It is well known that the fashion industry is not the easiest world to get into. Fashion photography in particular is as exclusive and competitive as a profession can get.
Generally speaking, the world of fashion, particularly high fashion, is built on the pillars of luxury and exclusivity, and this is reflected in its job market too. You can work your ass off and feel like you’re getting nowhere. Getting your foot in involves a lot of hard work, passion, and unwavering determination. And it doesn’t always pay off. Why? Well, quite frankly, it also requires timing a sprinkle of good luck.
So, what does it take to be a fashion photographer today? Although it’s true that it is hard, there are a few things we can do in order to bend the odds in our favour.
Live, breathe, and consume fashion in any way you can
Do you want to become a fashion photographer? Well then, become a fashion expert in the first place. Learn everything you can about fashion as an art, as a historical feat, as a tool for social change, and as a key in pop culture. Understand its transformation throughout time and its current place in the world. Dive into designers, emblematic figures and movements within the industry.
Read all the magazines you can. Investigate the key players of the industry and familiarize yourself with their work. Why are they different? What sets them apart and above the countless creatives trying to get precisely where they are? Notice the content being created and catered for different audiences. Begin to realize where you might fit in in this whole context.
See the thing is, in order to truly stand out as a fashion photographer, you can’t simply like fashion or love it even, it’s not a matter of passion, although does help immensely. In order to truly shine as a fashion photographer, you need to understand fashion itself.
Put your camera to the test over and over again
Don’t wait to book jobs to take your camera out. Ask your friends for help and set up impromptu shoots, and contact models who are also trying to break into the business and help each other out. Find art and fashion wherever you can, photograph the streets, people window-shopping, anything you can make fashion out of. Try out as many styles as you can, plan and execute concepts over and over again until you find your uniqueness as a fashion photographer… Until you know who you are.
Be prepared to not make much money, if any, at the start. Most big jobs will go to top-tier photographers in the industry, and many publications you submit to will pay you with credit. Does it suck? Yep. Should everyone be paid for their work? Yep. But unfortunately, that’s the game. And if you wanna play those are the rules. This will, however, allow you to have one foot in, and get your name out there so that you can be considered in the future. Still, in order for that to happen, you need to be right where the opportunities are, which brings us to the next step.
Have an impactful and up to date portfolio
It should go without saying that for any artist having a portfolio is an absolute must.
Not only that, you should know your portfolio by heart, and have it accessible on your phone/tablet too. Why? Well, because you never know when an opportunity may arise, but if it does you should be ready. As we said, networking, attending events, and contacts are key to fashion photography, as such you should be able to sell yourself brilliantly if you meet potential collaborators, clients, or employers.
So make sure your portfolio shows the absolute best of your work in a coherent, impactful manner. Recent work first of course, and highlighting your biggest and most important jobs as well as the ones that show your personal, unique style.
Live in one of the major fashion cities
If you want to be a fashion photographer you have to be around fashion. Simple as. You need to live in that world because it all parts from there. The contacts, the experience, the collaborations, the recommendations… It’s quite hard for any of that to happen if you don’t live in a major fashion city.
Could you not just do all of this over social media, we hear you say? Perhaps, but it will no doubt be a tougher act to pull off. It will most certainly be harder to leave a genuine, lasting impression on anyone. You want to be ready when someone opens the door of high fashion for you. Oftentimes this industry moves fast, you need to be quick enough to take an opportunity, otherwise, someone else will, trust us.
And yes we’re talking London, New York, Paris, Milan, Seoul, Tokyo, and Shanghai, but these are not your only options when it comes to immersing oneself in the burgeoning fashion scene. If you want to get into high fashion, you should simply consider any major city that hosts big fashion events and magazines such as Barcelona, Berlin, Sao Paolo, Copenhagen, Rome or Los Angeles for example.
Work the net: Networking is everything
Networking is kind of unavoidable in fashion. More deals are made at parties and over dinner or drinks than in offices. Attending events is a prerequisite if you want to make it as a fashion photographer.
You need to create a web of contacts and be part of the working circles to book jobs. This means working not only on your social skills at galas, parties, and shows but also having a focused and engaging social media presence. Follow people who you look up to, people you want to work with, and key players in the industry. Be on everybody’s radar.
Become an assistant
Or to put it plainly… Shut up and listen. Observe how everything works from the inside out. Understand that you are there as an assistant and you will therefore assist, not advise. So, assist as well as you possibly can, and learn from the professionals around you. Reach out to other assistants, and make them part of your network. Support each other. Why? Well, most probably your fellow assistants are doing the same thing as you and are also determined passionate creatives who one day might become your colleagues. They are future stylists, hair and make-up artists, producers… All in all, the people who might help you book a job in the future, or who you might want to book for a project of yours.
Once you’ve found your identity as a fashion photographer be selective…
…with your time
In order to make it as a fashion photographer, you will eventually have to become selective with your work. You will need to know not only what to say no to but when to say no to something.
