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Interview With Julia Kuzmenko McKim

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This Cyber Monday Tuts+ courses will be reduced to just $3 (usually $15). Don't miss out.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim is a beauty, fashion and portrait photographer, digital artist, retoucher, and educator, currently residing in Los Angeles. Recently, I had a chance to talk with McKim, who has become really well known for her work in photography and retouching. During the interview, we talked a bit about her workflow, her preferred file formats, the gear that she uses on the road, how to build stronger relationships with clients, as well as how to break down the "knowledge protection wall," that prevents many artists from sharing their favorite tips and techniques with others. Let's take a look!


QHi Julia, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where are you from? What was it about photography and retouching that convinced you to do it for a living?

Thank you, Grant! I am originally from Moscow, Russia. I think my journey as an artist began when I was a child. I started painting and drawing very early and drifted away from it when I went to college to study Finance. It wasn't practical to be a creative professional back then, so I chose a completely different path.

Many years later, I bought my first camera and started taking pictures of family and friends. I would open them in Photoshop to see how I could make them better, since my lighting and posing skills were pretty poor at the time. That's how I got interested in retouching.

I got consumed by my passion for photography and visual arts, and ended up quitting my secure and well-paying job in Finance to go to Australia to study photography in 2008.

I remember digging through Psdtuts+ tutorials a lot during my photography course. I have to thank you guys for making this wonderful hands-on education available for aspiring artists form all over the world. I loved those experiments with different tutorials, and I did learn a lot about the software from them.

That was also the time that I started working as a freelance photographer in Melbourne, Australia. And it just continued on from there. Since then I lived in Denver, Omaha and now in Los Angeles, and it's always the same cycle that I have to go through and build my business from the ground up in each new town. But my skills and experiences are forever with me, so I'd like to hope it won't be as difficult as the first time now that we have just moved to Los Angeles.


Día de los Muertos

QWhat is the most interesting part of a project for you? In your opinion, what makes a project exciting to work on?

I love being involved with anything that I haven't done before. Anything unusual, anything from other eras and retro styles, interesting outfits, costumes, makeup and hair styles. I love both photography and retouching, so the most exiting part of any project for me is everything from the beginning of the shoot until finishing retouching the last image from the series.

But I can also tell you what my least favorite part of any project is - it's coordinating the team, outsourcing props, organizing locations. If I can, I always try to get out of that while still having control over the creative decisions in the project. It works out well, when I am the invited artist, but when it's my personal project, I of course have to do everything myself.


Color Crazed

QFor a lot of photographers and retouchers, traveling is part of the job. Do you get to travel much for your work? If so, what do you bring with you to help you do your job on the road?

I always have my MacBook Pro and the Intuos5 tablet, which I won in the Wacom & Aftercapture Digital Imaging Contest last year.

I can't say that I enjoy retouching during my travels, because at home I retouch on a 27" screen. Having a greater working space really makes it more enjoyable than retouching on a small laptop screen.

But the things that always come with me are my camera, radio triggers and sync cords, my 40" silver reflector, my Rocketfish high-speed memory card reader (which was unfortunately discontinued - great stuff! Highly recommended if you can get one). And of course my MacBook Pro, Wacom tablet, and a couple of external hard drives to back up whatever I am working on during the trip.

Fashion and Editorial

QHow important is it to build a close working relationship with the photographers that you, as a retoucher, work with? Can you offer any tips to help make the process of shooting and retouching an image go much smoother?

Yes, close working relationships with clients are super important for retouchers. Even though, I mainly work for clients who are not photographers (Makeup Artists, Hair Stylists and other private clients), I always try to send polite "educating messages" and recommendations to my clients' photographers to help them create better material - raw images.

As basic as it sounds, all work must be photographed in raw format. You'd be surprised to find out how many working photographers either don't know or disregard this. The original images should be a little on a "flat" side, so that the retoucher can tweak and enhance contrast without losing any detail in shadows and highlights.

Photographers must know how ISO, their camera sensor size, the white balance setting, etc. affect their images. They must also be familiar with the qualities of digital images such as color bit-depth, dynamic range, image noise, color spaces, etc.

