15 Tips on How to Break into Fashion Photography

In my last three articles, I talked about producing commercial and personal photoshoots, and tips on how to improve one’s photography. In this guide, I want to share my thoughts on how to break into fashion photography.

Fashion photography is a highly exclusive and competitive industry. Getting in requires dedication, commitment, hard work, and often times, a dash of good luck and timing. There is no great secret or shortcut, it is going to be a tough journey, and you must be prepared for the long-haul.

1. Understand Fashion

Christian Dior Couture Fall 2008 Backstage

Christian Dior Couture Fall 2008 Backstage

Just as a photographer in general should know how to operate a camera, a fashion photographer should possess a basic knowledge of fashion and its history. A good understanding of the topic and your subject matters will go a long way towards helping your career, so I recommend studying up the following:

– History of fashion
– Silhouettes of different periods and eras
– Designersicons, and image-makers
– Fashion terminologies
– Hairstyles and makeup looks
– Fashion films and documentaries
– Current industry news

Many photographers try to shoot fashion without knowing what fashion is. It shows. Don’t let some reading hold you back from the possibility of producing better work. Most materials on these topics are readily available on the internet now, so there is really no excuse.

2. Read Magazines, Learn Who’s Who

Reading magazines is a great way to find inspirational images and ideas for new photographers. Take this time to curate the styles and work that you find yourself responding to. Identify traits in the photographs you like and explore those for your own shoots. Make folders on your computer or use Pinterest boards to curate and save them. Jot down the names of people whose styles you feel for in a notepad or text file, so you can work towards collaborating with them one day.

Also keep in mind that publications have different demographics and aesthetics from one another. Knowing who wants what will be very helpful in preparing an appropriate portfolio for the kinds of magazines that you want to shoot for in the future.

3. Assist

Assisting is a great way to learn how shoots are done and meet people in the industry.

If you choose to do it full-time for a few years, that in itself could be a route for breaking into fashion, especially in a major fashion city where you get to experience large, high-end productions. Be attentive about what goes on and anticipate what people need help with without them saying so.

Write down new things you learn. It's easy to forget things when you aren't doing it yourself or if you are just watching. If production is doing something cool, make some notes. It will jot your memory when you have to attempt something similar but new to you in the future.

Also keep in mind that your job is to assist. People won’t like it if you try to get the stylist or makeup artist’s number unsolicited, or ask to be Facebook friends with the editor. Make friends with fellow assistants from the creative crew, as you are all starting in similar positions. It will give you a much higher chance of collaborating and growing together with them.

4. Learn Fashion Lighting

Regardless of whether you do any assisting, it’s important to learn the basics of fashion lighting in order to get the looks you want.

Here are some of the most frequently used lighting modifiers in fashion photography:

– Beauty dishes: the quintessential modifier for beauty and fashion photography. The beauty dish sits right in between the hard and soft lighting modifiers. It makes the skin glow beautifully. And like a hard light, it provides a wonderful contrast for sculpting features, but without making shadows look harsh along the edges.

– Giant umbrellas: a very popular choice for fashion photography. While the beauty dish is limited by its spread and the need for complimentary fill lights most of the time, giant reflectors can be used standalone because of their sizes—the light spread is very even, making it perfect for photographing models full length and maintaining an accurate depiction of the details and colours of clothing—which is important to fashion photography, especially in commercial work.

– Scrims: used for diffusing harsh light outdoors, but also wonderful for that commercial, glowy beauty shot in-studio. The scrim is more specific than the other lighting modifiers on this list, and more work to setup and shoot with. I suggest experimenting with it via rentals, it can definitely be a very worthy investment for certain styles of photography.

– Octabanks: probably my favourite. The name sounds cool and the shape looks cool, but most importantly, they are highly versatile. I can easily use the octabank for fashion, beauty, or portrait shoots. There is a beautiful, even texture to the light and shadows. And unlike square or rectangular softboxes, the shape of the octabank creates a more rounded, beautiful gradient in the background when used without background fills. It also gives you rounded, natural-looking catchlight in your subject’s eyes, unlike those of the more angular modifiers. These days, I use my octabank interchangeably with the Profoto Umbrella Deep White XL. Mostly, I favor them for my painterly-looking personal work.

Take the time to experiment with as many modifiers as you can, in order to find the ones that work for you. Use them in combination with one another, and/or with strip softboxes, snoots, flags, and v-flats. In this way, you can get many different and interesting moods.

