-proclaimed educators on the internet these days, that beginners get lost in the information overload. It may take years for one to try out everything they can find until they actually “hit the spot” and figure out what really improves their work.

Creative Retouching eBook by Julia Kuzmenko

Creative Retouching eBook by Julia Kuzmenko McKim

I myself spent way too much time trying to figure out the tools, techniques and workflow that I needed, so when I first started teaching retouching, I looked at my own learning curve and worked out a perfect outline for a beginner to learn all he or she needs to know to be able to do with their photos what I do with mine.

Digital Photo Retouching eBook

Digital Photo Retouching eBook by Julia Kuzmenko McKim

I took everything I’d learned in the past 6 years, including 2 years at the International College of Professional Photography (Australia), filtered out what I don’t use on a daily basis, and formed an educational course for Beauty, Fashion & Portrait photographers who’d like to turn their images into works of art. My goal was to include everything that is important, exclude any fluff and make it short and right to the point, because I know how hectic a photographer’s life is.

The course was great and I got slammed with one-on-one classes, teaching photographers from all over – Australia, USA, Canada, the UK, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Singapore, you name it. I was also receiving a lot of emails from those who wanted to learn, but couldn’t pay for my training. So, after many months of teaching every single day I decided to put together an eBook, so I could reach more young photographers all over the world, and also make it more affordable than one-on-one training.

I divided my course into the “Essentials” and the “Advanced” parts, and that’s how the super-popular “Creative Retouching Essentials in a Day” was born. I am now working on the advanced part of the series, which is called “From Amateur to Pro in a Week”.

Beauty, Fashion & Portrait Photography eBook

I also completed a side project with Mad Artist Publishing in the beginning of 2013 (it took us a year to complete!). We released another eBook and physical book called “Digital Photo Retouching: Beauty, Fashion & Portrait photography”. It’s been getting wonderful reviews from the top industry experts. This eBook is jam-packed with retouching and photography tips, original and very helpful articles, exclusive video tutorials on Face & Hair retouching, and a lot of inspiration.

There’s also a 40-minute retouching workshop in which I work on the image that I won the Wacom & AfterCapture Digital Imaging contest 2012 with. And on top of that, there are two sets of my custom Actions & Brushes that come with the digital version of the book, and 30 minutes of video tutorials on how to use them.

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Attila Kun the author

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since. He is deeply passionate about helping people learn about photography.

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