Do you dream of sitting on the sidelines of a fashion show in New York City with your camera in hand? How about having one of your best photos on the cover of Vogue magazine? Maybe your dream of working as a fashion photographer has a little less day to day stress. Regardless of how far you want to take it, know that becoming a fashion photographer is no easy task.
How does someone work as a fashion photographer? Here are the things you need to know and have if you want to work as a fashion photographer:
- Photography skills
- Photo editing skills
- Photography education
- Knowledge of fashion fundamentals
- Gear up
- Ability to travel
- Build up portfolio
- Consider an apprenticeship or internship
- Build your connections
- Take jobs that increase your skills
Whether you are just getting started as a photographer or have years of experience under your belt, there is still a lot that you need to know and prepare yourself for. Let’s check it out.
What You Need to Work as a Fashion Photographer
The hardest part of any career path is learning everything that you need to know in order to be successful. Fashion photography is no exception. From knowing the basics of how to use a camera to retouching photos with editing software, you have to learn a lot in order to know what’s ahead of you.
Here’s more detailed information about each skill you’ll need and each step you should consider.
1. Basic Photography Skills
In order to work as a fashion photographer, you have to have photography skills. Shocking, I know. Knowing how to work your camera and lighting is essential for fashion photography. Because this job requires you to make the products look their very best, you need to know how to do that with a camera.
Mastering photography takes years and years of experience. But don’t get discouraged if you are still starting out, just practice and photograph as often as you can.
If you are just starting out, you might want to consider taking classes either online, at school, or at a local rec center. These classes are usually taught by seasoned photographers, so they can also teach you about the industry.
If you don’t want to spend the money on courses, there are a ton of free online resources, such as YouTube and blogs, that can teach you the basics as well as some tips and tricks. Run out and find a few.
However, the best practice that you can get is just to go out and do it. Photography is a skill honed over time, so you might as well get started!
2. Basic Photo Editing Skills
Photographers of all skill levels also need to have photo editing skills. Most photographers use programs like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to edit their photos. Whether you are working for yourself or freelancing, you will have to edit your own photos.
These editing programs allow you to touch up your photos. For instance, fixing the lighting or covering up blemishes on your models. You can also add effects to your photos, to enhance certain features like makeup or colors.
Unfortunately, this software isn’t free can be quite expensive depending on the suite you need. Adobe has an application called Creative Cloud which gives you access to multiple Adobe software programs, including Photoshop and Lightroom. They have multiple payment options, but the best option is their entry level (around $20.99 a month) plan.
Learning how to use these programs is also quite a task. There is a lot to learn about these programs and how to use them. Most photography courses will teach you the basics of these programs. You can also use YouTube and the Internet as sources to figuring them out and learning the editing basics.
Knowing how to edit or retouch photos well will make you more appealing to employers. They will want someone who can do everything, from photographing a shoot to editing the photos. Not to mention learning retouching can help you personalize the shot a lot better. So, learning how to edit is a valuable skill that will take you further in your career.
3. Do I Need to Go to School?
To be a fashion photographer, you don’t necessarily have to go to school, but it does have some benefits. You can learn a lot from photography professors aside from just how to use a camera. Typically, they have been in the business for a very long time, so they know the struggles of getting a job in the field. They can be a really good resource for you to gain connections.
If you decide to go to a college or university and study photography, that is also a great way for you to build your portfolio. With all of the photo assignments that you will have to do for your classes, it’s a great way for you to start practicing and building your portfolio.
Universities also hook their students up with networking events and gallery opportunities that you couldn’t find anywhere else. If there are no good photography schools around that interest you, don't discount art school.
A lot of interested artists are actually turning to websites which offer free or cheap online classes, such as Skillshare or Masterclass. These kinds of classes let you learn at your own pace and cost significantly less than a college. The only downside to these is that you lose the one-on-one connection with a professor or even your classmates.
Some universities offer photography as an elective, which you can take on the side for fun. However, if you want to make a career out of it, you will need more than one class a semester.
Some community colleges or even rec centers offer photography courses that you can take just for fun. It is recommended that if you really want to take a class in a classroom setting that you check out those resources before going straight to college.
In short, you don’t have to go into higher education to be a fashion photographer. But you will have more access to resources, like equipment and connections with professors. It’s not impossible to make it on your own, but you will have to put a little more work in.