If you want to see more examples, I talk about a range of lights and examples of their looks in Lesson 2: Equipment and Lighting episode of my course, Artistic Portrait Photography:

Examples of using different lighting modifiers in lesson 2:   Equipment and Lighting   of my course.

Examples of using different lighting modifiers in lesson 2: Equipment and Lighting of my course.

5. Learn Fashion Retouching

There are two camps for this, many photographers retouch their own work, but many also send their photographs out to retouchers to get the job done. Regardless of your choice, you should learn how to retouch.

You want to be able to make personalized edits to your images that make them individualistic, and not just deliver the product of another retoucher’s work.

YouTube has an abundance of free videos tutorials and demos, and a cursory Google search will bring up endless resources on photography blogs. Don’t be afraid to check out new techniques and spending a few hours practicing!

6. Test a Lot

There is a quote from Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama that I love—”There is no quality without quantity.”

Doing countless tests will firstly improve your work, and secondly be helpful in introducing you to others in the industry. This is one of the most consistently-cited tips for breaking into fashion that I've heard from and also share with fellow photographers.

If you don't yet have a team, start off simple and small: work with friends, do self-portraits, photograph classmates or colleagues (I've done all of these). Show what you can do in terms of style and concepts with what you have, and then approach freelancers and other aspiring creatives either via social media or on websites like ModelMayhem. Your network will grow with the amount of shoots you do over time.

Once you have 5-6 strong shoots that you are proud of, put together a portfolio of 10-20 pictures and reach out to model agencies. Ideally you should be working with hair and makeup people who already shoot with agency girls, so they can help review what you have and give you some advice on editing your selection of images. If you don’t receive a reply, don’t give up! Keep working on your craft and try again in a few months. Once you start testing for agencies on a regular basis, I’d count that as a milestone. Keep up with it and you will be shooting your first editorial in no time.

7. Prepare to Maintain a Day Job

Now that we've covered the technical and shooting side of things, it's time to get down to the business end.

First off, even if you start testing for agencies, be prepared to not be making money for a while. It's very likely that you will continue to have to spend money to put shoots together, even if it's just equipment rentals, transport, and lunch expenses for your team. You will need to maintain a day job or have a substantial amount of savings to last a while. And depending on where you live, there are two situations for new photographers breaking into the industry:

a. If you live in a fashion capital like New York, London, Milan or Paris, until you get a few regular commercial clients, it will be pretty hard to work as a fashion photographer for a living. In these cities, paying editorials mostly go to the best photographers in the world; and magazines that you submit to for publication (submissions/spec shoots, including many international editions of top magazines) will almost never pay you anything other than with credit.

The upside is that you will have immense opportunities to network and grow with the best upcoming talents in the world, people who might be assisting Annie Leibovitz, Pat McGrath, Guido Palau, and the likes. And you yourself will also have the opportunity to assist some of the best photographers of today, because you're there and it is all accessible to you. Being a native, you can take as long as you want on this learning journey, something extremely difficult for any foreigner to achieve because of visa difficulties and work limitations.

b. If you don’t live in one of the major fashion cities, the upside is that you will get to shoot editorials for pay almost regardless of the magazine.  This could become a steady income source for many photographers, and it can definitely lead to well-paying commercial work.

The downside is a lack of strong creatives to work with compared to what you can get in a major fashion city, as well as the constraints on creative freedom in a smaller, more commercial, and oftentimes conservative market.

If you want to work for world-class clients and magazines one day, you have to move to one of the fashion capitals. You would most likely need to rebuild your portfolio; each city has a different aesthetics they look for, even between the different fashion capitals, and the expectation for quality in hair, makeup, styling, and models would be way above that of anywhere else. So if this is your goal, try to move sooner than later. Once you get older or settle into the comfort of good commercial pay and having the respect of your home collaborators, it will be difficult to adjust to starting from zero again in a new city all.

8. Do Your Paperwork, Organize Your Files

Day job aside, you still want to approach your photography as if it were a business. Start with a habit of organizing your files and paperwork:

– Systematize file names and picture catalogue
– Register copyright for your work
– Save press clippings
– Request for and save hi-res files of tearsheets
– Archive quotations, invoices, receipts, bank/credit card statements, model releases and contracts
– Organize contact lists
– Update your CV/resume regularly (here's mine)

What I prefer to do is have a main folder for each category mentioned above, and then organize the files by year with subfolders.

