14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to go Pro

This is the sixth article in my Profoto Blog series

Hi everyone! In my last five articles for this series, I have covered the process of producing photoshoots, my favorite fashion photography lighting equipment, and tips on how to break into fashion photography. In this sixth and final piece, I would like to follow up on breaking into fashion photography and talk about how one develops into a professional photographer.

People arrive at their destinations through different paths, but many also share the same struggles, dilemmas, and pitfalls. I hope my thoughts will shed some light on what the path of going pro often entails. Let me know what you think at the end of the post! ...

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Top 10 Fashion Photography Lighting Tools

This is the fifth article in my Profoto Blog series

In my previous article on how to break into fashion photography, I mentioned a few lighting modifiers frequently used in the industry. In this piece, I would like to provide some examples of those modifiers used in my work and also share with you my thoughts on a range of other equipment that I favor in the studio. I hope you will find this article helpful!




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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.

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14 Steps on How to Improve Your Photography

If you have been shooting for a while, whether as a professional photographer or a hobbyist, how do you improve? This is one of the questions I am often asked when a photographer writes to me. With the last two articles, I covered commercial and personal photoshoot productions. For this one I want to turn things inward a little, and talk about how to improve ourselves and better our photography.

So, without further ado, here are my 14 steps to improve your photography! 

1. Never Be Satisfied

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Profoto Blog Series: Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization

My second article for Profoto~

Motherland Chronicles #50 – Eurydice

Having covered the process for a commercial assignment in my last article, this time round I’ll be talking about my approach to producing a personal shoot in a similar fashion, but starting earlier in the workflow, from conceptualization instead of simply receiving a brief, as one would a commercial job.

Before I begin, I’d just like to say that I see commercial and editorial work as a resume of a photographer’s skills and personal work as the mark of his or her identity. With this in mind, I think a photographer’s approach towards commercial and personal work should be separated as much as possible.

Of course, things like style and aesthetics will naturally bleed into one another, which is fine, but concept wise, a commercial work should always be done with a client’s products or services in mind, whereas personal work should be something a person wants to express or share with the world, thus making it personal.

In this post I’ll be covering the approach and considerations I put towards a typical production for one of my personal shoots. Unlike commercial projects, there are no set rules and requirements for how you do it. We may all work differently and this is my take. I hope you enjoy the read.

Motherland Chronicles #43 – Dreaming

1. Before You Begin

In most cases, we don’t have endless budgets to do whatever we want to do or an avenue of publication for personal work before it begins. Because of this, a lot of doing personal work boils down to challenges in getting people to work with you and finding time outside your main job to make it happen. Here are some key factors to consider in setting up the foundation of your series:

    1.    Theme and Concept
    2.    Your Team
    3.    Model Release
    4.    Model Search
    5.    Lighting and Style
    6.    Timeline
    7.    Budget
    8.    Image Terms

1.1 Theme and Concept

This is the starting point, whether it’s a broad theme or specific idea, it expresses what you want to say. It’s the reason you’re doing the project. Having decided on this, it will determine how you’ll approach your entire series in terms of style and affect how your production will be done and what will be involved.

Here are some of the images that inspired me for Motherland Chronicles:

Top: Antoon van Welie, Suemi Jun; Bottom: George Frederic Watts, Yoshitaka Amano

1.2 Your Team

Makeup, hair, and styling styles change from person to person. Finding the right people who can work with you on a regular basis is extremely important, as their work will play a key factor in how your images will look. A dream team requires failures and time to put together. Be patient, work with people you like and who like you.

If all fails, there’s always a little DIY that can be done by either you or the model. If you don’t have time to learn makeup, models should be able to do their own makeup in most situations, so you can go from there as a starting point before you have a full team.

1.3 Model Release

This is very important and non-negotiable. Without a model release you’re going to run into a lot of problems when you want to publish your work. Get it out of the way upfront, make sure the model has no problem with your release and get it signed after the shoot is done. I usually use a full release, but sometimes with model agencies it will be limited to specific art-related usage like photobook, exhibition, prints, etc.

1.4 Model Search

Finding the right models can be an arduous task. But just like finding a dream team, you have to be tenacious about it. Personally, I go through a few hundred pages of models on ModelMayhem, scout on the streets, ask friends and people I know, and sometimes even ask assistants to model for me or do self portraits.

Model agency is an option too, but rates can get complex and some may not be willing to sign an all-rights release. Keep that in mind when negotiating. And don’t forget, whether you find a person online or in person, always do a casting.

1.5 Lighting and Style

This is a decision you have to make early on. Lighting and post processing are going to be the unifying factors in tying the series together. Even if your theme and concept is consistent, if the style and lighting don’t flow as a series, the images will look like they don’t belong in the same body of work.