4. The Fundamentals of Fashion
This may seem obvious to some people, but in order to be a fashion photographer, you have to have to know how fashion works. You need to know all of the ins and outs of the fashion industry, from business to design.
As a minimum, you must know:
- The heavy hitters in the industry
- Known magazines and/or publications
- Current events, styles, and designs
- History and best practices
- Fashion terms
Your job as a fashion photographer is to show off clothing and apparel as best as you can. Aside from knowing how just to make the products look good on camera, you have to know how they work.
Knowing how the products look on the model isn’t enough; you have to know how they move. For instance, you have to know how to catch the product in the right light and how it moves with the model. Again, your job is to make the product look as best as possible, so knowing how they work is essential in doing so.
You will also want to know the most important people in the fashion world, from the classic designers to new and up and coming designers. Staying up to date with fashion news will help keep you busy with new assignments and things to look out for.
Building your fashion know-how will help you along the way in your career, as well. Employers in fashion magazines and companies will love that you know about the fashion world, and it will set you apart from the rest of the competition.
5. Your Own Gear
One of the most important things for a fashion photographer is their gear. Since you’ll probably be doing mostly freelance work, you’ll be expected to have your own gear.
Here is a list of the basic things that every photographer should have:
- Camera (preferably a DSLR)
- Studio Lights
- SD Cards
- Back-up Batteries
- A High-Quality Camera Bag
- Editing Software (i.e. Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom)
Good quality gear, like cameras and lights, can rack up a bill for a photographer. However, investment in good gear will go a long way. It is easy to find most of these items for cheap on the Internet. But most of the time, cheap prices come with the risk of cheap quality. It is always better to invest a little extra cash to ensure you’re getting the best quality.
You should also get insurance on some of your gear if you can, especially your camera. Despite how bulky and heavy they can be, cameras are actually quite delicate pieces of equipment and are easily breakable. It is easy to accidentally break your lens or crack the inside of the camera.
If you can, you should buy insurance on your camera, so if anything does happen to it, you can quickly replace it. The last thing that you want is to have to wait months before being able to photograph again because you had to save up for another camera.
6. Reliable Transportation
A huge part of being a photographer, no matter what kind you do, is traveling from shoot to shoot, so it is really important that you have your own reliable transportation. If you are working as a freelancer, most of the time you don’t get to pick the location of your shoots, and you may have to travel.
Public transportation can be incredibly unreliable, as sometimes the bus or the train is delayed, and that can throw off your whole shoot. Your best bet is to have a car of your own if you can. Having your own car lets you have the freedom to take yourself from shoot to shoot when you need to without having to rely on another schedule.
7. Practice Makes Perfect
Once you have learned all that you need to about how to actually take photos, it is time that you get a real job or create one. And to do that, you’ll need practice. As with any skill, you will have to practice and practice to make yourself a master.
Take a lot shots and experiment with new things. An by a lot, I mean A LOT. Try to get to a point where you have at least 3, maybe even 5 shoots that contain a small collection of photos you are proud to show off.
Here are some easy ways for you to practice your photography when you are just starting out:
7.1 Set Up Photoshoots With Your Friends
Getting your friends to model for you is a great way for you to practice your photography, especially photographing people. We all have a few friends that we know who would love to be in front of the camera posing.
You should also set up themes for these photoshoots to keep things interesting. This is a fun way to break the ice if your friends start getting bored or if your other friends don't like to be on camera.
When you are thinking of different themes, you can even have your friends wear different styles of clothes and makeup so you can practice photographing multiple styles as well. It can be a win-win and everyone will have fun in the process!
Even if you can’t find a job freelancing in fashion photography, you should try to explore other styles of photography. When you are first starting out in photography, you should take every opportunity that presents itself. The more work that you do, the more you will be practicing, regardless if you are getting paid or not.
Here is a list of a few other kinds of photography that you can get into for freelancing:
- Product Photography – photographing products for businesses can pay a lot and a good side gig.
- Portrait Photography – taking photos for people’s headshots, resumes, or even graduations is a great way to stay behind the camera and still get paid.
- Wedding Photography – photographing weddings is huge business and you can get paid a lot of money for photographing for one night if you're up to the potential stress.
- Real Estate Photography – some real estate agents or companies will hire photographers to go out and take photos of the houses they are planning on selling for their listings.
