Some of you who read this are already full-time photographers with years of experience, while some of you are just getting started. But regardless of where you are on your journey, it’s always valuable to hear what someone else learned along the way. So, with no further ado, we present fashion photographer Zhang Jingna‘s 14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to go Pro.
Hi everyone! In my last five articles, I have covered the process of producing photoshoots, my favorite Light Shaping Tools, 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!
1) Learn to be Prepared
The heading may sound silly, but for the most of us, we have no idea as to what we’re doing when we first start learning.
On the day I did my first shoot with my first camera, I took it out of its packaging, pressed the shutter, and was greeted with the message: “No Card”.
I’ve always been a more hands-on learner, and prefer jumping into things and learning on the go. However, I’ve learned that gaining a basic understanding of something new before diving in helps manage expectations and allow things to go much more smoothly. Google tips and how-to’s before you try something you haven’t done before, there is usually always some good advice out there, even amongst the seemingly bad ones.
2) Learn with What You Have
My first shoots were self-portraits, pictures of friends, and of my younger sister. If you can photograph normal people and create compelling images, you know you are on the right track in terms of aesthetics and skill-building. As you improve, you will find that people will want to work with you based on your ability to achieve good work with non-models.
My first purchase after my camera was a second-hand hot light, also known as a continuous light. I had endless questions about which strobes to buy or lenses to add to my collection. But at the end of the day, I learned that the 18-55mm kit lens was a decent range to work with as a new photographer, and that a hot light provided me with a good deal of room in terms of experimentation. I mastered shooting with one light, and many of my early works were shot with it alone in my family’s living room.
2) Be Genuine and Do Things Because You Want to
My first model agency test happened through someone I was assisting. The photographer was shooting portraits of elderly people, I was interested in his work and wanted to know what the shoots were like, so I volunteered. One day, he set up a shoot with an agency model and encouraged me to do something on my own. I was given time to set up after he was done. The model’s agency loved my pictures, and they have continued sending me girls ever since.
Do things that you are genuinely interested in. Don’t do things with mixed intentions, ulterior motives or expect reciprocal favors.
People will remember the person who genuinely wanted to be a part of something that they cared about. They will think of you when something perfect for you comes along. This is how opportunities happen.
4) Work with People Who Respect You
My first commercial client was Mercedes Benz Taiwan. I was 19 and knew nothing about shooting an advertising job on this level, but the team at Ogilvy was respectful and professional, and one of my pictures was used in the reference mood boards, so despite my age and inexperience, the job was smooth-sailing and the images came out beautiful.
Mutual respect is important between client and artist. It’s difficult as a newcomer when you are young and have little track record. It may not be easy, but always choose the clients that respect you and the work that you do. The alternative is usually disrespect, being blamed for someone else’s screw ups and being unable to defend your fledging reputation. In the early years, it’s extremely difficult to come back from these types of fallouts.
Pick the jobs where you can confidently achieve results in and do tests to make sure that you can really do them well. Deliver every time, you build a solid reputation this way.
5) Work Harder than Anyone You Know
It sounds obvious, but it’s very easy to be distracted by the ample amount of time that comes with freelancing, fashion parties, and social networking.
You may think that you work hard, but there is usually room to work harder. This affects things to an exponential degree when you are just starting out and can afford to do as much work as necessary; it directly impacts your experience level, improves your expertise and skills—from working with people, models, managing different teams, to networking, getting more credits, and putting your name out there. The sheer volume of work itself will distill into quality. You cannot achieve quality without quantity.
6) Persist with Your Own Style
One of the best pieces of advice I received early on was to not give up my personal style and work. Like many new photographers, I would look at the glossy pages of fashion magazines and wonder if my work was just not ‘editorial’ enough, if I ought to try shooting something similar instead.
A stylist said to me: it didn’t matter. Everyone could shoot what was the popular thing. But it was what my work represented that clients would want to hire me for. It could make it harder to start my career, but I wouldn’t just be part of a fad. In reality, this made for an easier start. It was harder trying to shoot like everyone else when I first moved to New York. Don’t do it.
Also, don’t confuse this with stubbornness and a refusal to listen to others. Be humble, be receptive. Listen to anyone and everyone. Make sound judgements on what information should matter to you. There can be truths from even the unlikeliest of people.
7) Master Lighting
You don’t have to know about every piece of lighting equipment and setup out there, but there are a few you should be good at and can use at any time to create a great image.
I started with one hot light, learned how to use a single light source and worked with the few modifiers I could easily access, like tracing paper, barn doors, and bouncing light off walls.
When I started shooting at a well-equipped studio, I went through different Light Shaping Tools to find my favorites. I fell in love with the lush light and shadows from octabanks, the evenness of giant umbrellas, the quality of contrast from the Beauty Dish, and the flexibility of the strip softbox.
