Fashion Shoot: Tips from a Pro

Martin Evening | Photo Techniques | Published Oct 21, 2012

In fashion, the photography is the easy part. What makes or breaks a successful shoot is proper planning and great production skills.

My photographic career began three decades ago when I arrived in London at the age of 24 and landed an assisting job with a fashion photographer. The contacts I made while assisting over the next few years laid the foundation for my later professional career. Looking back, it all seems so easy. Back then you could actually earn a living from editorial work and there seemed to be plenty of jobs to be found as long as you were prepared to drag your portfolio around town.

What I soon learned though was that having a successful career in fashion and beauty photography involved much more than just technical camera know-how. As with any type of specialisation it all boils down to you having two things: the photographic skills, plus a deep knowledge of your subject. In this three-page article I'm going to share some advice, drawn from experience, about what it takes to pull off a successful fashion shoot.

Taking the picture is the easy part...

Some photographers don't like to admit it, but it's true. There are a lot of wannabe fashion and beauty photographers out there today, and they can all take pictures. The problem most have is that while they love the idea of photographing attractive models, they don’t have a real empathy or understanding of their subjects or specialised knowledge in a particular area of beauty or fashion.

Producing a beauty or fashion shoot involves choosing hair, makeup and clothing stylists who can help you fulfill the client's vision for the product.

If you’re to make a living out of fashion photography you need commissions. And to keep those coming you have to prove your photos work for the target audience, which will mostly be women. This is a crucial distinction between fashion work and the glamour/boudoir photography that's aimed at a male audience.

In my case I ended up specialising in photographing hair. Over the years I have been lucky enough to work with some of the biggest names in the hairdressing business and have gained a thorough appreciation of what works in front of the camera and what doesn’t. This experience gives me the ability to direct hairdressers on a shoot and guide them to produce the best possible looks. Then there is also the knowledge of how to choose a makeup artist and clothes stylist and assemble a creative team. These are all important steps in coordinating a successful shoot. Oh, and then there is the photography you do at the end - that’s the easy part.

Most people think of fashion photography as being all about clever techniques and working with glamorous models. These things are important of course, but like any other professional discipline good photography always has to be built upon firm foundations, which means knowing how to produce a studio shoot, or at least getting someone who knows their stuff to do this for you.

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Preparing for the shoot

No matter how talented a photographer you are, preparation is key to ensuring the shoot goes smoothly and that your client leaves satisfied with the results. And it all begins well before the day of the actual shoot.

The first step is model selection and I usually do this by holding a dedicated model casting for each shoot. The main objective here is to select the right model or models, but it is also useful to spend some time with the client. Before this meeting of course I will have interpreted the client brief and given though to how the final photos should look. But the model casting is often the best opportunity to ensure that you and the client are on the same page as far as the creative objectives.

It's also a chance to get to know the client and work out the dynamics within their team. For example, you might learn that while the owner of the business is in charge of the money, it’s actually someone lower down the pecking order who calls the shots when it comes to the creative decisions. Things like this are good to know in advance.

At a model casting you can meet prospective models face to face, but it is also allows you to get to know the clients more and discuss the forthcoming shoot.

A successful model casting doesn't happen by accident. My number one rule is never cast first thing in the morning. I don’t know if it’s true about models not getting out of bed for less than $10,000, but for model castings (where there is only a small chance of each model getting the job) most seem to prefer a schedule that starts after midday. I therefore always cast in the afternoon.

Whatever time I tell the models to arrive from I’ll tell the client to arrive an hour earlier. This allows time to have an initial chat and also be ready to meet any models who may show up early. The key is to keep the pace moving. You can't realistically control when each model arrives, no matter how meticulously you've scheduled them. All you can do is to ensure that each is interviewed as quickly as possible and prevent a big queue from building up.

I always instruct clients to spend the least time possible looking through the portfolios of models who clearly don’t fit the bill. This keeps the casting flowing smoothly and avoids missing out on meeting the most suitable models. If an experienced and in-demand model arrives at a casting and sees a long, slow-moving queue, she’ll very likely skip the wait and head off to her next casting instead.