There are plenty of opportunities to get freelancing jobs. You can start off with the people that you know. For instance, see if anyone in your family or if any of your friends are graduating or getting married and ask if you can photograph their engagement photos or graduation photos. Start small and build from there.
Once you feel like you’ve depleted your personal connections, start applying to jobs that you find online. Keep a collection of all of the photos that you have taken in a portfolio and attach them to your applications.
However, there is a point where you shouldn’t work for free anymore. While freelance work is great for getting your foot in the door to the industry, artists should be supported and paid for their work, so you should start setting fair rates for your clients.
8. Build Your Portfolio
Aside from gear, another important, probably the most important thing to have as a fashion photographer besides relationships, is a great portfolio with recognizable style. A portfolio will allow people to look at your work and may even influence some people to reach out for work.
Every photographer should have a website for their portfolio. As someone who freelances website design and development, I die a little inside when I see talented photographers without a website. A website is the easiest way for people to find your work. It also gives people a way to contact you if they are interested in working with you outside of social media.
Don’t just throw your photos onto a webpage either. That's the next mistake photographers make, besides having an ugly or clunky website. Make your website work for you. Have your creative website show show off your style. A portfolio website needs to be exciting and interesting, not just an ugly, clunky gallery.
8.1 Social Media
In this day in age, the best portfolio that you can have is social media. Having active and popular social media accounts is what can make or break you in the photography world. Think of Instagram as your personal art gallery, where you can post your work for free and gain attention from people from all over the world. This attention doesn't just have to be from potential clients either. It can also bring sponsorship opportunities as well.
Not only should you be sharing your work, but also talk about details of the work and upcoming projects you will be working on. Develop a contact list to make sure your news is being seen.
Social media is actually a great tool for people to get in contact with you for work. More times than not, artists now are getting most of their commissioned assignments from people who have come across their work on social media and have reached out.
Even though everything is now digital, you should keep a physical copy portfolio with you, especially if you are traveling. You never know when you could accidentally come across someone who could be interested in having you work for them. If you have a physical copy, you can just hand them some of your work right there.
9. Get an Assistant Job or Apprenticeship
Once you have your portfolio and websites set up, it’s time for you to apply for some jobs. A really good way for you to get your foot in the door in the fashion photography business is to get an assistant job at a studio or photoshoot or an apprenticeship with a photographer.
For an apprenticeship or an assistant job, do research on what photographer or studio you would be working for. Even though you should take every opportunity that presents itself, make sure that you will actually learn from them and not just be running coffee. Before you accept an apprenticeship, talk to them about what you would actually be doing.
You will want a job that has you working with equipment so you can get to know it, maybe editing, and also help with planning. You also want to make sure that the photographers you are working with will actually teach you something and are open to you asking questions and even taking a few photos yourself.
Jobs like these are all about learning and gaining experience, and you can’t do that on the sidelines. Make sure that you will actually be active in the studio and not just watching.
This is also a great foot in the door to building lasting relationships and connections. This is extremely important as mentioned in the next item below.
10. Build Connections
Just like any other job, being a photographer is all about the connections that you have. Photography is a huge business, with hundreds of thousands of photographers trying to reach the same goals as you. One thing that will make you stand out from the rest, besides your skills, is who you know.
Knowing the right people in the field will help you not only expand yourself as an artist but push you further along in your career. Having the right people in your contact list will open so many doors. You never know when someone may need an extra photographer for a photoshoot or may need a photo editor for a project.
The fashion industry isn’t just about your skill, but it’s about who you know. This isn't just a generic job tip. Many photographers in fashion have stated that connections and crew are very important. Connections like these can also act as references for your resume. Potential employers will contact your references and ask them about how you are as a worker. Establishing good and solid connections will help you get a good word in for your career.
Making these kinds of connections is easier said than done. The best way to make connections in the fashion photography world is to work on as many projects as you can. Be sociable with the people you are working with; you never know who knows who.
You should also go to as many events and fashion shows as you can and mingle with the people there.
If you are in school for photography, get to know your professors. Again, most likely, they have been in the industry for a long time, so they are sure to know some people who are in the industry as well. They can also link you up with possible projects outside of school that will help expand your portfolio.
11. Apply to Everything
Once you have built your portfolio and you have established some connections, you should apply to every project that you can. Because there are so many other aspiring photographers in your shoes who also want a job, there is a lot of competition. If you want a job, you have to apply to all that you can.
