If you are a young fashion photographer or stylist trying to break into the fashion industry, you’re likely feeling frustrated right about now. For all artists out there the path to success and financial security is fraught with uncertainty, and there is no sure-fire business plan that will light the way and no straightforward strategy that will lighten the load. We can completely sympathize! And if you’re just starting out, you’re likely facing one of the most difficult professional periods in your life – that critical moment when you get on your feet and get the ball rolling. We’re here to help you make the most of it. Here is our list of ultimate career advice for aspiring fashion photographers, stylists, makeup artists and anyone else working in the fashion industry. Here Goes!
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You Can’t Ask for Your Big Break, You Have to Earn It
If we had a nickel for every time a photographer contacted us with no experience, barely anything to call a portfolio, and said something along the lines of, “If you give me a commission letter I’m going to make you something amazing, just trust me.” We don’t meant to be harsh, but in the insanely competitive job world out there, no one is just going to give you a break because you seem passionate and sure of yourself. In the social sphere that stretches beyond your friends and family who believe in you because they love you, everyone else will be really really hard on you. If “just trust me” is all you have to go on, you really don’t have much. When hundreds of competitors are applying for the same jobs as you with polished portfolios of work that really highlight what they’re capable of, you better have more than just promises and passion to go on. As a general rule of thumb in fashion, show don’t tell. Take big risks with the work you create, work hard and you won’t need to sell yourself because your work will speak for itself.
The Key is Consistency
That’s it, the magic word that will get you through the door and onto the other side. The one piece of career advice that’s probably more important than any other. Consistency. It’s the one quality that separates a successful professional from a struggling artist. No one expects you to hit a home-run every time, but clients do expect a consistent level of quality in your images. And be aware that there are a few things clients will always watch out for. Your website, for one. Unless you have a large amount of high quality published work in there, clients will be wary of your portfolio because they know you’ve selected only the very best of everything you’ve ever created. What about the stuff that doesn’t make it in? How long did it take you to get that perfect shot? Can you do it again? Was it just blind luck? If you can prove to a client that you can consistently reproduce your best quality work, you’re in. But that’s not to say that you work necessarily has to be perfect every time. Consistency might mean achieving the same style in every shot, maybe it’s your signature lighting skills that come through, or your particular flavor of posing the model in strange an original ways. Whatever it may be for you, aim to hit the same note every time.
Don’t Follow the Trends, Create Them
Every aspect of the fashion industry (and every industry for that matter) is affected by trends. We all seem to fall in love with the same things at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to be very aware of trends in your work, and be calculating about how you choose to incorporate them into your photography or design. For example, about a year ago the whole wet-hair-stuck-to-models-face look really took off. You can see it here, here and here. For a while you could see it literally everywhere. About 50% of photography that passed through the Lone Wolf office featured this hair look. Not surprisingly, despite the fact that it’s trending hard, we quickly grew tired of seeing it. In other words, you could have been a brilliant photographer, but because you used an overused trend in your editorial, it effectively became invisible. Our advice is to rework trends, add unexpected elements to make your work stand out and to show the world that you’re one step ahead of the game.
Don’t Ignore the Details
Wrinkled clothes? A dirty backdrop? Polyester fabrics? Don’t think others won’t notice. As they say, the devil is in the details – it really doesn’t matter what industry we’re talking about, overlooking the finest details will result in mediocre work. It’s as simple as that. But pushing yourself beyond mediocre in fashion photography is extremely difficult because it requires that your whole team is as much of a perfectionist as you are. If your stylists is diligent about wardrobe, and you are a total perfectionist when it comes to lighting, but your hair stylist cuts corners, the whole thing falls apart very quickly.
You’re Never Hired for the Obvious Reasons
Ok, so your portfolio is gold. You’ve got the creative vision of a young Picasso and the flair of Kanye West himself. Naturally you’d assume these are the top reasons why you’d get hired for a campaign or editorial job, right? Wrong. Although these are extremely important, your actual job is to be the logistical brains behind every creative project. In other words, you need to have a cool head and learn how to problem solve your way out of any situation. Don’t ask too many questions, don’t hesitate for a second because everyone is counting on you to figure it all out. This holds equally true for creative problems like how to pose a model or style a shoot, as it does for logistical problems.
