Interview with retoucher Lesya Kostiv for AFI magazine

Читати українською


Lesya Kostiv, professional fashion and beauty retoucher talks about her life retouched with a laptop and graphics tablet.

Retouching has almost become an essential part in the production of any high-end fashion and beauty imagery. It can be viewed as a form of art, allowing photos to be morphed into endless possibilities. Great retouchers require critical eyes that pick up minute details, as well as have a deep understanding in the aesthetics of its subjects. These set of skills of course, don’t come easily without hours of practice, failing and improving.

Lesya Kostiv is a professional retoucher. Having started off as a hobby, her career as a retoucher sparked at the age of 18. Since then, her work has been featured in numerous magazines worldwide; including Vogue, L’Officiel, Marie Claire, FHM, Grazia and the list goes on. Working behind just a laptop and a graphics tablet,

Lesya has been able to travel the world whilst working in her ”digital darkroom” to make great images, perfect.

Tell us a bit about yourself? 

Well, I’m  professional fashion & beauty retoucher. I’m 24 years old and I’m from Ukraine. But as I can work from any point in the world I’m trying to travel a lot, to live in different countries and still trying to figure out where I would like to settle down.

I have a masters degree in economics and finances, but I’m one these lucky, happy people who made their dream come true and turned their favorite hobby into a successful, lifetime career.

How did you get into your retouching career?  Is it your full time job? 

I was eighteen. I was visiting a friend of mine, a photographer, who was hiding from his clients because he could not get their photos done on time. He hated doing the retouching. I decided to open Lightroom to try and help him out and loved immediately. From that point on, I had a favorite hobby, which in time grew into freelance and eventually my profession.

At that time, of course, I had no idea that scum a profession even existed or what could come out of it. For a few years it was just a fun way to spend my time and to make some spending money while I was in university. However, with time, my clientele began to grow, I star ted receiving more interesting projects, and in three years it became a full-time job. I became a professional, entered the international arena and at this time I have been doing it for seven years.

What do you love most about retouching and post-processing?

This might sound strange from a person who spends nearly all her hours working alone, but it’s the people. The best part of retouching, for me, is working with great photographers, with who I often become quite good friends. An exhilarating part of freelance, is that you’re working with people from all over the world, from different cultures and different schools of photography, but together you form a team who works on the same project. In addition, of course, it brings high satisfaction that the work that you do has a visual result. You can look at it a year later and see how much you have grown. For example, it is often interesting to look at the evolution of one’s creative taste, especially your own. And if you’re ever embarrassed by your past work, that’s great, that is a  wonderful way to see just how far you’ve come.

What type of images do you love retouching most? Why? 

I began largely working with fine art photography and composites, which is a field which requires a notable amount of creativity and often an ability to draw. You could spend a few days on one photo, which is great for a hobby, but not very practical for a full-time job. Therefore I decided to focus on a field which had more strict standards and timelines, that field being fashion and beauty. There are usually more strict requirements, you are just trying to make the result look like the covers of top beauty magazines and the best commercial advertisements.

What in your opinion is the most challenging aspect of retouch?

When you begin working in this field, you share the results with the world and receive back a ton of criticism, followed with thoughts that you should really focus your life on something else. However, you must do what you really want to, even if it takes you twice as long as everyone else, and even if at times you convince yourself that you might not have the talent. You will achieve your goals only if you believe in yourself.

Of course, another tough challenge is self organization. You make your own hours, you chose your own projects, and you alone are responsible for your deadlines. When you are working with a dozen studious/ photographers simultaneously, and want to take a vacation, you must resolve that will all of them. It’s important to analyze your traits, whether you’re a person for whom it is a challenge to focus on detailed work, requiring high amounts of detailed attention for hours, then retouching might be a boring and tiring way to spend your time. For me, however, Dodge & Burning is very similar to meditation and I enjoy it, but even  so it is often stressful to handle non-normative hours, sometimes sleepless nights, sudden deadlines and the physically inactive lifestyle.

Luckily, my loved ones get used to my crazy shedule, but not so many people around can support and understand if you’re creative and workaholic at the same time.

If we were to sit at your work desk now, what would we find? 

I work with a Macbook Pro and a Wacom Intuos Pro graphic tablet, so my “workstation” is very mobile, and often I chose to work from cafes or coworking spaces. When I work from home, on my table there will also lay an iPhone, iPad and a black thermos full of my favorite ginger tea.

What software do you use mostly for your retouching? 

There are definitely only two major softwares that one needs for professional retouching – Capture One for RAW conversion and Adobe Photoshop for the following editing. And, of course, a graphic tablet (for me, any Wacom tablet is perfect for this).

