The Long and Challenging Road to Retouching Mastery
The past few years have been full of new challenges, opportunities, discoveries, and obstacles for me. Even though I was naturally happier for the opportunities to come knocking on my door, it is the challenges that made me a better artist and a stronger professional. I've learned to welcome obstacles and setbacks, because I discovered that in the process of overcoming them I must get out of my comfort zone, learn new things, and master my craft further—all the things that we often comfortably avoid doing when everything is nice and well.
I studied commercial photography in Australia, and having full access to our big uni-studio; I was able to shoot for all sorts of clients there to financially support myself. It was very difficult at times, and I was very tired and sleep deprived trying to juggle school, assignments, client shoots, paid test shoots for a modeling agency, and a part-time job. I wouldn’t choose to do all of that if I had someone to finance my two-year photography course. But with that much work and exposure, by the end of my studying I had an extensive network, a big archive of client shoots, and even some locally published work. I had mastered studio lighting and posing inexperienced models along the way, which was the best outcome for my future self-development, as an artist and commercial photographer.
I went back to Moscow after my studies were over, and having become a pro with studio lighting, I was helpless outdoors with my flashes and reflectors. At the time it seemed like the end of the world—I couldn’t do client shoots because I didn’t have any photo studios in my area, nor did I have the money to buy strobes. It was very frustrating. I felt like I had wasted two years, a lot of money and energy, only to learn something that was of no use.
But after spending some time feeling useless and sorry for myself, I grabbed my pretty cousin and a small collapsible reflector and went outside to test the waters. The first couple of shoots had a two-decent-pictures-out-of-200 success rate, but I continued shooting with friends and family. After the summer of 2010, I could proudly say I was equally proficient with strobes, natural light, and balancing ambient light with flashes indoors and outdoors.
That same fall I moved to the United States and practiced shooting outdoors even more with local talent in Denver, CO, shifting more toward fashion and editorial photography and away from simple portraits. But then I met my future husband and, from that point on, my camera had a nice, almost two-year vacation until late 2011. After I received my work authorization in the US, I started looking for a shared studio to get back into photography while living in Omaha, NE.
It took me a while to find one, but even when I did there was another setback: everything seemed great until after I prepaid a couple of months of rent and came in for my first test shoot. The studio turned out to be terrible. From old, useless, and unreliable no-name brand strobes, which could only be fired separately via a sync cord—only one strobe at a time—and wouldn’t see each other or my on-camera flash to be triggered; to a big collection of large soft boxes (no other light modifiers) and an extreme lack of power outlets and extension cords throughout the studio spaces. The management was even worse. After my check was cashed, I became a nuisance to them rather than an appreciated customer. I informed them that I couldn’t stay at that studio, but they refused to return my money.
I was crushed, because I didn’t have more savings, so I had to wait longer until I could start shooting again. But that was an important lesson I’d learned: not every studio will fit your needs, so figure out what exactly is necessary for your photography (large space, various light modifiers, v-flats, flags, color gels, big windows, a makeup room, a changing room, etc.), and ask all the questions before you commit. Better yet, ask for a test shoot before you make your final decision about the studio.
Luckily, the sad setback gave me more time to find another studio. This time it was jam-packed with Profoto equipment and all sorts of light modifiers and boxes of various color gels. By the time I started shooting there, I was super hungry for it. I was ready to invest a lot of time into planning my shoots, gathering a team, and shooting every week. It was the beginning of 2012 and, within the next 4 to 6 months, I completely got back on track with my studio lighting skills, and built a nice new beauty portfolio for myself and each artist in my creative team.
But, as always, another big surprise was waiting for me at the end of that wonderful photography rehabilitation period. I had a pretty portfolio on my hands, but there were no customers for me in Omaha. I was a foreigner in a little town where probably only local wedding and infant photographers, who grew up there and knew a lot of people, could survive.
After many various attempts to market my services, I was devastated to realize that I probably had to give up photography and get a job. Very sad times. I did fill out a few local job applications. Fortunately, which I did not realize at the time, I never received any response, and decided to try and work as a retoucher. I had always been retouching my own work, all I needed to do was figure out how to find clients and work for and with other photographers.
One thing led to another, there sure were more setbacks along the way, but only half a year later I was receiving the first publications with my retouching work in them.
Retouching for clients turned out to be very different from retouching my own images. Even though it was very frustrating at times when the client’s vision was different from mine, I adapted and learned to not take things personally. Once I did, I realized my own set of skills expanded, my work became cleaner, and I’d learned to retouch much faster than I used to.
The more new work and tear sheets I was sharing on social media, the more people started approaching me and asking to teach them to retouch. I thought it was fun, and spent a few months working on a retouching training outline. The challenge there was to acknowledge that my own retouching had no structure, and that was preventing me from delivering consistent high-quality retouching results. Once I analyzed my own work and came up with a solid workflow, not only did I have a great training outline, my own retouching became much better.
I taught online for a year, and got so busy with teaching requests from all over the world, that the next rational step was to create downloadable materials, such as an eBook with videos. Around the same time I won in the Wacom & AfterCapture Digital Imaging contest and created my first eBook, Creative Retouching Essentials in a Day.
That was a new beginning. My eBooks became a success, and a year later I started getting invitations from all over the world to come and teach beauty photography and retouching. I have since traveled to teach in Italy, the UK, Singapore, and Australia.
Although things never go as smoothly as planned, I have learned to embrace difficulties and always learn from every tough lesson. We photographers and retouchers are natural problem solvers. Every photo shoot and every retouching job for us is a project where we are given set of problems, which we’re supposed to beautifully solve. As I look back at the past couple of years, I only see that the obstacles and challenges caused the biggest leaps in my career progress and my growth as an artist. Perseverance is what led me through all of the difficulties that I encountered.
And based on my personal experiences, I can assure you that if you don’t give up too soon, whatever it is that you’re striving for in your artistic career, if you really want it and are willing to invest a lot of time and energy, you will get there. Dream big, set your wild goals, and work hard for them.
As they say, aim for the moon—even if you miss it, you will land among the stars.
Julia Kuzmenko McKim is a Los Angeles-based, internationally published professional beauty, fashion, and portrait photographer, digital artist, retoucher, and educator. She is also an International College of Professional Photography (Melbourne, Australia) graduate.