Stop Comparing Yourself to the Competition
You should only ever compare yourself to yourself, as you were six months ago. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell said in The Tipping Point, the magic number of true expertise is ten thousand hours. That is, it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become truly great at something. You don’t know where other people lie on that scale. If they’re better than you, it’s likely simply because they were busy practicing while you were busy flipping through Pinterest “looking for inspiration.” Comparing your own work to top photographers is crazy. They have a life time on you. By that same token, looking back at your own body of work, you should see a noticeable improvement. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.
Don’t Be a Starving Artist
Many young creative types really romanticize this idea of being a starving artist, but it’s only tolerable for about a year. After that it becomes an unbearable weight on your shoulders. There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about poverty folks, especially when you’re working in the fashion industry! Every so often, you’ll want to wear shoes that don’t have holes in them. The fact is, becoming a pro photographer takes money, lots of it. So you’ll need a solid long-term plan in place. You may need to supplement your career with less glamorous gigs (weddings? corporate portraits? Elance?) until you refine your craft and make some solid industry connections.
Oh, You’re Just Not That Into Social Media?
The world is changing, and although word of mouth is still a powerful (and viable) way of getting noticed, it’s also the hardest and least likely way. As a fashion photographer your goal is to have your work seen by as many people as possible. If you’re doing your job right, you will quickly learn that taking pictures, and editing them are the smallest part of your job. Marketing should take up about 75% of everything you do, with social media being the most important of these. There’s simply no better way to become insanely successful than to use your social networks.
Home is Where Your Dream Job Is
They say, do what you love and never work another day in your life. There’s no denying that loving your job, and being passionate about your career is one of the greatest blessings in life. It is therefore important to understand and be aware that the place you call home may be holding you back. If your dream is to be the next Mario Testino, you’ll need to move to New York. If you dream about being the next Wes Anderson, you’ll need to move to L.A. Though other cities have their own flourishing fashion scene or movie scene – a scene is not a proper industry. A scene is not enough to build a thriving career on. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but you will likely end up frustrated by the lack of resources and community support available to you.
Strive for Simplicity
The old saying that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” holds true. All you really need to create beautiful images is a beautiful model, a single dramatic element and literally nothing else. No crazy accessories or hair and makeup all laid over intense poses and voodoo lighting. When deciding how to style a shoot, between dramatic makeup + hair + sets/lighting + dramatic clothing, aim to choose only two out of these four options, otherwise you’ll have a circus on your hands (and unless you’re Tim Walker with a fifteen thousand dollar budget, it’s probably not going to fly).
Action is the Only Thing That Matters
It’s all about what you actually do, rather than how you feel. Of course your thoughts and feelings matter, at least to those that know you personally. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, your internal world barely exists. I know it sounds harsh, but it is an essential lesson in becoming a successful adult. The world turns on the currency that is action. If you try to convince someone that you’re an amazing, talented and compassionate individual that’s going places, but have nothing to show for it, you’ll be wasting your breath. Your greatest contribution to this world and to your own life will be through the actions you take. If you want to stand out professionally, stop talking and go out and do something (anything) productive that will have a positive effect in the world. By that token, showing people you want to work with what you’ve done (no matter how small) is always going to be more impressive than showing them what you plan to do, or how motivated you are about your career.
Working for Free = Practice.
This is a very controversial topic because there are a lot of people out there who will take advantage of you. But there is another word for free work, and it’s called practice. Fashion photography is not accounting, it’s not computer science, it’s art. Unlike these other fields, in fashion you can’t go straight from graduating college to making a good salary simply because you haven’t had enough time to practice your craft. And don’t tell us that you’ve been shooting since you were a child. Pointing your camera at something is different from creative direction, production, casting and directing a team. One requires nothing but your creativity, while the other requires a certain level of leadership, maturity and professional experience. But beyond practice is the matter of creative control. Starting out, working for free allows you to be as creative as you wish and to pour your passion into a dream project. When you’re working for a paying client they hold all the creative control, which often translates to work that is less than you’re capable of. If you’re focusing on just getting paid clients from the onset, it will take you a very long time to create the kind of portfolio that will get you noticed by high-paying clients.
