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Understanding the Fashion Industry
A dedicated fashion photographer knows the fashion industry inside and out. That does not just mean what the trends are now, but also the industry’s history and how fashion has evolved over the centuries. Come armed with a deep understanding of fashions and styles from many different eras. Have an understanding of key fashion designers, fashion houses, and various image-makers through the years. Know the makeup and hairstyle trends throughout history, and study fine art and portraiture to know how fashion was portrayed before photography.
Magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar are considered the industry standards when it comes to fashion editorial photography. You should also look through more niche and independent fashion magazines, where fashion editors are making bold choices, like The Gentlewoman, Fantastic Man, CR Fashion Book, Purple, AnOther, and AnOther Man. See what style of fashion photography resonates with you. Create a moodboard using the pages and images in these magazines—that will help inspire creativity for your own photoshoots. Pay attention to who the photographers are, as different magazines have a different roster of professional photographers. Looking through a wide variety of magazines will give you a better idea of who is photographing for which magazines and what photographic styles different magazines tend to select.
You can also look back in time at old magazines or books dedicated to the old masters of fashion photography. Helmut Newton, for example, is known for his groundbreaking lighting techniques and use of shadow in black and white photographs. Meanwhile, Mario Testino made a name for himself by marrying bold, colorful, and sometimes controversial imagery with luxury products and high fashion models. Other photographers to look for include Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Irving Penn, Peter Lindberg, Rankin, Ellen von Unwerth, and the duo Inez and Vinoodh. Looking through images of past great photographers provides touchstones when developing your own style.
New York, Paris, London, and Milan are known as the world’s “Big Four” fashion capitals—not just because of the abundant street style but because they are home to the fashion designers, fashion editors, magazines, and, most important, the monoliths of the multi-trillion dollar fashion industry. If you are looking for a career as a fashion photographer, these are the best places for finding work with the fashion industry. These four cities, and specifically New York, Paris, and London, all have a very high cost of living and frequently top “World’s Most Expensive Cities” lists, so starting a career as a professional photographer, and particularly a fashion photographer, will not be easy. As you build a name for yourself, you will need to take jobs for little or no pay, supplementing your income with a day job. The jobs that you do get in one of those big cities, however, will most likely have more creative freedom and name recognition.
If you cannot move to one of these cities, that does not mean your career as a fashion photographer is over before it began, it just means you will need to be more creative in finding fashion shoots. Los Angeles has recently become the epicenter for cutting-edge fashion in the United States, and has an industry size nearly on-par with that of New York. Many mid-sized cities, like Columbus and Nashville, also have very robust fashion industries. In secondary markets like these, an up-and-coming fashion photographer may have an easier time breaking into the industry, with quicker access to national fashion brands and regional fashion magazines. Keep in mind, however, that the amount of work may be less and the creative scope might be more limited.
Producing a Fashion Shoot
As the photographer, you are the director of the shoot and everyone will look to you for guidance. This can mean simultaneously telling the model how to pose while making sure the next look is getting prepared properly while also making sure that you are getting the best shot. Everyone, and especially the model, needs to feel comfortable on set and it’s your job to remain calm—otherwise the negative atmosphere will impact your images. It can be a lot of multitasking, but also thrilling and adrenaline-inducing.
No matter who you are or where your career as a fashion photographer is, always come to a shoot prepared and organized. That means having a strong idea of the creative direction for the shoot, what clothes you are going to shoot, and a detailed shot list so that everyone knows what to be doing and when to be doing it. You need to be thinking ten steps ahead—will you need any props for the model to hold? Do you need a fan or leaf blower to create a windswept look? Do you need to use multiple different lighting techniques or will one type suffice?
When starting out as a fashion photographer, you will need some help from your friends to build your portfolio. Choose friends who have a good selection of fashionable clothes and who look great in front of a camera—they will probably be flattered that you asked and more than willing to help. A fashion photographer always needs assistants on a shoot, so utilize other friends to help set up shots, adjust the lighting, organize the clothes, or style the model.
Choosing a Location
Any location can be perfect for a photoshoot, and there are many factors to consider when choosing a location. Consider the clothes you are shooting and what story they tell—if you are shooting t-shirts and crop tops in bright colors, where does that story take place? If you are shooting a cruise or resort collection, is there a sunny, summery location that can help convey the sense of how and where the clothes should be worn? Designers and brands often refer to their specific market as their “girl”—who is the “girl” wearing the clothes you are shooting, and what location would appeal to them?
A studio is an extremely flexible place to do a fashion shoot, since it can act as a backdrop for practically any type of clothing. Studios often have the right lighting equipment, like scrims, softboxes, umbrellas, octabanks, beauty dishes, etc. However, studio rentals can be cost-prohibitive, especially if you are building your portfolio or do not yet have the budget from a commercial or editorial shoot.
A great alternative to a studio is to use your home. Choose places in your home that have excellent light and are visually interesting—like a corner by a window. Be cognizant of how visually busy the background is so as not to distract from the clothes. If you do not feel there is a good space in your home, hang a white sheet to create a plain backdrop.
Shooting outdoors is fantastic for lighting and for stunning backdrops—what is more beautiful than nature? The environment can be more difficult to control, since an animal or person may wander into your shoot, or the weather might change unexpectedly. Come over-prepared for anything that might happen, like with waterproof materials for your camera and equipment.
Best Camera and Equipment for Fashion Photography
Because of the versatility and creative nature of the genre, the best camera for fashion photography is really just the one you already own—be it a digital Hasselblad (which start at around $40K) or your iPhone. While not absolutely necessary, for a beginner it is probably best to start with a digital camera for the ease of use and ability to take a large quantity of pictures. As well, there is no need to purchase or develop film, which also limits the number of images you can snap. As you become more versed in fashion photography and potentially start bringing in editorial or commercial clients for your work, you may want to invest in a good-quality digital camera, such as a Nikon D7100 or the Canon 70D.
If there is any equipment that a budding fashion photographer needs (other than a camera), a tripod is crucial—even one for the iPhone—since you can better direct the model and their poses with the camera steadied in place. Feel free to take the camera off the tripod and experiment freehand, but try to keep one around just in case.
Fashion photography is not all serious, so have fun with it and find what works for you. It is a great creative outlet and a wonderful means to work in commercial photography.