Fashion and fine art photographer Zhang Jingna has previously written immensely popular articles about commercial shoots, personal projects and on how to improve your photography. This time she will share 15 tips on how to break into fashion photography. Here is how to make it, in Jingna’s own words.
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 will 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
Just as a photographer should know how to operate a camera, a fashion photographer should possess a basic knowledge of fashion. A good understanding of the subject will go a long way towards helping your career, so I recommend studying the following:
– The history of fashion
– Fashion from different periods and eras
– Designers, icons, 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. Save the names of people whose styles you feel for, 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.
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. Keep in mind, your job is to assist. People won’t like it if you try to get the stylist’s number unsolicited, or ask to be Facebook friends with the editor. Make friends with fellow assistants from the creative crew, as you will have 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.
5. Learn Fashion Retouching
Many photographers retouch their own images, but many also send the work 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, and a cursory Google search will bring you 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 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 share with fellow photographers.
If you don’t yet have a team, start off simple and small. Work with friends, do self-portraits. Show what you can do in terms of style and concepts with what you have, then approach freelancers and other aspiring creatives 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 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. 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:
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 top-tier photographers, magazines that you submit to for publication will almost never pay you other than with credit.
If you don’t live in one of the major fashion cities though, you are luckier in the sense 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 eventually lead to commercial work. The downside is a lack of strong creatives to work with compared to in a bigger city, and the constraints on creative freedom in a smaller, more commercial, and oftentimes conservative market.
8. Do Your Paperwork
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
What I prefer to do is have a folder for each and every thing mentioned above, and then organize the files by year, sometimes with subfolders.
You can do it however you like, but setting this up systematically will save you a lot of headaches down the road.
9. When to Say No and When Not to Say No
As you advance in your career, you’ll want to be selective about what you do. Accepting anything and everything for the sake of simply showing that you are doing something will dilute your direction and quality of work.
But in the very beginning, you should try as many different things as possible.
You 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 down the line.
10. Do Personal Work
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 appealing 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. Keep the individual picture updates to social media and save the contact list for major news with a newsletter periodically.
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, do more one-on-one meetings. You can choose the people you want to meet, and see it as another way to make 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
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 you don’t live somewhere close, then you have to move.
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 since you will have to get 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 try to find 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, your reason is what will get you through.
Don’t give up. Good luck!