With the camera tethered to a laptop, I record all the models who arrive at the studio and have an assistant add the model’s name and agency details to the Caption metadata. I use these photos to refer to later when choosing which model or models to book.

In the old days I used to shoot Polaroid photos of each model. Now of course, it is easy to capture digital photos instead. The models should arrive with little or no makeup, which makes it easier to make selections when reviewing the photos. The composite cards models leave are all very nice, but clients, as well as myself usually find it easiest to compare the photos that have been taken on the day of the casting itself.

(a model's) Time is money

For me, organising a studio shoot schedule has become second nature. You need most of the crew to arrive at the same time in the morning, but crucially, you’ll want the models to arrive at staggered times throughout the shoot day. That way you only end up paying for the number of hours each model is actually needed. I don’t know about other countries, but here in London, model tardiness is a constant problem and one that’s not helped by the model agencies, who seem to take the view 'heads we win, tails you lose' when it comes to their services.

Extreme wide-angle lenses can be used to good effect when photographing people.

If a model turning up late causes overruns, it is assumed the photographer will absorb these costs. If a model ends up going into overtime because of lateness, they expect to be paid overtime. I often end up in arguments with the agencies over this. To be on the safe side it is best to start with the most experienced model first. They are more likely to know how to arrive to the studio on time. More importantly, they can help get the day’s shoot off to a flying start. If you are working with a new client, or there is a substantial amount of money riding on a job there can be a lot of nervousness at the beginning of the day. The last thing you want is to kick off with a model who is relatively inexperienced and consequently find yourself struggling to establish a good start to the shoot.

Once you are able to show clients a strong image on the computer display you can feel the tension lighten all round and the rest of the shoot is far more relaxed. The ideas that evolve from the first sets of photos can also be used to inspire the models who you are shooting with later.

When it comes time for the model to step in front of the camera, that is when all the pieces in the jigsaw should come together neatly. The photographer’s job is simply not to screw it all up with poor lighting or upsetting the model.

There are times when a complex lighting setup is necessary to achieve a distinct look. But there are limitations and consequences that need to be carefully taken into account. This shot became the cover image for a book I wrote about Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.

Seriously, the bit where you take the photographs shouldn’t be that hard to do. If it does become hard work it’s probably because you didn’t manage the earlier stages as best you could, and no matter what you try to do with the lighting (or Photoshop) ain’t going to help improve things much.

Keep it simple, and if you can't, stay in control

One of the classic mistakes I see is where photographers over-reach by trying to get too technical with the lighting. When a model is prepped and ready to shoot you don’t always have much time before the hair will start to drop or the makeup loses its freshness. It is critical that you do all your lighting tests in advance and that you are in control of all the technical details. When studio lights fail to work or the lighting balance goes awry it's incredibly frustrating for everyone on set. I have been known to work with complicated setups myself (see below), but with experience you can afford to work under more challenging conditions, as long as you know how to keep everything under control and react quickly.

There are times when I may like to use complicated lighting setups that are more restrictive to work with and where there are more things to go wrong. But I make sure to test such lighting arrangements thoroughly so that the intricacies of the lighting setup don't hold up the shoot. This is the setup used to create the image you see above.

No matter how well you've prepared, sometimes there are things that are simply out of your control, leading to days you'd rather forget. I remember a makeup artist walking out on me on location in the middle of London’s Docklands. I had been given a big budget and decided to choose a star name rather than choose one of my trusted, regular makeup artists. For some reason this makeup artist decided that was the day he was going quit the fashion business forever. Well, more fool me.

Establish a rhythm

When you photograph a model it can be like recording a performance. Most models have a repertoire of moves and poses they like to use (and a good photographer may be able to teach them some new ones as well). On a typical shoot a model may get into position for you ready to shoot and once they hear the shutter go off switch to a new pose. Try to quickly establish a mutual rhythm and make sure you can keep up with whatever the model is doing.

 As I mention above, photographing a model can be like shooting a performance and as a photographer you need to be ready to capture each pose the model offers you. The important things to note here are to make sure the equipment is all working OK and get into a flow with your subject, showing that you are able to respond quickly to everything that's happening in front of the camera.

