Julia Kuzmenko is a Los Angeles-based beauty photographer and retoucher. She is an International College Graduate of Professional Photography in Melbourne and relocated to Los Angeles to pursue her beauty photography dream. Julia has photographed and retouched for Urban Decay (L’Oreal), GlamGlow (Estēe Lauder), Hourglass Cosmetics, Smashbox Cosmetics (Estēe Lauder), Melt Cosmetics, Girlactik, Dr. Brandt Skincare, NEUTROGENA, to name a few and her recent Dr. Brandt campaign is published in Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Allure, Marie Claire, InStyle and Vogue (March-April 2017) and can be seen in Sephora stores. Her key to success is the power of a high performing creative team and capturing her images perfectly in camera.
I am a longtime follower of Julia Kuzmenko’s beauty photography. I first found her work through her website and Facebook forum called ‘Retouching Academy’ as I was trying to learn how to retouch my own beauty work. One thing led to another and eventually I reached out to her directly to inquire about a one-on-one workshop in Los Angeles. I wanted to learn from someone that I considered the best in beauty photography and retouching as I wanted to specifically control both aspects of my artwork. When I met her she was on the cusp of greatness and right after this workshop, she became one of the most in-demand artists in Los Angeles. Her honest feedback to me has helped me grow immensely and I believe all Breed members can benefit from her sage advice and experience.
Can you tell our readers a little about you? Where you come from, photography schooling, the source of your passion for beauty photography and a little bit about your journey to where you’re at now?
I was in love with the visual arts from my earliest years. I drew and painted before I even went to school and I wanted to be a creative professional as I was growing up. However, I had to go for something more realistic and I chose Finance when the time came to enroll at a university. I ended up spending almost ten years climbing the ladder in the financial industry of Moscow.
My dad was a hobbyist-photographer from his teenage years and he tried to hook me up with his camera many times throughout the years, but I wasn’t into landscape photography or family portraits like he was, so he never managed to get me interested.
Many years later my love for the visual arts caught up with me and I picked up my first camera. I was a Senior Accountant in a multi-million dollar financial company in Moscow at the time. The job was stressful but well paying so I had accumulated some savings. And one day I decided I needed a massive change in my life and I enrolled in a photography college in Australia. I left Moscow in 2008 and spent almost 3 years in Melbourne studying Commercial Photography. Fast forward a few years, I got married and eventually moved to Los Angeles where I live and work now.
I’ve always loved Beauty Photography and a logical goal for me has always been shooting for cosmetics and skincare companies. I never really cared for getting my editorials published, but seeing the ads that I shot and retouched in major beauty magazines and in stores was a dream that has recently come true – my Dr Brandt’s ad currently can be found in Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Allure, Marie Claire, InStyle and Vogue (March-April 2017) and is in Sephora stores, along with my GlamGlow campaign for their new lip products.
What and/or who are your biggest influences in beauty photography? Are you influenced by other styles of photography?
I can’t really say that there are any specific photographers or other types of photography that influence my vision or my work. But there are a few beauty photographers, whose work I really enjoy looking at and, being one of the Retouching Academy Instagram managers, I visit their pages more often than others’ to see if they have produced something new that I could share with our followers.
You are very passionate about doing things “right” in camera versus “fixing it later” in post-production. Can you tell us about your philosophy when it comes to shooting beauty?
I love my own retouching and I don’t think I will ever want to give it up no matter how busy I get with commercial shoots. I am a firm believer that retouching is a very important part of the image creation process and I can’t allow anyone else do it for me. I shot it – I have to retouch it to become what I envisioned.
That’s the foundation of my philosophy, which leads me to a realization that the better I capture everything in camera, the faster I will have the deliverables for my client. Besides, no matter how good my retouching skills can get, the skin and makeup in my images will never look as great if they need to be heavily retouched, so everything must be captured well in camera.
This means I have to be very selective with the models I shoot and my creative team members.
An important by-product of me striving to capture everything right in camera is that my clients and my creative teams are happy with the images right from the beginning of the shoot when they see the shots pop up on the screen as we go.
This cannot ever be underestimated because great unretouched images that my team see inspires and encourages them to do even better. It cheers my clients up and makes them trust me more with my creative decisions.
And the other bonus comes in the form of the increased number of final images my clients select after almost every photo shoot. For example, a client came to me wanting to produce 12 images, and after I sent them the previews, which were shot so well, they ended up selected 53 images – more than doubling the budget of the project.
That’s what makes me very happy as an artist and a business owner.
What are some of the struggles you’ve faced as a beauty photographer in a niche market?
I think it’s all the same for both fashion and beauty photographers – finding great models and creative professionals to work with well before you can even begin offering your services to commercial clients.