I had a number of different influences of art for my series, so I focused on keeping the lighting very soft to create a painterly effect:

Motherland Chronicles #47 – Womb, #49 – Umbral

1.6 Timeline

It’s easy to procrastinate or leave images in backlogs when you’re the only one supervising the final work. Make a deadline for yourself and commit to it — there is no quality without quantity — push yourself to meet each deadline and move on. You can come back and polish up the images at a later date when the project has concluded.

1.7 Budget

There can be a lot of expenses involved in a production, draw up an estimate to get an idea of the big picture. It can be very simple, such as the basic things you know you’ll need each time, for example: lighting rentals, transports, meals, maybe $50-100 for props or set production once in a while. It’s good to know how much you’ll need to complete the series so you can ration expenses accordingly.

1.8 Image Terms

Similar to the model release, you want to mention this upfront with everyone you’re working with. Clarify whether you’ll be publishing images whenever each shot is completed and send them to the team, or if you plan on saving it all for when you’ve completed the project and will be publishing it in book form.

Motherland Chronicles #4 - The Waiting

2. Photoshoot Key Points

The above are what should be established at the beginning of your series to be kept consistent throughout the project. Below, I will address some shoot-specific points, covering my thoughts and work process leading up to each one:

    1.    Inspiration and Research
    2.    Conceptualization
    3.    Mood Board
    4.    Composition Sketch
    5.    Mood and Lighting

2.1 Inspiration and Research

Based on the theme you have decided for your series, research and find things that click with you. It could be ideas, words or images, save them all and create an inspiration stockpile.

From there, you can pick out specific inspirations or ideas, either make a list of images you have in mind to accomplish upfront, or if you’re like me, go off the list based on what you feel like for each new shoot.

Usually one element is enough to serve as inspiration for a shot — it could be a color, an item, a time period, a location. For cataloging, if it’s just an image-based inspiration, making a folder and saving pictures to it is more than enough. If it’s something that requires purchase, rental or scouting, Pinterest is a good idea for bookmarking the things you find. It’s easy to see everything at one go and also keeps the direct links and descriptions for when you need them. (You can also make secret boards so your research is kept private.)

Use Pinterest to keep track of information and links to costumes and props.

One thing to remember for research — stay focused and stick to your original theme — it’s easy to get distracted by new things you discover as you browse and go through links, but not everything that you come across will sit or mesh well with what you’re creating.

2.2 Conceptualization

Based on the inspiration you’re working with, build upon that element to come up with the concept for how the image will look like in your mind.

For example, if you are using a medieval dress, think about the kind of character who will don that, the sort of look she will have and the sort of persona she will carry. Based on her story, think about the type of hair, makeup, accessories and setting that she will be in.

Pull references for each element so you can remind yourself or show your collaborators when those are needed. Images will always convey more easily than words. When it’s all done, tune it realistically to what is achievable and suitable to your lighting and style for the series.

Below is an example from the series inspired by candlelight from Georges de la Tour’s paintings (sourcing for the chamberstick prop can be seen in the Pinterest screencap above):

Motherland Chronicles #46 – The Seer
Georges de la Tour

2.3 Mood Board

Create a folder or presentation with references for the style of hair, makeup and styling for your team. I usually narrow down the references I have from the conceptualization step, just 2-3 images for each person is enough.

It will be a good idea to include some mood references for lighting and composition as well, so your team can have an idea of how you will be shooting the photo.

This is a good time for the team to feedback and make suggestions to you or tell you if something cannot be done, so you can work together on an alternative. Clear communications are extremely important in these, make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.

2.4 Composition Sketch

Composition to me is one of the most important elements in photography. It’s a combination of the model’s pose, your framing, and lighting.

You don’t need mad skills in drawing, and personally I’m only capable of stick-figure sketches, but they serve just as well. It may be a simple scribble, but most of how the image will look takes on a more concrete shape in my head here.

When you’re done, use it as a point of reference for shooting and layout, and your team will also be able to present the best side of the model for that framing. Of course, you don’t have to stick with it 100%. But with these determined beforehand, you will be able to shoot more efficiently and smoothly.

For the triptych “The Three Graces”, I had three incredible Venetian masks from the maker Casin dei Nobili in Venice. Concerned about composition, such as how the images will go well and flow together, sketching out the set was especially important here:

Motherland Chronicles #26, 27, 28 – The Three Graces

2.5 Mood and Lighting 

As I’ve mentioned above, for a series, besides the stylistic direction of the model and clothing, lighting is one thing that should be kept consistent to lock the series together.

