12 Things That Make My Photography & Retouching Better

Photo & Post-Production by Julia Kuzmenko McKim

1. Full-frame DSLR – I still remember how blown away I was by the difference in image quality when I bought my first Canon 5D Classic in Australia in 2009, upgrading from Canon 400D. I still love it and sometimes shoot with my Australian beauty, but my American Canon 5D Mark II  is a whole new world of even better photography. I mean, we all know that “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer“, but the type and quality of your camera and lenses, of course, do make a difference, so consider an upgrade when you’re ready if you’re shooting with a cropped-sensor DSLR.

2. Great quality lenses – I used to have a whole bunch of lenses of all types from wide angle 10-20mm to telephoto zoom 77-300mm. When it was the time for me to leave Australia in 2010, I went through all my photography equipment, analyzed what I used most often and was the happiest with, and sold all of my lenses except for the two that I loved the most: Canon 50mm f1.4 and Canon 24-70mm f2.8L. I also purchased Canon 100mm f2.8L Macro for close-up Beauty and a Canon 35mm f1.4L for Fashion shoots in 2013.

3. A set of lights and light modifiers - It doesn’t have to be expensive. Not at all! If you don’t shoot in a studio, a nice large silver reflector and a flash (I own a Canon Speedlite 580EX) can be your best friends for any type of outdoor photography. I also own a  Westcott 43 inch Convertible Umbrella (about $30) (it’s white satin inside with a black removable cover, so I can shoot through and bounce into it), which gives me a lot of creative freedom when working with an off-camera flash, and because it’s so compact, I can take it with me anywhere. In fact, my editorial shoot in Las Vegas was shot with this umbrella. I use a Flash Shoe Holder  (about $8) to put my flash on a stand and mount the umbrella – irreplaceable thingy!

I highly recommend Westcott 5-in-1 Reflector Kit. I have been using it for a few years, and I was lucky enough to pick it up without any recommendations. Good choice! You might want to also consider getting a couple of heavy-duty sandbags (very cheap) for when you are shooting without an assistant to make sure the stands that are holding the reflector and your lights don’t flip over every time the wind blows.

If you do shoot in a studio you might want to check out Paul C. Buff‘s lights. I use Einstein 640 with a beauty dish or a large softbox as my main light, but if you would like something cheaper, and still of a great quality – AlienBees would be perfect for you. I also have a couple of those for rim and background light.

4. Working with a SMASHING team! Makeup Artists, Hairstylists, experienced Models, Fashion Designers & Wardrobe Stylists – we, photographers, can’t do much in Beauty and Fashion Photography without these guys. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask, there are ALWAYS tons of young artists who would love to collaborate with photographers. If you are a beginner, look for beginners, so that all of you can shoot, practice and grow together. If you’d like to step up and work with experienced professionals, you can either hire them, or work hard to become a better photographer, so that no one will even think of turning your collaboration offer down.

ModelMayhem can help you find your team no matter where in the world you are. Of course Facebook, and other social media sites. There are a lot of people you should be careful with, or not even consider to work together with, but there are also many great models, MUAs, stylists and retouchers.

I’ve found great models and talent on ModelMayhem in every city I lived in since 2006. Here are a few examples for inspiration: my beautiful friend Aja Warren (met and worked together in Denver and now in Los Angeles),  Sally Arnott – Australian Top Model (met and worked together in Melbourne, Australia, she also lives in Los Angeles now),  Elena Fomina – international commercial model (met and worked together in Moscow, Russia) and Dani Daniels (before she became an adult movie star :)) (met and worked together in Omaha, NE and she, too, lives in Los Angeles now).

There is a lot of fluff and BS on those websites, so just be careful and make sure you research people’s work and reputation before you contact them.

5. Planning my shoots in advance –  I have learned to prepare thoroughly for my photo shoots. Taking the decision making time out of the actual shoot saves a lot of time on the day of the shoot and spares the team some mistakes. I usually browse through a lot of images on the web the night before the shoot, find inspiration, make mental notes on framing, posing and the sequence variations if it’s an editorial. I put together a new Pinboard for each photo shoot and send out its link to the team, so we are all on the same page on the day. We all come prepared, knowing what exactly we’re after and just execute our plans. I cannot stress enough how much such preparation affects the results.

6. Wacom Intuos Graphics Tablet – it is my number one retouching instrument. Check out my Better Retouching, Wacom tablet vs. Mouse blog to see why.

7. Using Keyboard Shortcuts and Photoshop Actions for things and procedures I perform every time I work on a photo, or quite often. You can download a set of my custom Beauty Actions for free in the side bar >>>

8.  Always working on a separate layer – I found the best and the most efficient workflow for myself a long time ago: I never rely on the History Panel and keep every stage of my retouching process on a separate layer – new or duplicate. For example, I may accumulate many layers while retouching skin, then merge them all into one layer, name it “Skin”, duplicate it, and move on to retouching eyes, etc.

Working with layers in photoshop

9.  Taking 5-minute breaks every now and then while working on an image. Our brain may play tricks on us, and after a while everything may start to seem to be a problem to be retouched. Little breaks help me to come back to my work with a fresh vision and not over-retouch.

