The stylists are hard at work fixing makeup and hair while the crew is tweaking the next lighting setup and backdrop. You’re running between the dressing room and the set, making sure everyone’s on the same page. Once everything’s ready, you settle down behind the camera and begin shooting: this is fashion photography.
Los Angeles fashion photographer Michael Higgins has spent the last few years persistently working on his craft. A professional dancer for three decades before making his way behind the camera, the Angelino brings a unique perspective to his current career.
I’m a visual learner in general, and I think with dance you create images with your body as you look in the mirror during rehearsal or class. I’ve always kind of looked at life and the world visually, so it was an easy transition to go to photography because you’re looking through the lens and shooting what’s on the other side while still trying to make it visually alluring.
Establishing a style and having a unique voice is vital in this line of work. So is making connections with a variety of people in the industry in order to land top-tier clients. As Michael looked to compile his portfolio, he ventured back to his old haunts to link up with professionals he knew best: dancers.
The connections I had from dancing were the easiest way to get clients then, because I knew all the dance agencies in Los Angeles. Dancers need promos constantly — things like new headshots, new dance shots, and new stuff for their reel. I was getting referred a lot after that because I know how to make dancers look good — I can make sure their feet are pointed correctly and the pose is looking good — whereas people not savvy with that particular niche may not know how to do it right.
Even if you don’t have a rolodex full of former colleagues who can help you beef up your portfolio, fear not. There are easy and budget-friendly ways to build up a book.
“Try to do TFP [time for print] work,” says Tim Moldenhauer, a German fashion photographer currently based in Hong Kong.
“Don’t be afraid to approach some models — a lot of them continuously need new photo material. Don’t overthink things too much, but rather enjoy the process. Be able to adjust if things don’t work and don’t give up. There is always a solution.”
The more time you put into rounding out your portfolio, the better chance you’ll have of adding something to a client-based shoot when you land one. Photographers who can bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the table — and execute them within the parameters of a given pitch — are able to catch the eyes of editors and creative directors. These are the golden geese at publications and brands, the two main types of clients fashion photographers should key in on.
Speaking about a recent shoot with rap duo Rae Sremmurd, Tracey Woods, the Senior Photo Editor for Essence Magazine, told David Walker at Photo District News how the photographer positively impacted the outcome of the final images.
We had this idea where we wanted colored lights, but it didn’t look the way my creative director and I thought it would. Jassieuo [the photographer] came up with [the solution] to get rid of the color: just use white light. It makes it brighter.
Not only do you need to bring something unique to a shoot, you must also prioritize teamwork and be willing to acknowledge and mix in ideas from fellow crew members. As Mexico-based Yuri Benitez explains, that starts by putting the right people — think hair, makeup, and wardrobe stylists — around you.
I have a team that assists me regularly. They keep a keen eye during the session to make corrections any time they spot something wrong. I think wardrobe stylists especially contribute to my job because they are at the cutting edge of new tendencies and trends in the industry. They are co-creators of the image because they have the sensibility to show the clothing at its most refined form.
“Refined form” is also a good way to articulate what a photographer needs in order to stand out in a crowded field. Dallas-based fashion and beauty photographer Alicia Stepp has spent years fine tuning her style and notes that it’s crucial for young photographers to be able to develop a unique eye. Versatility is key, yes, but not at the expense of muddying the portfolio you’re sending to the people who hire photographers. Because Alicia has worked diligently to craft a distinctive look, she’s landed quality assignments with publications like Flanelle, who knew what they were getting from the freelancer after skimming through her work online.
A mistake I made in the past was trying to cast too wide of a net with a body of work that was confusing to a potential client and didn’t tell them enough about what they would actually be receiving if they hired me. It’s very good to find a niche or to at least narrow your body of work in such a way that a client knows exactly who you are as a photographer and what you can bring to the table in very short order from a simple glance at your IG or website.
David Fierro agrees, articulating his concurrence by telling up-and-comers to “keep it simple.” Constructing a streamlined approach, notes the Canadian, makes it easier to determine your target clients.
Collaborate with creative teams that compliment your style of photography and approach brands and magazines that have a similar aesthetic to yours.
Above is an example of couture work, which falls under the brand category within fashion photography. Another branch of the brand tree is e-commerce, which is a fantastic avenue for photographers of all ages. Jeremiah Wilson actually started his career in the e-commerce world, working in house for large fashion brands like Steve Madden before beginning his freelance journey in earnest. The connections he made while at the big companies laid the foundation for a network that he’s gone back to time and again for assignments. Fashion shoots are high-stress environments, which is a big part of why hirers bring in the same people wherever they work.
Nearly one hundred percent of my fashion e-com work has come through past contacts from working in house or from freelancers working with me at my in house position. Fashion Creative Directors, Art Directors, Studio Producers, and Photo Studio Managers have been my contacts/friends/coworkers to get into the freelance e-com world. Everyone moves around often in fashion to different companies and they tend to bring their freelance teams. I have shot with a lot of the same people at different companies.
So, once you’ve got your sea legs and have put together a winning portfolio, it’s time to get that work out there. Two decades into the new millennium, social media is only becoming more omnipresent, so posting on your accounts at a daily rate is recommended. But there are other forms of proactivity to consider. Michael in particular is a champion of submission magazines, where publications will put out a monthly prompt and photographers have to create imagery that meets the requirements.
As an example, [fashion & beauty magazine] Lucy’s will say ‘okay, for this month we’re doing a beauty special and the theme is relationships.’ So, if your particular shoots that month are reflective of that, maybe you’ll submit to Lucy’s that month.
We just did this ballet story in Moevir. They had put out a submission request for a dance story in Paris and I’m like ‘oh, I totally just did one this year.’ We sent in those images and we got accepted.
Getting your work into a plethora of publications and brands is a perfect way to get noticed by all players within fashion photography — namely the folks who can get you jobs, like Tracey. In the same PDN interview referenced above, Essence’s photo editor discussed where she finds photographers.
I’m looking at photographers everywhere, [especially] in other publications. I’m looking for all types of photographers, from established photographers to new photographers. I want to work with photographers and help them build their portfolios as well. I would say [I find photographers through] Instagram, portfolio reviews, email. I look at Feature Shoot, I look at A Photo Editor. I look at galleries and museums. I look at what [photographers] are doing, and not just their editorial and commercial work, but their personal work as well.
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