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May 16, 2013

Phlearn Interviews Julia Kuzmenko McKim

Julia Kuzmenko McKim in action

Your series on color that was featured in Vogue is amazing. Did you shoot these as well as retouch them? How were you inspired to create them? Can you take us through the lighting?

Thank you, Aaron! Yes, I photographed and retouched these images myself. It is one of my favorite series from 2012. We shot these in my basement, which was my office and occasionally my studio at the time. The year 2012 was all about experimenting and getting back on track for me. I had a 2-year break since graduating from the International College of Professional Photography in Australia in the beginning of 2010, and after a lot of traveling finally settled down in the USA and gradually built my new lighting set.I found the best local talent and we started regularly getting together to shoot and play. That photo shoot was just like that – we didn’t have any agenda other than experimenting with lighting and just practicing.We first played around with some LED lights (I even ended up writing a post on how I lit those portraits: MultipleCatchlights – Fun Portrait Lighting tutorial). And the second part of our shoot was all about colors. We photographed this series, but I did not know what these images’ final look would be at that point yet.The setup was really simple – an Einstein with a Beauty Dish on my right, and a Canon 580 Speedlite on my left. I had a large piece of red cellophane duct-taped to my beauty dish and green cellophane wrapped around my speedlite. I used only modeling light on the Einstein and triggered the speedlite.I usually search for ideas and inspiration online, in magazines and movies, and just around that time, one of my most favorite artists, who also happens to be a good friend from Moscow, Jean Osipyan, published his On the Verge series. I was very inspired by the use of Blending Modes in his beautiful photos and that’s how the Flames series was born.

Do you follow any technical processes in working with color or do you mostly trust your eye?

I must admit I usually trust my eye. I sure know how important regular monitor calibration is, but I never do it. I calibrated my old computers back in Australia during the first year of my photography course, and I’ve never calibrated my iMacs or MacBook Pros since 2009. Now that I look at my old photos from before 2009 I see pretty ugly colors in most of my photos. So, even though my monitors were calibrated, my eyes were not trained well to tell good color from bad (especially skin color).I strongly believe that the accuracy of the color that your monitor displays isn’t as important as your skilled judgment of the colors you’re looking at. Although, I would consider calibrating my monitor If I was hired to shoot and retouch catalog images where it’s crucial to match real-world items’ colors to the colors on the screen.

Do you have a history in painting or another type of art? Most great retouchers seem to have another background.

Yes, I do, and I believe in order to become a great retoucher one needs to have either painting or/and drawing background, or at least have a great natural sense of correct anatomic proportions of human bodies and faces, and understand how important light and shadow rendering is in 2-dimensional art. Also painters (both digital and traditional) are much better at judging and correcting colors. I have been training a lot of photographers and painters, and the painters would become way better at retouching and way sooner than photographers every time.I personally started drawing at the age of 4. I still remember the first horse I drew on a box of pencils (I had the paper, I’m not sure why I drew on the box). And from what I remember you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that it was a horse.I also remember that sudden realization that anything I liked (people, animals, things) could be drawn or painted, and the awareness that to make things look like the real things I had a long way to work on my skills :)My brother has just sent me this picture they found at home with my mom. I was 5 when I painted it in the kindergarten. It was dedicated to the Victory Day celebration.

I see a part of you in your Day of the Dead series that I would love to see more of. How else do you let loose?

Thank you! Yes, that’s the type of art I want to do more of. I love digital painting, but I don’t feel very confident in rendering objects, shadows and light from scratch, so painting over a photo is kind of my shortcut to the final image. Saves a lot of time too. I have a few cool project ideas (photography + digital painting) for when I can dedicate more time to my personal work. Digital painting is my favorite way to let loose.

From reading your blog, you are a master at dissecting light. What role does this play in your retouching and how did you learn to do it?

It was one of the first things we were trained to do in our Photography course in Australia, and I think it is equally as important skill for photographers, retouchers, traditional and digital artists. Light and shadows are the main entities we operate and work with in visual arts. We have to be able to see it, “read” it, understand its behavior, understand how to change its behavior, and how it changes in relation to distance, degree of diffusion, etc.It may seem like a complex skill, but in reality as soon as you learn the basic principles of light and start practicing by breaking down lighting in images in magazines or online photography communities, plus continue shooting and analyzing what your lighting looks like, it’ll become your second nature in no time and your own lighting will also get better along the way.

Tell us about your latest e-book, it looks amazing!