You can do it however you like, but setting this up systematically will save you a lot of headaches down the road. Copyright will come in hand when you have infringement cases, tearsheets and press clippings will come in handy when you are nominated for awards or need to apply for work visas in different countries. So save everything and name them properly to make searching for things you need easier in the long run.

9. When to Say No and When to Say Yes

In the very beginning, you should try as many different things as possible. At this point, it may be good to say Yes to almost everything. (Except for when people appear to be shitty, or raise your internal red flags, then never say yes, it's never worth it.)

Saying yes a lot in the beginning is important, because you'll never know what attempting something new may teach you, and if you dislike a certain style of work or make a blunder, you can learn from those experiences early on instead of during a major project or job down the line.

But as you advance on in your career, learn to say no. You’ll want to become selective about what you do. Accepting anything and everything for the sake of feeling busy or because you are too nice will simply dilute your direction and quality of work.

These types of distractions can go on for a long time, and it will stop you from improving and adding images helpful to your portfolio. This leads to plateau, and sometimes, irrelevancy and the end of a career. 

10. Do Personal Work

Motherland Chronicles #52 -  The Death of Eurydice

Motherland Chronicles #52 - The Death of Eurydice

Personal work continues to be one of the biggest selling points for photographers when drawing in new clients, opportunities, and press. Having personal projects will show what sets you apart from other photographers, and what you can do differently aside from the fashion work you shoot for magazines and clients.

11. Edit Your Portfolio

Keep your portfolio updated and well-edited. Show only your best work. Don’t include something from five years ago because of sentimental reasons when you are miles better now.

Get feedback from fellow creatives, editors and art directors whenever you can.

When going for meetings, tailor the portfolio accordingly to your target audience. If you’re seeing a beauty editor at a magazine, showing your beauty work first will be much more appropriate than your regular fashion presentation.

12. Update Your Website, News and Social Media

If you are creating, show it. Update your website, social medias, and professional contact list with news of what you are working on. But remember, don't spam. Update social media as often as you can, because of the way algorithms work now, what you post will not always be shown to your followers.

Set up a mailing list for sharing major news to your followers, send something that way once every few months to let people know what you are up to, in case of people not using social media or missing your major announcements.

13. Network

Networking is pretty much a prerequisite in fashion. It’s best you love socializing and the parties that go along with it. Load up your portfolio in both your phone and iPad so you can show it easily at all times. Keep business cards handy, and include your social media details.

Follow people on Instagram and interact. A combination of meeting in-person and following up on social media is one of the easiest and fastest ways to make a connection.

But if you’re like me and love to hermit it up in your studio, don’t cry, just do more one-on-one meetings. You can choose the people you want to meet and simply see it as a great way to make new friends. A coffee is usually less loud and boring than standing around, and less awkward and intimidating than approaching strangers.

14. Be Prepared to Move

As mentioned in point 7 earlier—if you want to do high fashion and shoot for the biggest brands and magazines, you have to be in one of the major fashion cities, because that is where everything happens.

If your destination is within your country or you’re in the EU, then you mostly just need to find a new job in the new city. But if you are trying to move to a new country, it’s going to be more risky and expensive as you will have to apply for a visa. There are two common routes for this:

– Go to an art school and work on your portfolio at the same time. You have to decide if you can afford the time and money, but a good school is often a great way to network and meet rising artists, designers, and stylists.

– Get a tourist visa so you can stay in the city for a while. Go for meetings, do test shoots, network, and perhaps you will meet an agent. You will want to maintain your regular clients at home and fly back regularly for a steady income until you can get jobs in the new city.

15. Do Good Work, Stay True

The value of quality will show with time. No matter what you do, who you work with, or what people say. Do the best you can, be consistent, always do good work you can be proud of.

Fashion is a tough industry. It’s competitive and aggressive. And it is possible that despite all your hard work, you will continue to face rejection, over and over again.

Find the reason you want to do this right from the beginning. In your toughest moments, that reason will be what gets you through.

Don’t give up. Good luck!

Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography. You can also subscribe to my Patreon, where I create exclusive new content on a monthly basis.


Profoto Blog Series:
Commercial Photoshoot Walkthrough, from Request to Post-Production / 中文翻译 
Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization / 中文翻译
14 Steps to Improve Your Photography / 中文翻译
15 Tips On How To Break Into Fashion Photography
Zhang Jingna's Top 10 Photography Lighting Tools 
14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to Go Pro

Article first posted on the Profoto Blog on 25th November, 2014.

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