If at any time you think you may need to light something differently for any reason, be sure to test it prior to the actual shoot. For my series, I stuck with large light sources for a painterly look in the studio, and often used a large Profoto Deep White Umbrella XL and diffuser, with a mix of black and textured backdrops from Savage Universal for an added painterly touch.

Profoto D1 Air 500 with Deep White Umbrella XL

3. The Photoshoot

With all the pre-production well-prepared, be confident going into the shoot. My advice on set is the same as what I’ve talked about in the previous commercial photoshoot walkthrough post, there are just three things I’d like to add on:

3.1 Details

Personal work is the best place to be a perfectionist. Make sure you have every single element down pat and that they work well together with one another. I personally do 2 looks for each shoot at the very max, and for more complicated setups, one look can easily take 5-7 hours.

Motherland Chronicles #34 – In the Secret Garden

3.2 Take Your Time

If you’re uncertain about something, take your time and work it out. This took me time to learn but I’ve come to realize that I rather not regret not trying something. That’s why working with a team you’re entirely comfortable with and can be understanding is so important. You don’t want to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or rushed if you need a few moments to think about your next step or decision. You don’t want to be done with a shoot and think, ‘I wish I had taken the time to try that different backdrop just now’.

3.3 Model Release

Remember to get model release signed!

4. Post-Shoot

Send images to your team once you’ve finished them. Prepare both high resolution images as well as web-res for social media posting.

Make sure you file away the full credits of your team, as well as documents such as model releases or any agreements and contracts. Good documentation and filing is very important and you will appreciate the time you took to do them when you need it one day.

5. Publicity

The most amount of work you have to do post-shoot is probably publicity. Since it’s personal work, you’re the one responsible for getting it seen and published for your team.

There are many avenues online — such as portfolio galleries like Behance, deviantART, and Flickr, and social media websites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But you should also prepare a press kit to send to blogs and news sites that feature works with similar themes to what you have done that you like.

If you get featured, share the news with your team! They’d love to know that their efforts are acknowledged and that people love the work you have done together. If the images are featured in print publications, don’t be shy about asking the editor for a hi-res PDF. It will definitely look better than the version you can get with your scanner, and will probably be something good to keep in your portfolio and resume for the future.

And that’s it! I hope you will have a good time shooting some personal work, if not, consider doing so! It’s so especially fulfilling and can be highly enjoyable, as well as being a great learning experience. Once again, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask. And if you’re interested in the personal series I’ve been working on, please check out the images below, the Motherland Chronicles website, and also behind the scenes on my blog!


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

More: photography articles, gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Adorama and Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you decide to make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles for this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you! 

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
- Top 10 Photography Lighting Tools 
- 14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to Go Pro


Zhang Jingna:

Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 26th May 2014.

Motherland Chronicles #21 – Her Resting Place

Motherland Chronicles #44 – Germaine

Motherland Chronicles #49 – Umbral

Motherland Chronicles #12 – Winter Rose

Motherland Chronicles #23 – Dive

Motherland Chronicles #38 – A Prayer

Motherland Chronicles #32 – Ea

Motherland Chronicles #41 – From the Ashes

Profoto Blog Series: How to Produce a Commercial Photoshoot, from Request to Post-Production

A while ago, I began writing a series of articles for the Profoto Blog. And because they're super duper nice people, I got permission to repost it on my own page. :D

Here is the first post in case you missed it, I would love to hear what you guys think. Or if you have any questions or a topic you would like to see me cover, do let me know! Thank you for reading~

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is how a commercial photo shoot is done. In this post I’ll be doing a little walk-through of the steps involved in one of my typical productions, from pre-shoot to final product. Whether you’re an upcoming photographer or just a hobbyist, I hope it sheds some light on the behind-the-scenes and you will find it an interesting read.

Before I start, I should also mention that typically for major clients, there is usually a large team of people working on a campaign. In those instances an executive producer will handle everything related to preparing the shoot, and thus often, all that’s needed of the photographer is to prepare his treatment (more on that in a bit), show up, and shoot.

However, for many other jobs, it’s becoming increasingly popular these days for the photographer to quote and execute the full-scale production of the photoshoot themselves. This post will cover a project’s process on this scale.

1. How It Begins – Quotation Request

It begins with a quotation request from the client or advertising agency, for the sake of consistency I’m going to use the agency as contact point in this post. The typical email will include details such as the following:

  • Date of shoot
  • Date of ad launch/deadline
  • Number of images
  • Usage terms (for how long, which medias)
  • Visual reference/layout for how the ad will look like.
  • What they’d like you to include for quotation. (Is it just photography and usage? Or also studio, stylist, hair, makeup, models?)