When I began retouching, I was convinced that the secrets to better results lie in software, plugins, retouching panels, but that was a huge mistake which kept back on the same level for a very long time. The main secret, is a high quality original photo and the decisive certainty for what you would like to see in your result. To achieve this, you must work on your creative taste and literally train your eyes to become more accustomed judging with analyzing hundreds upon hundreds of photos.

Can you tell us your worklflow technique in retouching? 

In reality, there aren’t very many variations as to the best retouching process, so my friendly advise is this: close all the “how to” videos on youtube which claim to teach you the “best and fastest” methods. Because you can only do a quick job, or you can do the best job. You can’t do both. And, frankly saying, professionals don’t really make such tutorials for public, instead they retouch photos of Angelina Jolie or Vogue cover or at least give some private lessons 🙂

First you have to do the raw conversion. I hope everyone knows we should shoot only in RAW, this is the only way to keep all of the quality, light, and the possibility to adjust the colors fully and correctly. I use Capture One as it has the best profiles and gives you as much natural skin tones as possible. There are also a lot of tools for color correction, so it is best  to choose the main tone direction at the very beginning.

Then, I do all of the editing in Photoshop. I make the basic skin, hair, background and clothes cleaning on the empty layers. You have to get rid of all the visible blemishes, spots and wrinkles, flyway hair, etc. All of the main skin retouching is made with Dodge & Burn technique (that’s why you need a graphic tablet). This is the only way to make the shot look not overly retouched. Clean, but still good looking and realistic. You also have to take care of the hue, tone and lightness of the different parts of the body and face, as everything has to look uniform and not look distracting or out of place.

Color grading is the last, but one of the most important parts. One of my tips – work on your color before retouching skin to decide on the final look you want to see, then turn off the color tables and work entirely on the skin. At times, you might spend long and unnecessary time cleaning, when in reality the only thing missing was a well adjusted contrast and tone.

High end retouching can be a lengthy process, is there anything you do during your retouching to keep you entertained? Music? Coffee? 

I know people who need to fully concentrate on their work and are easily distracted by outside sources, but I am not one of them. I’m used to doing multiple things simultaneously, so when all of the main organizational efforts have been completed and emails answered, I often turn on movies, documentaries, English lessons on my iPad as a pleasant background and work till late night.

Would you find it hard to stop in the middle of retouching an image? 

Actually I find it very necessary and important to stop from time to time. Make tea, coffee, go for a short walk, give your eyes a little rest and even after ten minutes you will feel and see a huge difference in your work and all of the potential mistakes you could have made.

When a client hands you the RAW images, how do you ensure you and your clients have the same vision for the final image? What information would you like to know from your clients?

Professional photographers almost always create a “mood board” before a shoot and give references to the retoucher. However, even if they don’t have any, you have to be flexible and just have a talk, analyze his website and get know what is the core of his inspiration and the main goal. Together you can figure out what the result should look like, and even create some brand new ideas. In the same time there are many clients who give me the full freedom of creativity and I choose my own references and inspiration.

What do you do in your free time? 

Oh, that question almost makes me cry. My job is my main passion, so I don’t actually have  much free time, but I try to spend the time with my loved ones, visit a gym at least two times a week, improve my English. I love traveling. I used to teach retouching to people in my city, have been visiting business and marketing conferences and am now thinking about continuing my education abroad as I am sure you have to constantly attempt to self-improve, for the world doesn’t stand in one place.

You have an impressive portfolio of work. Do you have a favourite? Tell us more. 

Thank you so much! A portfolio is an incredibly important part of a retouchers success, so it is essential to take good care of it and to keep it regularly updated. Not everything that people seem to like will be commercially successful, and vice versa. Likes on social media aren’t clients, you must remember that. Ninety percent of my commercial work doesn’t make it to the internet, and I’m sure that my most beloved projects are still ahead. All truly interesting and important projects are special and exhilarating for me.

You really have come a long way since you started, with top clients such as VOGUE, L’OFFICIEL and Marie Claire. What advice would you give to beginner retouchers?

A few years ago, when I was working with photos strictly around the area of my home, provincial city, I could not imagine working on such a high, international level. In regards to the top magazines and the largest fashion labels, they tend to work with big retouching houses, retouchers that are represented by the top agencies, and only rarely – freelance retouchers. A lot of the success, therefore, depends on experience and a talented team. When you are new, you tend to work with people who are also new, and your work will not be on the highest level, but as you and your skills evolve, you will also work with more experienced and talented professionals and receive higher level projects. My advice then, is to work hard for your goals, but be flexible in your methods.

How can people contact you for work? 

You can always contact me through my website , email – and instagram – @lesyakostiv

I am available for collaboration, as well as for a quick tip!

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