eatured image: Times Square ad for Hourglass Cosmetics (owned by Unilever),
Photography & retouching: Julia Kuzmenko McKim


The world of professional beauty retouching is very exciting, collaborative and diverse. You never stop learning and growing as a creative professional because every job is a set of new challenges that keep your problem-solving and retouching skills sharp and ever-evolving. 

In retouching, as in any freelance career, virtually everyone begins with the simplest form of doing business – offering their services in exchange for the opportunity to develop their skillset and build their portfolio.

Then, once a freelancer feels confident enough to offer paid services, they move on to working with photographers, models, and makeup artists. And for the majority of retouching freelancers, this is the market where they linger forever.

Maybe this is where you want to be or maybe you just are not aware of the possibilities as a professional retouching artist. If it’s the latter, you will be happy to find out that there’s a lot of room for growth – both professional and financial.

TYPES OF CLIENTS

In retouching, there are two main types of end clients you can acquire:

  • Individual clients – regular people, and photographers who work with regular people;
  • Commercial clients – big and small businesses in any and all industries.

The images that you might be hired to retouch for individual clients will be used for their personal enjoyment, to add to their portfolios or to grow their social media following. While commercial clients’ images are created to help promote their products or services that will in turn bring them profits and often multi-million dollar profits, if we’re talking about the beauty industry. 

Client: Pat McGrath Labs, Photography & Post-Production by Julia Kuzmenko McKim and Avenue Retouching Agency

Naturally, businesses will have higher budgets to produce the very visuals that help them sell their products. So, a skillful retoucher who works directly or indirectly (via a creative agency, retouching house or a commercial photographer) with commercial clients has a better chance not only to sustain their business but also to make a comfortable living significantly faster.

DITCH YOUR LOW PROFIT CLIENTS

According to the Customer Classification Matrix (a well-known model popular in business studies), for long term prosperity, a business owner should focus on acquiring and retaining more High Profit clients (ideally, who are also Low Maintenance) and eliminating Low Profit clients, especially those who are High Maintenance.

In the retouching business, individual clients are usually those that can be classified as Low Profit, while they are quite often High Maintenance with long lists of retouching requests per image and multiple rounds of revisions.

Client: Dr Brandt, Photography & Retouching by Julia Kuzmenko McKim

Yes, there are also High Maintenance commercial clients, but:

a) they are usually a lot more organized and have a precise goal they are working to achieve, so they are less likely to change their mind multiple times throughout the project;

b) you typically get to communicate with client representatives – professionals who speak your client’s language and have a lot of experience in dealing with professional photographers and retouchers. So through this communication, you will always have an opportunity to learn and enrich your understanding of this business and become even more valuable to your commercial clients;

c) you are still getting paid more for your expertise, time and effort than when serving individual clients.

When working with individual clients, not only do you have to acquire many more such clients and retouch many more of their images to get paid as much as a professional retoucher who works with commercial clients, but you also have to adjust and adapt to each and every client’s needs and requirements, which eventually may become exhausting and cause resentment to build up. 

Client: Melt Cosmetics, Photography & Retouching Julia Kuzmenko McKim

With each new individual client, you can’t help but worry whether or not you will get paid. If an individual client stops responding to you after they’ve received their retouched images, you really don’t have many ways to enforce payment for your services. It’s not as easy for an established business to avoid paying you, though.

There is so much more social, financial and creative satisfaction for any freelancer in working with commercial clients and yet, based on all of the test results that I have seen throughout the years, there are only about 3-5% of freelance retouchers who have the proper retouching skills required and who apply a professional approach to retouching and structuring their files.  

THE FAST AND THE EFFICIENT

In the past few years, I focused on working for businesses in the beauty industry as a commercial beauty photographer and retoucher. My client list gradually expanded with a range of national and global  makeup and skincare brands, including Urban Decay Cosmetics (L’Oreal), Pat McGrath LabsMelt CosmeticsHourglass Cosmetics (Unilever), TATCHASunday RileyNEUTROGENAGlamGlow (Estée Lauder) among others.

A handful of these brands became my regular clients and the projects they hire me for multiplied in size over time. I was able to handle most of the retouching for the initial campaigns and e-comm projects when there were up to 10 beauty images to retouch in a project, but my latest regular clients’ shot-lists consist of 60-120 images to shoot and retouch, and the majority of them are usually full-face beauty and macro beauty shots.

Client: Pat McGrath Labs, Photography & Post by Julia Kuzmenko McKim and Avenue Retouching Agency

Client: Pat McGrath Labs, Photography & Post-Production by Julia Kuzmenko McKim and Avenue Retouching Agency

As my commercial photography business grew, I realized that I absolutely needed to begin outsourcing the retouching work. I had always retouched the images I shot, but as the projects got larger and the turnaround times got shorter, I knew I needed a few skilled and reliable retouching assistants to help me with the workload.

Today, I handle large volumes and have strict deadlines and my clients know they can rely on me. In most cases, the images that I create are being used in product launches, advertising campaigns and other brand activities that involve many people, multiple departments and their own strict deadlines. Missing a deadline on our end is not an option, so when we have a large set and a tight deadline, my team and I don’t hesitate to work the extra hours until we complete the job.

As with most commercial photographers, I use a camera with a large sensor to shoot all my work, so each file where skin, makeup and hair retouching are necessary, ends up being around 1-2 GB in size. I have my own backup systems in place, but dealing with massive commercial projects taught me to be mindful of the retouching methods I employ and eliminate all steps that unnecessarily increase file size.