From here, I’ll use the above as reference to create a checklist after confirming my availability. It’s important that I can commit to the days I’ll estimate to need for production, as well as to be completely available on the date of shoot itself.

Following that, it’s time to request for rates from my team and vendors, the usual costs may include:

  • Studio/equipment/catering
  • Retouching
  • Stylist
  • Wardrobe (the stylist will usually give you an estimate)
  • Hair stylist
  • Makeup artist
  • Model

There may be other things as well of course, depending on the scale and complexity of a shoot. Sometimes you may need a location scout, casting director, or a producer who will assist you in finding the props, things, and people you need, but other times you can probably accomplish those on your own. So while at this, remember to charge a production fee for the days you’re spending on production as well (if you can). After these costs have been added up with your photography rates, you wait to hear back from the agency.

2. The Next Step – Photographer’s Treatment

This happens two ways, sometimes it’s requested during the job bid, sometimes it’s part of pre-production after you’ve been confirmed. (I highly recommend billing 50% upon confirmation.)

For those unfamiliar, the photographer’s treatment is a presentation of your mood boards detailing all the photographic aspects of the shoot, such as:

  • Lighting and mood
  • Color treatment
  • Makeup and hair styles
  • Model’s poses/expressions
  • Camera angles/framing

These will end up being a part of the pre-production deck for client during pre-production meetings, which will also include photos of models, wardrobe, location, call sheet, layouts, etc.

It may sound a little weird to those who’ve never done it before, that the photographer would have to go into detail with the shots in this manner. Hasn’t the client already agreed to what’s in the visual reference anyway?

Well, sometimes it feels like it has been, but sometimes the agency/client just need to make sure you get it too. And sometimes, because we’re good at our jobs, we know exactly what and how that drawing or composite photo mashup will look in our end product (and it’s not going to be exactly like the drawing or photo mashup), so this is to help us express what we’ll be doing before we can provide the finished work for the ad.

The treatment will help avoid misunderstandings and mismatched expectations (I’ll always mention the things I’ll try to achieve, but also highlight the word ‘try’ for more challenging elements. You can’t control 100% of outcome all the time. So do expectation management now.)

3. Casting

When the model agencies send you quotations for the job, they would often have attached packages of their available models already. From there you can shortlist the faces you like and arrange for a casting, don’t be afraid to request for more options if you don’t see anyone that fits the look and feel you’re going for.

I want to emphasize here that casting is an extremely important part of production. In finding the perfect model and face (and attitude!), your job will be a lot easier on set and you’ll achieve great pictures with so much more efficiency. It also ensures you that you’re up to date on exactly how the model looks like and no surprises will happen (imagine if they can’t fit into the clothes)!

4. Your Team

This one is relatively straightforward. You should already have a few regulars you love working with, whether from doing editorials or test shoots. Unless the client requests specific names for the job, there is no reason to try getting someone ‘bigger’ or ‘better’ — your team has stuck with you for editorials and test shoots, you have a good rapport and know exactly how each other work, you want to thank them for their time and ensure you have a supporting team behind yourself. Hire them.

5. Risks and Backups

Almost every shoot will have a small chance of something going wrong, be it camera failure, last minute cancellations, models falling sick, or the studio becoming unavailable. Always make sure you have a backup, a second and third option on hand for someone you can call.

As the productions get larger, there will be more and more external factors to consider. Understand that certain things are simply out of your control, such as weather challenges, location limitations, travel difficulties, etc. Evaluate the risks, discuss your concerns with the ad agency and formulate plans for what to do case things don’t go as planned.

Whatever happens, stay calm and work it out in an orderly fashion. In the absolute, absolute worst case scenario, it will be a lesson learnt so you can prepare and handle it better should a similar situation arise in the future. We all start somewhere and will have to make some mistakes, so long as you learn something from it, it’s not the end. Stay positive!

6. Pre-production Meetings (PPM)

You have finished your treatment presentation, cast and shortlisted the models, confirmed your call time, studio, hair and makeup team, and your stylist has prepared a list of options for wardrobe. You sit down at the meeting with the creative team and client to go over details for your ideas and shooting schedules. These meetings will make sure that everyone is on the same page, so if you have any questions and concerns, address them!

7. Equipment Rentals & Final Checks

When everything has been confirmed, I usually have three checklists I check off from:

  • The crew: pretty much everyone that receives the call sheet, to confirm they know their call times and the shooting schedule (and that the date hasn’t been changed.)
  • The vendors: deliveries, locations, etc. Whether it’s catering, additional equipment/props, or locations we’re renting by the hour, confirm all the bookings.
  • Equipment: a pack list of my own things to bring, as well the rental list for equipment I’ll be using.