The Internet is your best resource for finding available jobs. Job hunting sites, such as Indeed, Monster, or even Upwork are always filled with possible freelance opportunities. If you are in school, reach out to some of your professors and see if they know of anybody who needs an extra photographer or an assistant on set.
Most of the jobs that you will find will probably be freelance, and they may not pay. However, the experience is worth the time and effort. Unfortunately, most photographers who are just starting out will get paid very little, if at all.
Most of the work that you will be doing will be freelance based. But don’t let that discourage you. Again, you can easily build connections at these kinds of jobs, and they can lead you to paid jobs. You will also be learning a lot by just being there.
Tips for Photographers Who are Just Starting Out
Starting out as a fashion photographer can be really tough. Always remember to network and socialize. If you haven't talked with someone in the past week that can help you (or you can help them), get to it. As an introverted person, I know the difficulty in that. My side businesses and ultimately my day job didn't start flourishing until I started putting myself out there more.
Here are a few more tips for new photographers to keep in mind:
Never Say No to an Assignment
There is never such a thing as too much experience in the world of photography. It is always great to have more experience up your sleeve as a photographer.
The more assignments you work on, the more connections you can also build, which could lead to more jobs. Apply to every job that you qualify for. The more jobs that you apply to, not only will you get more experience, but you will also catch the eye of more employers. Just because you didn’t get picked for a particular assignment, doesn’t mean you won’t be right for another one!
Experiment now and be selective later.
Don’t Stick to Just Fashion
If you want to expand your portfolio, don’t limit yourself to just fashion photography. If you want to get paid, you will probably have to explore other areas of photography.
Because the fashion industry can be so exclusive, you might have trouble finding work that you really want to do. However, if you want to stay working behind the camera, hone your skills in other kinds of photography. This way, you can pick up some more freelance jobs.
Being versatile is important when trying to be a successful photographer. Potential employers want to see that you can do everything, so if they need someone for another assignment, they can look to you. You want to be as hirable as possible.
Always Stay Up to Date
Just like how it is important to know the fashion industry, it is important to stay up to date with all of the trends. The last thing that you want as a fashion photographer is to be seasons behinds on the new trends.
The best way to keep up with everything is to read fashion magazines and follow them on social media and on their online sites. Fashion magazines like Vogue or Elle will always have the best news and updates on all things in the fashion world.
Keep Your Day Job
As we have said before, most of your photography gigs will be unpaid or will pay very little, so it’s a good idea to keep a side job so you can have some extra income. As you can see, being a photographer isn’t cheap. From camera gear to editing software, you will start to rack up quite a bill for everything that you will need.
Even though being a photographer is so time-consuming, from getting to photoshoots to actually doing them to editing the photos, you might want to keep a part-time job to help you pay for everything. Most photographers start off struggling for the first few years of their careers, so don’t be discouraged. All of your hard work will pay off once you land your dream job as a fashion photographer.
Consistency is important. Not only should you constantly work towards improvement, but you should consistently put out work that you can be proud of.
As you face rejection and grow that thick skin even thicker, don't give up. If this is something you truly want to do, keep at it.
One question I ask myself when I'm facing difficulty, especially if I'm about to move onto something else, is “If I give this up now, will I be happy with where I left off?” Meaning, have I done everything I can to give this a shot and feel good about my effort now and in the future, essentially abandoning this dream?
I have a suggested article for you to read! There's an article by Natalia Borecka on Lone Wolf Magazine titled The Best Fashion Photography Career Advice You'll Ever Get. Go ahead and read this article if you're hungry for more advice on the topic. I appreciate the similarities and especially the differences in the advice that she gives compared to my article. Natalia also does an excellent job writing, not just in the tips provided but also the tone. I love it.
Update: Unfortunately, the Lone Wolf Magazine website is down and has been down for weeks at this point. The link to the article is https://lonewolfmag.com/fashion-photography-career-advice/. If the website doesn't come back by mid-2020, I'll delete this recommendation section of the conclusion.
Fashion is a tough industry. I have no interest in pursuing this niche but I understand why people do. It's an incredible display of artistry and hustle. If you pursue this line of work, you have my respect and well wishes.
If you have worked in fashion what did you learn that you can share?