I loved to use octabanks for portraits and timeless images; giant umbrellas for full-body fashion photos; the beauty dish was perfect for closeups and beauty shots, and the strip softboxes were versatile enough for being both key and rim lights. Each of these I wrote down to remember, so if clients or editors wanted to emulate something, and it was just not working whether due to hair, makeup, styling, or even the lighting in combination, I could always fall back to my go-to setups knowing that the light would be perfect, and the image beautiful.
Some ask me what exactly they should get for their work, I can’t answer that. Each one of us shoots differently. Try modifiers individually to learn exactly how each one shapes and affects the light for what you want to shoot; experiment with different configurations once you are comfortable with one light, build up your setups from there. You have to be the one that decides what works for you.
8) Manage Your Branding
There are many aspects of branding, the visual one is designed, the image one is managed.
The most important thing is to do good work. It sounds obvious, but environment, stress, and complacency can affect people’s choices, expectations and delivery.
Never compromise on the dignity of your work for money or someone else. Of course, no matter how careful a person is, there are times when it is out of their control. In such circumstances, take it as a lesson and don’t work with the problem client or person again.
Always remember that achieving the best work you can should be your highest priority as the photographer.
9) Business, Marketing, Networking
Make genuine relationships when networking. People often ask me how to break into fashion or network, or how I market myself. I never think that I actively do any of these things. My work will never appeal to everyone that views it, so I don’t waste time trying to win people who don’t care for it. When I did, it almost always ended in drama and disaster.
Spend time with those who genuinely enjoy the work you do. Have productive critique sessions with your friends. These people will be there when you need help. Other people will be there when you have the money or brand name jobs, and ditch you in a flash whenever it suits them.
10) Have Your Own Gear
Renting is efficient, but you should get your own gear once you can afford it. The ease of shooting whenever you want is highly conducive for learning, experimenting with, and creating new styles and lighting setups.
I bought a Profoto D1 500 Air, an octabank, black foamcores, and a roll of cinefoil after I moved to New York. I later added another three D1 Monolights, two strip softboxes, a Beauty Dish, and a set of Umbrella Deep XLs. I wouldn’t have experimented as much as I did without these; an effort which has been vital to evolving my body of work in the the years since.
11) Don’t Gossip
Not so much a tip, but something I really want to address; we all gossip to a degree, it’s fine to do it with your friends, but some things are harmful, private, personal, and shared with you in confidence. Some of these things can be used to blackmail, break careers and destroy lives. If someone trusted you with information like this, don’t use it for gossip. Don’t become a part of this cycle of pettiness and toxicity. If more people try to stop the chain, perhaps it will be possible to make the industry less malicious one day.
12) Organize Your Paperwork
I have talked about this in other posts, but I’ll emphasize it again: paperwork is important.
File your invoices, model releases, contracts, pitches, mood boards and correspondences, and organize them properly. Some of these efforts ensure that you can find what you need easily—like tracking an outstanding invoice by keeping all unpaid jobs in the same folder, or filing a model release when a publication requires it for your photographs; other positive habits will make sure that when you run into legal troubles—and you will—you can find everything you need in your defense (or offense).
13) Legal Matters
One of the most unpleasant aspects of becoming a freelance professional is having to deal with legal matters on one’s own without the support of a company’s legal counsel. There will be those who want to sue you for anything and everything imaginable. There will be those who infringe upon your copyright and feel no remorse whatsoever and want you to feel bad.
I’ve had people who wanted to sue because I missed one email, forgetting to send a high resolution file after an image was published; I’ve had people who wanted to claim ownership of my work, because a photographer can’t possibly own the full copyright of a photo; I’ve had companies that outright didn’t pay for a whole year of my services and went on to default on small claims rulings after; and I’ve had companies who infringed upon my copyright and brushed off requests for reasonable payment, only to later have to pay excess plus lawyer fees after I finally engaged legal help.
It sucked and I avoided dealing with these things for a very long time, let go of many things because I felt helpless, or was simply too focused on making new images to collect on pay I never received. Sometimes, I hid under my blanket and cried, it felt like it was me against the world and everyone hated me. If I dared to defend myself, I would be this big bad person who was possibly making a big deal out of nothing. “It’s just a photo,” as people liked to say. I felt wronged and hurt and it was just plain shitty. Emotional stress is a real thing. This was akin to being bullied and knowing you can’t talk about it.
Find a lawyer who cares. You can Google, ask your friends, or go to meetups focusing on copyright in your area. The first or second lawyer may not be the right one. Some will advise and say that your photo work is worth nothing. Keep looking. Find people who practice in copyright and IP law, people who care for artists and creators. They will take care of you and be a buffer for so much emotional stress, you will ask yourself why you didn’t do it sooner.
14) Be the Advocate of Your Own Dreams
Be unafraid, honest and true. Follow your passions and pursue your interests relentlessly.
People ask how certain things happened for me, the answer is always: I was interested in something to a ridiculous degree, and then pursued it passionately and unashamedly despite the thought of other people’s judgements.
You have to pave your own way for your own opportunities. No one will help you if you don’t fight for it yourself.
You hold your fate in your hands. Be a good person. Don’t give up.