Work with the Best – Even if it’s Not Financially Rewarding
Another thing to consider is that fashion is a career path were the division between big companies and small companies is extreme. There are very few in the middle. So basically, if you’re new to the game you’re stuck between not being good enough for the big boys yet, and volunteering your time to the smaller companies that are just barely staying afloat. When you’re just starting out in the fashion industry, it is extremely important that you pay more attention to working with talented people instead of getting paid. Trust that the money will come in due time. For now focus on collaborating with talented no-bodies who will one day be big somebodies (like you!). Fill your portfolio with quality work, publish in quality magazines and associate yourself with quality people. Newbie artists that think they’re going to be getting paid from the get-go are in for a rude awakening. Unless you were born into this industry, you’ll be crawling your way to the top like everyone else.
Be An Image Maker, Not an Image Taker
Anyone with a camera, access to photoshop, and a really great model can luck out with a great shot. But there is an important distinction between someone who takes an image, and someone who makes it. You need to be an image maker, not an image taker. See the final product in your mind, and do what needs to be done to usher it into reality. Don’t rely wholly on the skills of your team, and don’t wait for magic to happen. Sometimes it will, other times it won’t. And that’s the crux of the problem. Image takers are like scavenger animals, while image makers are like wolves. The wolf seeks out her vision, hunts it, runs after it and skillfully takes it down. The scavenger waits for something amazing to fall from the sky, usually by machine-gun shooting thousands of images just to luck out with one. And even when scavengers get lucky, these lucky strikes are like creative left-overs and rarely contain all the meat of an inspired, curated and carefully executed shoot.
Don’t Be Creatively Passive
When it comes to the creative process, you’re either all in or you’re not. You either commit wholeheartedly to your work and you attack it, or you half-ass it and wait passively for something creative to finally happen to you. The way you work says a lot about where you fall on this creative passivity spectrum. Every time you stay quiet on-set when you know you should speak up, you’re being creatively passive. Every time you get by with just doing the bare minimum that is required of you, without whole-heartedly and actively engaging with your team, you’re being creatively passive. If you spend more time creating Moodboards than you do actually creating art, you’re being creatively passive. If you’re a photographer, and you just stand there behind the camera waiting for the picture to happen, or if you’re a stylist and you settle for just putting clothes on the model then fading into the shadows of the studio while the clothes shift and crumple with every pose, you’re being creatively passive.
Master The Art of Selling
Few would argue with the idea that fashion photography is a bona fide art form. It is a creative expression of an idealized, and often over glamorized reality. But there’s just one small problem…unlike other art forms, fashion photography is the one form of art in which “selling out” is part of the job description from the get go. In other words, regardless if you call your work lifestyle or “high fashion” your images are going to be intrinsically tied to a commercial product. This is not meant to cast a negative light on fashion photography as a profession, there’s nothing wrong with mixing art and commerce, but it does take away from the creative purity of your work. People are rarely going to look at your fashion photographs and be moved to tears, or inspired to be better people. The vast majority of the time they are just going to be looking at the makeup and clothes. You can never be a truly successful fashion photographer if you don’t address this particular elephant in the studio: As a fashion photographer you are always playing double duty as one part artist, and one part salesman.
Boiled down to its very essence, a photographer’s job is to present a product in a way that captures the attention of consumers. This effectively renders creating “art for art’s sake” in the field of fashion photography extremely difficult. Fashion photography only exists because someone somewhere wanted to sell a beautiful designer dress. I know it seems obvious, but it’s something many aspiring fashion photographers forget. They get into fashion because they hunger for that creative outlet, not realizing that in fashion creativity often takes a backseat to commerce. Not only can this be incredibly disappointing to artists, it can immobilize their career before it has even started.
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We sincerely hope this list is useful to you. Let us know your thoughts and concerns, and post your questions in the comments! We would love to help you answer them, especially if you find yourself struggling with your fashion career.