I have a great collection of basic articles explaining all these things on the Retouching Academy website (a new project I have been working on with fellow retouchers and photographers).

One very simple, but underestimated principle of creating a great image is GET THINGS RIGHT IN CAMERA. I myself used to and many of my students have the "I'll-fix-it-in-photoshop" mindset, which is a very inconvenient and expensive approach.

Fix the hair, makeup, clothing and accessories as you shoot, and be very selective with your creative team. The mistakes they make will cost you time or/and money. And try to pick models with great skin whenever you have a chance to.


Fashion and Editorial

QWhat is the next step after a photo has been taken? How do you prefer to receive the files (external hard drive, Dropbox, etc)? What format and resolution do you prefer to work in?

I have been utilizing Dropbox for a few years now and I think it's the best service out there for photographers and retouchers to exchange raw and edited files.

I always ask for DNG files (although, not always get those) and whenever possible work in sRGB and 8-bit depth. But that, of course, depends on what the final images will be used for and what is in the image.


Winter Tale

QCan you walk us through a typical retouching job from beginning to end? What are the most common challenges that you typically face?

I always start from correcting exposure & overall color in a Raw Converter. Look over the entire image and its details, assessing it and making mental notes on what needs to be corrected.

Then, the actual skin, makeup and hair retouching. And only after the image is fully edited I apply artistic colors with Adjustment layers and/or third party plugins (I've got some Free Radlab Recipe Sets that I am happy to share.

The last stage is always preparing retouched images for submission to magazines or clients, and archiving the master-file and high and low resolution copies with proper file names.


Winter Tale

QWhile you do a lot of client work, you also seem to be very generous with knowledge. Lots of artists are hesitant to share what they know with others. Some artists don't want to share their knowledge because they believe it helps their "competitors." How do you feel about sharing your knowledge with others? How has sharing knowledge helped or even hurt your career?

I was like that too not so long ago. After I graduated from the International College of Professional Photography in Australia, I came home to Moscow for a few months to spend some time with family and friends. At some point we caught up with my photography-friend Aleksey Dovgulya who had been already teaching photography and retouching all over Russia. He asked me about one of my tricks and after a moment of hesitation I did tell him, to which he responded: "Oh that's cool! Check out how I do the same thing with different tools!" And he started showing me the things that I thought artists must keep as their trade secrets.

I was amazed how great it felt to tell each other what we do and help each other with advice and direction. I just felt great sharing. And of course, even though I knew how Aleksey did certain things, it did not mean I could re-create his style or steal his clients. That was a big revelation. I am very grateful to my friend for helping me break that unnecessary "knowledge protection" wall in my head and feel good about sharing and helping others.

Now Aleksey and I are working on a book called Beauty & Fashion Photography: Go Pro together. He is flying to Los Angeles in January 2014, so we can focus on it and get it done.


QAre you working on any new and exciting projects that you can share with our readers?

Yes, there's always something exciting I invent for myself to get busy with :)

As I just mentioned I am working on a book with Aleksey, I am also recording my video-book on retouching From Amateur to Pro in a Week which I hope to release before January 2014.

I have also just shot an editorial with diamonds and a unique looking redhead beauty for Los Angeles Fashion Magazine, it should come out in the December 2013 issue.

And my most exciting current project is Retouching Academy that we have just finally made public. I have a wonderful and growing team of talented artists and we will start teaching offline in Los Angeles and around the world very soon. We're still young, but we're passionate about what we do, so great things will be happening very quickly.


Winter Tale

QThanks again for taking the time to talk with us today. Have any final thoughts or advice to give?

Thank you for having me as a guest on Psdtuts+, Grant! It's an honor and a great pleasure!

My advice would be: figure out what you love the most, what keeps your creative juices flowing and keep working on it until you become a master. Don't give up too soon. Sometimes it takes years until you are happy with what you create, but if you stay focused you will definitely get there.
Just never give up!

And I would like to offer a little gift from me and Retouching Academy to the Psdtuts+ readers - the Retouching Checklist that I created for the attendees of my retouching workshops.


Julia Kuzmenko McKim on the Web

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