10. Using Custom Photoshop Brushes – I have always been in love with Digital Arts – drawing and painting – so I’ve got a huge collection of digital art magazines that I brought  from Australia.

There’s one exceptional Digital Artist from Poland – Marta Duhlig – who’s been featured nearly in every magazine I’ve got. She digitally paints very realistic portraits, and mainly beautiful girls. I followed Marta for a long time, and learned a lot from her Workshops in “Advanced Photoshop” and “Imagine FX” magazines, and while jumping between digital painting and photo retouching, I once realized that Marta’s custom brushes are very useful in Portrait and Beauty retouching too. I spoke with Marta and she allowed me to share her brushes that I customized for Beauty retouching with my readers. They are included as a bonus in my retouching ebooks.

You can also download her original Brush set here.

11. RADLAB Photoshop Plug-In for artistic color application This has totally been worth the investment. The guys at Totally Rad are genius and my color grading process has changed completely and forever ever since I got the RadLab Photoshop plug-in for color grading.

I used to buy, download and create color Actions just like thousands of other photographers, but I could never avoid the frustration when using them. You first run an action and then see if you like how it looks on your current image or not. The same Action may look good on one photo and crappy on another, and if I’m working on an editorial, this can be a bit of a problem.

RadLab is super convenient: there are tons of default presets, gorgeous colors and camera effects to apply. And you can create your own Recipes, and use them on their own or combine with other Recipes. And the best part of it is that you don’t have to waste your time before you see the result to decide if you like it or not – you simply hover over the Recipes’ thumbnails and see how they affect your image in real time.

Check out a free RadLab plugin demo and download my RadLab recipes here, they are FREE (watch this video to learn how to import and export Radlab recipes first on the RadLab page):

Here’s the RadLab plug-in interface:

Radlab recipe, menu

Marti-0205-web-big-JK

12. Working with small brushes and zooming in (around 100%) as as often as possible – Your corrections will be precise and accurate, and it is easier to avoid leaving any evidence that the image has been retouched when working on such a scale.

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  • Siyana Kasabova

    Wonderful article once again, Julia :)

    • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      Thank you Siyana :)

  • Jared Pierson

    Fantastic stuff you have! I must admit… I’ve been trolling your website all week lol… Now Im just waiting on My ebook!! Thanks for your willingness!

    • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      lol, thanks Jared! :)
      Aleksey Dovgulya just got to Los Angeles, so we’ll work on the Go Pro for a few weeks now while he’s here. I promise to continue with Amateur to Pro every chance I get. It’s coming pretty awesome so far :)

  • Lucia Stidam

    May I ask you which soft box would you recommend? Thank you

    • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      Sure, Lucia! It must be a softbox that is compatible with your strobe. So, check the website of your strobe manufacturer.

      • Lucia Stidam

        Julia, thank you for your quick reply. I don’t have any strobe. The only thing I have is my camera. I’m going to buy external flash but I was also curious which soft box would be good to use. I’m confused now :)

        • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

          It’s OK I had been confused about many things for years when I was starting out too – it’s only normal :)
          Whatever light/flash you will buy, you will have to look for a softbox that is compatible with that light, so you can mount it on your light. That narrows your choices to the point there shouldn’t be any confusion. Just ask Google what’s out there for the type of light you bought (brand, size, model, etc.).

          • Lucia Stidam

            Thank you Julia. I feel like I’m such a dummy. I’ll research and educate myself on this.

            Your website is a mine of information. I’m so happy that I found it.

            • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

              You don’t need to feel that, we all start as amateurs :)

            • Lucia Stidam

              I have another question :) Have you ever tried Canon 6D? I’m curios if it’s a good full frame camera or if to buy one it’s better to go with Canon 5D Mark III. And also do you think it’s worth to buy a kit lens or just a body and then whatever lens I use the most?

              I also noticed in the article that you use Canon EF 50mm f/1.4. It’s not L lens. Do you think if I get good camera and this lens (which I already have) I can have great quality pictures?

              Oh, to many questions… :)

            • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

              - never tried 6D, can’t tell
              – 5D mark III is amazing, I hear. I shoot with mark II still
              – kit lens – no
              – Canon 50mm 1.4 is a good lens
              :)

            • Lucia Stidam

              Thank you very much, Julia

  • Mudessar Khan

    love Julias Photography…awsum work and what a logic and retouch for every photography simply fab , awsum work…. this photograph made me mad! :)

    • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      Thank you dear!

  • Karl-Filip Karlsson

    Do you often use grid on your softbox? :)

    • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      Nope, never. I do have a grid for my beautydish, but barely use it also. Mainly just a diffuser (a “sock”).

  • Gary J. Barragan

    After reading this I found myself really motivated that I had the majority of these things under my belt. I look forward to reading the digi book and videos in effort to excel my skill set in retouching. Great work Julia, very inspiring. :-)

    • http://www.retouchingebooks.com/ Julia Kuzmenko McKim

      Thank you Gary! And I hope the Digital Photo Retouching book will be very helpful along the way as well :)