Double and triple check you’ve got everything!

8. Pre-light

Once all that is set, the last thing is light test. You may not need to do one if the visuals for lighting and mood are something you do on a regular basis, as you’ll already know all the nuances to those setups quite well. Personally, I like to play around with lighting for both editorials and personal work, so when I know there’s something very specific that I have to get exactly right for for a campaign, I always spend a couple hours at the studio testing the setup. It’s best to be completely prepared for the shoot, you’ll feel better too.

What equipment I use will depend heavily on the approved visuals. There’s a lot that can be done with the same gear just by varying up the set up, ratio, distance, and processing. For me, the quality of light itself depends on just a few quintessential lightshapers I always like to use:

At this point, you’re probably thinking that this list is so because this is a Profoto blog post, which hey, it is. But truth is I’ve been renting Profotos since I started shooting 8 years ago, and after trying a number of different brands, I realized I love the product design and durability of Profotos the best. They are intuitive and easy to set up, and just feel (and are) so much more sturdy and rugged for taking a little abuse on busy sets. The most important factor though, is probably its consistency and reliability. You have no idea how frustrating it is shooting with strobes that skip on flashes during movement shots. It’s bad to happen on an editorial shoot, but devastating on a commercial set, I like keep to quality here at all costs.

And so, usually from the above list, I’ll pick out my key light, find a suitable backdrop, and set up the light test. After some tweaking, changing of backdrops, and sometimes adding and removing lights, I’ll arrive at what is the perfect combination for what I need. I then mark down the positions of light, model, backdrop, and write down my settings. After that, I do a colour processing test on the spot and save the settings to my shooting computer.

It sounds like a lot to do, but my motto is to over-prepare than under. This gives me more confidence and a peace of mind for the actual shoot, and I’ll save time in setting up as well.

9. Shoot Day

It’s your big day! Arrive early, have some coffee, buy some donuts and bites for everyone, we all love some yummy food to start the day. :D

This is where you just do your thing — be confident, you’re thoroughly prepared and ready.

Hang around to check on hair and makeup every now and then just to make sure it’s exactly what you and the client want. Don’t be afraid to pull the model away for light tests. Foundation and products will affect the model’s skin and hair colour and textures in pictures, allowing yourself moments for these tweaks will ensure that there would be minimal downtime when the model’s fully prepped and ready to shoot.

That aside, just remember that your art and creative directors and stylist are your best friends on set. You’ll have each other’s backs should there be any hiccups or problems, stay calm and polite. If you really get upset about something, talk to people privately, sort it out. Tension and bad atmosphere is contagious just as a happy mood is, you don’t want everyone uncomfortable and unable to do their job. Also don’t forget to have assistants time-check to stay on schedule.

At the end of the day (or as you shoot), the art director may have already picked out a selection of shortlisted images. Go over the pictures with them and vote your favourites too, it’s a team project, but it’s your work after all.

10. Post Production

Naturally, how much work there is to be done here depends on the complexity of the visual. Just let your retoucher do their thing (or your thing, if you’re retouching it!), make sure markups and notes for retouching are detailed and clear, and any hours and rounds of revisions that exceed your original quote are billed for. From there on after the final image delivery, the rest is up to the ad agency. (Bill for remaining 50% here.)

11. The Final Things

One last checklist:

  • Get high resolution artwork from ad agency
  • Send files to your team
  • Request for invoices from your team and vendors for those you haven’t paid, pay them

When the campaign is launched, remember to get the high resolution artwork from the ad agency. You may not be a big fan of the ad, it wasn’t shot in your style and you won’t include it in your portfolio, so why bother? Well, you never know when you’ll need something for a pitch or presentation one day. It’s also just good habit to keep an archive of all your work and to stay organized. When I was applying for my O-1 visa two years ago, my commercial portfolio was one of the most important things in the application.

And since we’re on the topic of organization, file all the documents from the shoot as well! I like to keep all the casting details, lighting setups, crew and vendor information saved and organized. Once again, you never know when you’ll need a contact or reference back to an old project one day.

Last but not least, don’t forget to have your team invoice you so you can pay them! Freelancers can get lazy about paperwork, if you let it lapse, it’s only going to become a bigger pain later on. Do it right now!

And that’s it! I hope this was helpful and offers some insights to what goes on behind the scenes from my end. Leave a comment below if you guys have any more questions!


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

More: photography articles, gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you choose make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!

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
- Top 10 Photography Lighting Tools 
- 14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to Go Pro

Zhang Jingna:

Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 3rd April 2014.