Thank you, Aaron! It has been receiving great reviews and it feels so great to know that it actually is helping many fellow artists to master their retouching skills. Fstoppers have just published a great review on it and it’s so rewarding and humbling to hear these wonderful words from the big dogs in the industry.It is the type of book I really wish I had when I was starting to learn retouching. All the things I teach in it are the things I’ve learned, developed and improved over the past years.It took me and my publisher (Mad Artist Publishing, Toronto, Ontario) a year to put it together, record and narrate all video tutorials. I sent out the finished eBook to a few fellow artists for pre-release reviews and held my breath until I started getting their responses. Each one of them was impressed and loved the content, and that was the beginning of its great journey.Since then I have received hundreds of emails from photographers from all over the world thanking me for helping them to get better at what they are so passionate about. Seriously, I had tears in my eyes while reading some of those emails. It is very rewarding to share your knowledge with those who need it and appreciate it, and I’m sure you know the feeling.

Of the images you retouch, what percentage are yours vs. client work. Do you treat them differently in your approach.

I retouch fewer and fewer images for clients now. I think every pro retoucher goes through the same stages: at first they will take on any client assignment, then after they’ve built a good and strong portfolio they become more and more selective with their clients. And an established and successful pro retoucher would only take on assignments which will either pay very well, or are guaranteed to get published. I now only work for a handful of regular clients and the rest of the images I retouch are my own.I do treat client assignments different. I am usually less “off the leash” with my creative ideas and coloring, which may sound like something undesired for an artist, but that’s actually what made my retouching much better. It’s that switch which you have to learn to be able to control. You just turn it on and off between your client assignments and your personal work. For clients you have to get clean colors, and for yourself you are free to do whatever the heck you like with your art. And the more you get it under your control the better professional you are.

You are a teacher as well and you document the progress of past students. How does it feel to see the impact you have made on other’s lives? Do you feel like there is a place for everyone to be great?

Yes, it feels great to see my past students getting better, getting published – I am so proud and happy for every success I see! I just read an SLR Lounge article about one of my past students Craig Lamere of Moz Studios and he mentioned my retouching class he took at the beginning of his successful photography career.But I can’t really take credit for my students’ achievements. It’s all in their hands and in their heads. I teach with equal passion and give all I know to every student I train, but not everyone eventually becomes great. I always try to understand what buttons I can push in every person I work with to make them want to dig deeper, train more and not give up, but after the class it’s all up to them. If they really want to become awesome – they will “practice till they can’t get it wrong”, if they want to magically just become great after taking the class, then most likely they’ll be lazy to push themselves towards success.So, to answer your question, yes, I think there’s a place for everyone to be great, but only those become great who really want it bad enough.

You are great at getting emotion from your subjects even with a simple headshot. How do you do it?

Thank you again, Aaron! I always direct my models and communicate to them what I see and what I want to see through my viewfinder. I often show them good and bad shots on the back of my camera and explain why such and such pose or look is great and why the other isn’t. I know that some photographers consider it as a big “no-no” to show the images to their models/clients during the shoot, but, boy, how many times I heard: “Oh! I get it now! Thank you for showing me!” from the models.In 98% of shoots with pro- and non-models I can get the emotions from my subject with no problems. But sometimes there are “cold cases” that just won’t respond and keep one same face no matter what you do or ask them to do. I usually try to compensate with an interesting framing and lighting if I can’t get any emotions out of them.

You seem to develop real relationships with your models. Do you feel that helps you to take better images?

Yes, very much so! I am a laid back and easy-going person… usually. I get along very well with models and creatives who are talented, hard working and highly professional. But I am also very protective of my team’s and my own work, time, efforts and reputation, so I am extremely selective with people I choose to work with. Consequently, I am always surrounded by passionate professionals. We’re all always on the same page working towards excellence – it’s easy to develop great relationships with like-minded people.

Can you take us through the lighting setup of one of your complex images? (you can use a specific image as an example and talk about the lighting, from that we will produce a lighting diagram on our end)

In this setup I used 4 light heads. I was shooting with Profoto equipment, but even Alien Bees can do the trick. I had a 22″ Beauty dish on my main light (#1), and small metal reflectors on the rest of the strobes. There was a honeycomb on the background light (#4) to make the light beam slightly more direct and create an accurate light spot with nice edges. I also had a dark red color gel on it to add some color to the gray backdrop.There were cyan and orange color gels on light heads #2 and #3. I always turn off modeling lamps on the strobes with color gels after I set up the lights and adjust their direction to avoid color gels melting. Not only you can damage your color gels if they melt, you’re also risking damaging the flash or modeling lamp if the melted color gel gets on either of them.When placing the lights #2 and 3 I always make sure that the light is directed to the back of the model’s head and isn’t getting into the camera, because it’ll cause a lens flare and reduce contract and color saturation in the images.
It usually takes me about 5-10 minutes to take test shots and adjust the lights’ power and fine-tune their placement before I start taking actual pictures.After the lights are setup we start experimenting with poses and movement. Normally, in order to get a good dynamic movement shot like this I take as many shots as possible, watching what I’m getting and correcting the model’s moves, her pace and placement as well. I also always keep in mind that if there’s not one shot where the body, face and hair look just the way I want, I can borrow those parts from a few different shots and make a composite. But that’s more like my last resort, I always aim to get it all right in camera, and this particular image was photographed as is.

