Becoming a Professional Beauty Retoucher – Retouching Academy


Featured 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.


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.


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.  


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 Labs, Melt Cosmetics, Hourglass Cosmetics (Unilever), TATCHA, Sunday Riley, NEUTROGENA, GlamGlow (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.

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. 

Client: Melt Cosmetics, Photography & Retouching: Julia Kuzmenko McKim

All this means that when I am looking for new team members, I am looking for retouching professionals who already understand the unspoken rules of the fast-paced commercial world. They know how crucial direct and fast communication is, they understand the importance of the lean-PSD approach for quick file turnaround when dealing with large projects, and they know how to properly structure their PSD files, so not only will it be easy for me to quickly and seamlessly finalize each file before submitting them to the client, it will be easy to adjust any part of an image if the client requests revisions without having to re-do any of the work.

Time is money for your clients and for your own business too. And in the world of commercial photography and retouching, time is always limited as everything usually needs to be done fast, often last-minute, so it’s even more important that the work is done properly from the start. A retoucher’s ability to work efficiently stems from his or her ability to apply a fundamental and professional retouching approach and employ proper work habits that have become second nature.


I started testing to hire retouchers for my post-production team a few years ago and I was very disheartened to see that a very small percentage of the returned test images had quality skin retouching and correct colors. And, to make things worse, the majority of the decently retouched images were submitted in poorly structured, messy and bloated PSD files.

While it may not seem like such a big problem if the retouch itself is not so bad, the truth is that professionals to whom retouchers submit their job – be it commercial photographers, creative agencies, or brand representatives – are very busy people and have no time to deal with someone who does not possess the necessary level of professionalism required.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Alienate Clients & Lose Potential Jobs

When budgets are measured in tens of thousands of dollars, no one has the time or desire to deal with an incompetent, slow, or disorganized freelancer – because the market is so big, there’s always someone who is better and faster. And clients will be willing to pay more for a qualified professional if he or she proves to be a valuable and reliable part of their post-production team.

Photography and retouching work for GlamGlow, Estee Lauder

Client: GlamGlow (Estée Lauder), Photography & Retouching by Julia Kuzmenko McKim

There are so many retouchers who compete with each other at the bottom of the retouching market.  And while this part of the market is so crowded that the retouching rates have no chance to increase, skilled retouching professionals who are qualified to work with commercial clients are in high demand because of the sheer number of businesses that create an enormous amount of visual content for their websites, social media, product launches, point-of-sale and other marketing materials. They all need post-production help.

Because the percentage of skilled professionals is so small, they are really hard to find, and clients know that. And because of that, skilled professionals don’t need to fight the competition, their clients stick with them offering repeat business and financial security.

Those professional retouchers are well-versed in common practices when receiving, handling, submitting and archiving their clients’ files. They know what to ask and what is being asked of them, as they understand the industry vocabulary. They know to keep their client or superior informed on the progress and meet the deadlines they have agreed to, regardless of what their personal life is like or if they have other clients who sent them more work at the last minute.

There is no room for excuses in the world of professional retouching for commercial clients. Reliability and proper skill level is all that matters. You may get lucky and land a great commercial job, but if you’re oblivious to the important things that make your client’s life easier, you will most likely not get hired again. And repeat business should always be your goal.

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

While the rates and salaries of retouching professionals are always higher in commercial retouching, client expectations and workloads are on a whole other level as well, so it takes some serious skills, work ethic and determination to be able to successfully step up and stay in demand.

And while we can’t help you become more reliable or resilient, we can definitely help improve your skills and lay a foundation for professional retouching habits so you are ready when the opportunity presents itself.


Earlier this year, after many trials, I finally built a strong team of retouching assistants. These retouchers had worked on a few massive projects with me and everyone had pulled through and proved they were reliable and could provide quality retouching even when the workload significantly increased. To preserve this team and keep it busy even between my commercial photography projects, I opened Avenue Retouching Agency.

Professional retoucher and gifted educator Sarah Tucker joined us as our Post Production Director to handle the Avenue agency workload. Sarah has been a commercial retoucher for over 10 years, both in-house and freelance, with a client list that includes some of the major players in the fashion industry, including Conde Nast (Vogue). She has worked on images photographed by Rankin and Mario Testino, among others, featuring well known stars like Kate Moss, Pamela Anderson, Liv Tyler and Julianne Moore and many more.

With my deep experience as a commercial beauty photographer and retoucher managing my own post-production team, and Sarah’s, working in-house as a Senior Retouching Artist at major retouching houses in London, we quickly optimized and streamlined our internal procedures to be able to successfully handle large commercial jobs.

And to instill a standard retouching approach across all of the Avenue team members, we started recording internal training videos, which eventually evolved into a larger idea of turning these videos into a proper Retouching Academy video course for any retoucher who is interested in improving their skills and working as a professional.

I must admit, I am pretty excited that sharing this course with retouchers beyond our team has some future benefits for us too – we hope that more freelance retouchers learn from this course and it will be easier for us to hire new skilled professionals in the future as the Avenue agency grows.

UPDATE Nov 21st, 2019:

Our new Professional Beauty Retouching video course is now available in our RA Shop:

Professional Beauty Retouching video course

Professional Beauty Retouching video course





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