Building a strong team is one of the biggest challenges, and even after you have your go-to makeup artists and hair stylists, you are forever stuck in the testing cycle because you need new faces in your portfolio and for your commercial shoots. The majority of my clients ask for model suggestions and after testing with dozens in the previous years, I find myself recommending a handful of the same girls over and over, because I know how beautiful, professional, hard-working and reliable they are.
Strangely, even despite the fact that we have so many famous modeling agencies here in Los Angeles, I can only fully trust just two – Osbrink Models and NOUS Models – the only two agencies whose girls have never let me down. I pay for the studio where I shoot tests out of my own pocket and a no-show or a last minute cancellation means wasted money and a lot of frustration for me and my team.
We all work hard, we choose to spend our weekends shooting at the studio instead of chilling at home and spending time with our families and when a model doesn’t show or cancels last minute no words can describe the level of our frustration. Needless to say, the model and the agency end up in our black list right away. It’s very unfortunate that some models, who consider themselves professionals, think it’s acceptable to do something like this, but it does happen every now and then.
The other struggle is of course “shooting through” dozens of models who don’t have the appearance or experience that I could recommend to a cosmetics brand for a job. So we have to shoot a lot to find our star-models who are not just beautiful and experienced, but also compatible with me and my team. By now my core team has become a tight circle of good friends, I am very fortunate that they are all just good people, and we prefer not to work with flaky individuals and/or divas.
Photographers want instant gratification and success but there’s a lot more that goes into making this dream a reality. It’s more than just taking pretty pictures and sharing content. What are some of your lessons learned on trying to make a living from photography and what advice do you have to those photographers who are dreaming for the same opportunities?
We recently moved to a new place, and right on the first night there we realized that we’re now next door neighbors with a well-known comedian actor Dave Foley (The Kids in the Hall). After I ran into him for the first time, we went cyber-stalking him with my husband and on his IMDb page I found his quote that I repeat very often these days: “Nothing really happens fast. Everything happens at such a rate that by the time it happens, it all seems normal.”
It’s just so true, and that’s why some of the happenings feel more like a logical next step in your career rather than an achievement.
But also because it is true, I always recommend not quitting your main job before you go into photography full time. Financial freedom allows you to make better choices when your clients knock on your door. You can take on some and decline others. You won’t have to chase whatever clients and work yourself to the ground just because you don’t have any other income stream, but you have to pay rent and buy food for yourself and your family.
Take your time, shoot more personal projects while you still have a salary from your non-photography job. It may seem so tempting to jump in, but you’ll thank yourself later after you build a strong portfolio and well-paying clients start coming to you, so you can make up for the missing salary in a couple of commercial shoots per month.
And even though sometimes someone else’s achievements may seem like an overnight success – forget it, there’s no such thing. Any significant success takes a lot and a lot of work and preparation, and it is easier to go through those years of work, when you are truly passionate about your art and craft but have a safe full time job and a salary to finance your hobby until it becomes your main job.
If you struggle choosing a test shoot over Sunday movies on a couch because you already had a hard work week at your job, then maybe professional photography it’s just not something that you really want to do full-time anyway.
Can you tell us about your amazing opportunities you’ve had lately in the cosmetics industry? How did you land those jobs? What prepared you to take on these large opportunities and get them to book you?
We live in a truly amazing time when we have direct access to all our potential clients. If your work is worth their attention, it will appear in front of them sooner or later. Shooting often, constantly putting out new work is one of the best ways to convince any creative director or producer you can do it for them too. If you are a hard-working professional and your work is up to par, commercial clients will come to you directly.
I used to think I needed many years and dozens of tiny cosmetics clients before I can climb up to the bigger ones, but really it all depends on the quality of the photographer’s work, their professionalism and personality. At this point landing another big client is not my goal, having more of my existing clients come back to me for more campaigns and ecommerce shoots is what makes me really happy and shows that they were truly happy with the first project I did for them.
So far I have shot and retouched for Urban Decay (L’Oreal), GlamGlow (Estēe Lauder), Hourglass Cosmetics, Smashbox Cosmetics (Estēe Lauder), Melt Cosmetics, Girlactik, Dr. Brandt Skincare, NEUTROGENA, and did 2 or even more shoots for some of them.
Any final words of wisdom?
I do believe in the law of attraction and hard work. Looking back at the past few years, I am very happy that I was given these opportunities, but at the same time, I know that I worked really hard for them, and I would not want them earlier because I was simply not ready for them.
I often hear beginner photographers asking for advice on how to get commercial clients like that, but by looking at their body of work, I just know they are not ready.
My point is, be careful what you wish for. You want to be 100% confident you CAN work at the level these clients expect you to work and produce the work that these clients expect you to produce, so you don’t blow your career by ruining your first commercial projects.
And there’s no better way to prepare yourself for this than shooting a ton of unpaid personal projects for a long time, so by the time your first commercial shoot happens – you’ve done it all, you are not nervous out of your skull, you got it, and you can make your client happy.