All of the photographs in your portfolio are shot by you as well. Did you first get started in retouching or photography? Do you prefer one over another?

I started playing in Photoshop way before I got interested in photography, but I really barely knew anything about the software. When I got my first camera in 2006, I was still hardly even a beginner at retouching. I have been learning and mastering my retouching skills since then, and I am still working on them.I think I equally love photography and retouching, that’s why I wil never consider outsourcing retouching even when I am swamped with work. To me photography is just the beginning of an image, its canvas, and retouching allows me to take it to the level of perfection I would like it to be if it was, say, a painting.

Companies such as H&M have recently caused controversy for “over-editing” the female body in their ads. As a professional retoucher, what’s your opinion on the matter.

Of course I am pro retouching. I love retouching and I think it should and will exist for as long as magazines and visual arts exist. But I sure don’t like seeing over-edited images in printed or web media just like every one else. My eyes are very sensitive to the disproportions of human bodies and faces, and I notice those horrible Photoshop disasters in magazines all the time. Not only I think it’s very unprofessional of the magazines’ editors (or Art and PR directors) to let such things slip, I also think it’s ruining the profession’s reputation.I wish companies who hire retouchers, and especially those that have larger audiences, were more selective and knew how to tell a great experienced retoucher from a beginner.

Is there anything particular you’d like to see in CS7?

Not really, I’ve been using the same tools for the past few years, and CS4 was just as good for me as CS6. I think all I need is already in Photoshop. I like that some tools get improved and do a better job working on the same tasks, but I think for Beauty retouching everything is already there.

If you weren’t working as a retoucher & photographer, what would you be doing?

I would probably still be in Finance. I spent 9 years studying and climbing the career ladder in Financial industry in Moscow, Russia. I was a Senior Accountant at an international multi-million dollar company when I fell in love with photography, quit my job and went to Australia to follow my passion. People who met me as a photographer can never believe that I used to be in Accounting, and those who knew me before I became a photographer probably still don’t take my new profession seriously.

If you could rewind to the beginning of your career, is there anything else you would have done differently?

I don’t regret anything, even though I could be way ahead of myself now if I did not take long breaks from photography in the past few years. I would probably do all the same things and make the same mistakes if I were to start it all over. It seems like all the difficult and undesired situations my life put me into always made me work harder, explore new horizons and eventually made me better in one way or another.

On shoots, you’re the photographer and retoucher. What are some of the other jobs that go into a shoot?

If it’s completely my personal project, than I am the art director and coordinator. But I love creative collaborations and I actually love being just the photographer and retoucher. I let other creatives from the project team take care of all the planning, putting things together, getting access to locations, etc. I don’t like the administrative and pre-production part, but I still always have to have a say in what we are shooting and who are were shooting with.

It looks like you’re able to get a tremendous amount of looks out of one model. How much planning goes into a shoot on average?

I usually start preparing a few weeks ahead. I always shoot with other professionals, so we reserve the date well ahead to make sure everyone is available for the whole day. I usually create a Pinterest board for an upcoming shoot, collect reference and inspiration images, send the link to it to my team, see if anyone has more ideas to add. And the night before each big shoot I spend an hour or two just looking through the images in my pinboard, write down the poses and looks I want to get for sure, and what my lighting would be for each one of them. I often end up getting completely different photos, but I still believe that such thorough preparation is absolutely necessary in order to get better images, feel confident coming to a shoot and take the decision-making time out of the actual shoot.

What was the moment you realized you “made it”?

I don’t think that moment will ever happen to me. I am never satisfied with my skill level and my achievements. But in a good way – by the time I reach any goal, I’ve already got ten more to work towards. It can be exhausting and frustrating sometimes, but I’ve learned to live with it, moreover I am very happy I got it in me, because that is the force that pushes me forward, makes me want to be better every day. I know I am not alone in this, I’ve met a lot of artists who are the same way.

What was the last thing that got you really inspired?

Interestingly enough, it was music. It happens quite often, I watch a music video or listen to a new song that I’ve never heard before and I’m all fired up by visual ideas running through my head.Here is an example: I accidentally came across a couple of songs by KONGOS, a band from South Africa, went to check out their videos and they were just so weird and badass (even though the musicians look nothing like that) I got very inspired and painted my second Día De Los Muertos image. It just so happened that it was the energy and inspiration I needed for that artwork.

Any big projects coming up in the future?

I’m planning to move to California this summer. So, I am now mainly working on my webiste, new ebooks and saving up my creative juices for when I’m in the sunny California. It will be the beginning of a whole new chapter in my photography career and I will be definitely shooting way more there than I do now!

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