Sometimes you may need to slow things down a bit, but I believe it helps to maintain a synchronised flow of communication - verbal or otherwise - between yourself and the model. This isn't limited to fashion of course. It holds true for portraiture as well.

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Less is more

A common mistake when working in the studio is to create a lighting setup so complex that it overwhelms the session. If you stick your subject in front of a huge array of lights and tell them they can’t move an inch this way or that, it is all too easy to kill any possible spontaneity. Furthermore, if your subject is able to provide you with a great pose but you aren’t ready or able to shoot them, the moment is soon lost and the shoot will suffer.

If you want to make your life easier, then follow the KISS rule and keep the lighting setup as simple as possible. Here is a typical lighting setup that I have used many times. The main light comes from a softbox on a boom arm and a small fill reflector is used to bounce light from below.

With a setup like this the minimal lighting produces a great looking light for fashion as well as portrait work. What is also interesting here is that the effect of the lighting will change as you and the subject move – you can quickly achieve a variety of lighting moods in a single session.

I mostly like to keep the lighting simple and flexible so that the model is free to move about. It helps if one can have an assistant to adjust the lighting as you shoot, but even so, I prefer to keep shooting even if I sense the lighting may have fallen off slightly. Doing so means the rhythm is maintained and hey, you can always lighten images in Photoshop!

A simple lighting setup can greatly minimize the number of things that can go wrong under the pressure of a shoot. Another benefit is that the subject isn't intimidated by a huge number of lights, can see and talk with the photographer and is free to move around as much as they like.

Fashion photography jobs can be stressful during the preparation stages, but at the end of the day a good shoot should leave you with a glow of satisfaction of a job well done. You don’t really want to be encumbered by unnecessary distractions on the day itself, hence the need to be fully prepared. Even so, there are always things that will happen that may come back to haunt you (even on what seems to be a great shoot). This is where a good assistant can help by being an extra pair of eyes and ears. i.e. noting down the times models arrive and are finished shooting, but also picking up on whether clients are fully happy, or if there are problems building behind the scenes. Little things always make a difference, like making sure everyone is offered something to drink and that no one feels left out.

Getting Client Approval

In the days of film, clients would have to wait a day or two to see the results. Nowadays the pictures can be seen straight away of course, which on the whole makes life easier and clients can be assured on the day that they have the results they are looking for.

At a suitable point in a shoot you can choose to let everyone involved share looking at the pictures as they arrive on the computer. It's important for the photographer to decide when it's best to do this. Stopping to check photos all the time can be a distraction. Overall, I find it to be a positive thing, which can help give encouragement to the models and everyone else who is involved with the session that day.

Some clients prefer that I create printed contact sheets of all the one-star select photos. It is all very well producing web gallery websites or sticking photos on a DVD, but some people still find it easier to refer to printed sheets of photos, just like they did in the old days. I firmly believe that all digital services should be charged for as an additional fee. With the ability to shoot digital comes the responsibility of looking after the files and maintaining a secure archive. So, it does not seem unreasonable to charge for this. I know for some photographers it has proved tricky getting clients to agree, but all the clients I work with have accepted this as a necessary cost. It’s also important not to undermine other professional photographers by not charging for digital services.

Contact sheets can be easily printed while the shoot is in progress and taken home by the client at the end of the day.

Summing up

At the end of the day anyone can photograph a pretty girl (or boy). But, if you choose to make a career out of this there is a big difference in finding clients who are prepared to pay you for the privilege. Compared to when I first started out I reckon it is now a lot harder for someone to establish themselves as a fashion photographer.

There has been a substantial erosion of photographers’ rights during the past few years and fashion editorial fees have barely increased above what they were 25 years ago. Yet, despite all this there are plenty of young talented photographers out there who have been able to break into the business and make themselves decent careers by devoting as much care and attention to producing a shoot as they do to expanding their photographic skills. They have my utmost respect.

Martin Evening is an award winning advertising and fashion photographer based in London, England. He is also a best-selling author of instructional titles such as The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Book and Adobe Photoshop CS6 for Photographers.