Despite how tempting it may seem to pile on a tonne of work once you start making it, you should be cautious when accepting new projects when you already have ongoing ones in order to make sure the direction and focus on the job at hand isn’t diluted by a new shiny brief. You need to be able to always see the bigger picture, and try to not get swept up in the excitement of new things. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy them of course!
…with the projects you take on
There will come a point in your career, once you’ve given your style and artistic goals a little shape when you will need to learn to say no to a project simply because it does not align with your work. You must ensure that your work quality and style are upheld by whatever you are doing. Your job should either advance, deepen, or at the very least nourish your craft. And this is a luxury you will earn in time.
Nevertheless, before you actually get to this point in your career you should make a point to try out as many styles, methods, and ways of working as you can. Learn where your strengths and weaknesses truly are. Find out what styles of work or types of projects you’re most passionate about, and slowly but surely define your identity as a fashion photographer.
Learn from other photographers: OKOBÉ’s advice
Still, who better to advice you on how to become a professional photographer than a photographer himself? The talented London and Barcelona based photographer OKOBÉ (Segio Aparicio) did us the kindness of offering up some valuable inside knowledge on the ins and outs of professional fashion photography.
Is formal education necessary to become a photographer at this point?
Well, I guess not. I haven’t had any photography studies. In fact, I started taking pictures only 4 years ago. Second-year Sony World Photo nominates me on the best amateur portraits in the UK and this year top 10 best portrait professional photographer of 2021 and as well Top 5 best portfolio at the IPA photo awards at the professional category worldwide. It proves that is not necessary to have studies to accomplish your dreams. In my case, I couldn’t afford to study photography cause I come from a humble family. But there are a lot of artists in my family, mainly musicians including myself and I guess that I have always found ways to express my feelings and emotions as an artist, first through music, then I did a movie in 2016 as a director, producer, and composer and it helps me a lot to express myself through a visual way. Then I moved to London and was there when I started expressing myself through my camera working as a photographer. But if you have no formal education you must have something to express, you must have that spiritual need and you have to have an eye for it.
What characteristics must an artist have in order to succeed as a fashion photographer?
Well, depends on what the term succeed means for everyone. For me, success means being able to have your own style and your own vision and that feeling in your stomach when you sit to admire your own piece in silence. At the end of the day, the art market including fashion is moving around trying to find the next trend or the next style and it is fine but I have never been able to do that. I find it boring to try to replicate what other creatives do or a trend.
If succeeding means earning a lot of money and doing cover magazines for the biggest fashion brands, I have not been there yet. Hopefully, I can explain that part of the game soon with my own style.
What events/competitions/artists/publications should a fashion photographer follow without a doubt?
The most prestigious ones with no doubt are the Sony World Photo awards and the IPA photo awards. This is a worldwide competition where thousands of the best photographers of the world send their portfolios, so it is a good opportunity to have some level of recognition, and also the first one is free to apply so you shouldn’t miss the chance. The rest I guess will depend on the style and skills of the photographer. I would say first of all try to build a strong portfolio, try to know what your style is without coping or try to replicate what other people do. Once you have your portfolio send it to the places where you would like to work for.
What differentiates a proper fashion photographer from an amateur photographer?
Contacts. Unfortunately, that is the first thing that pops into my mind. I have seen excellent “amateur” photographers. And also super prestigious photographers with amateur level but with good friends in the industry. Like any other industry and unfortunately, having the opportunity does not depends just on having a good portfolio or being a good photographer.
Is the work of someone who uses their phone for Insta-Fashion comparable to that of an editorial photographer?
It depends on what are you looking for. And also depends on your eye. What I mean by that is that a good photographer could take amazing pictures with a phone. But also we can go back to the previous question and someone who does not have photography skills and has a phone can take a picture and be published in a magazine. Can everyone make a micro-way pizza? I would say yes. Can everyone make a traditional Italian pizza with an amazing technique, texture, quality, flavour, and presentation? Probably not. But sometimes people are just hungry.
You have a very artistic photography expression, how would you describe your photography style, and how has your style developed over the years?
I think my photography is just me. I try to be honest with myself. I never try to compare myself with any other artist cause I always think that everyone is better than me. I guess the fact of not spending years studying it sometimes brings me this impostor syndrome. But for me, photography is my spiritual practice and connection with myself and my muses. The reason why I have this artistic expression is that it is the only way and style I know how to take pictures, just being myself.
What is the role of the shooting team/stylist? What’s their connection and how do they integrate their artistic vision in just one work?
When I work with a team I love to watch them create and learn from them. I try to understand what they want to express with their work and how are they going to communicate it. I think it is very important as a team to know what are you looking for and give room for creating something even better and magic.
What is the best advice you can give to an aspiring fashion photographer?
Try to be yourself. Never stop dreaming. Never stop creating. Success is not being rich or famous. Success is that thing that you feel in your stomach when you are creating. Breath, feel it, and embrace it.