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What Makeup Artists Wish Photographers Knew

Makeup artists are an invaluable part of the creative team for many photographers. In fact, there are certain genres of photography that rely so heavily on makeup artists that we simply couldn't work without them. Unfortunately, there seems to be a few serious problems cropping up between makeup artists and photographers.

My goal as a photographer is to create great images. In my chosen genres, working with a makeup artist is a given for several reasons:

  • Makeup artists help us capture our creative visions.
  • They make our clients feel like a million dollars.
  • They raise production values.
  • They bring a unique perspective to the table that can help us take our concept and hone it to a fine edge. 

Clean, commercial beauty work. This kind of work requires a skilled makeup artist.

Great images are, more often than not, the result of collaboration, and since communication is the most important factor in working with a team, I'm always looking for ways to improve the way my team communicates. With that in mind, I asked several makeup artists what their biggest difficulties are when dealing with photographers. Some of what they had to say was things I expected to hear, and other things surprised me enough that I thought it would be worthwhile to share with the world.

Communication seemed to be the most common theme I ran across in all the places I asked this question. Sometimes the issue was as simple as making sure the makeup artist knows what the limitations of the location are, such as lack of plumbing or poor ambient light conditions, and other times they were more specific to the mechanics of the shoot itself, such as what kind of light you plan to use during a shoot, since certain kinds of light, like colored gels, will affect how the makeup reads on camera.

Makeup artists would also love for us to have enough understanding of makeup to, at least, give them a solid idea of what look we are trying to achieve.

I find that some photographers (more particularly male photographers - no shade) don't always know how to communicate the looks they want. Just knowing about makeup generally (like the differences between peach nude, brown nude, etc) goes a long way.

Also, communicating about the progression of looks. For example, I had a photographer tell me that he wanted bone straight hair and then voluminous curls (but didn't tell me that in the beginning so I could suggest doing it the other way around).

Communication is key, period.

Yvette Matthews-Mason

If we, as photographers, can cover this kind of basic information, that will go a long way to helping us successfully communicate with makeup artists. However, there were some difficulties that turned out to be a bit more individualized and made me reconsider the way I approach artists I'm interested in working with. 

As a body painter I can say that a roadblock for my process is getting SLAMMED with inspiration images (of other artist's work) right off the bat. I believe that mood boards and visual inspiration are essential for communication and cohesiveness, but I struggle removing those images from my brain to clear space for my vision and contribution to a project. I create really well when I get descriptive words like: dark, light, soft, hard, celestial, earthy, sleepy, bright... maybe a color scheme... I want to know why you're chosing that makeup or bodypaint image for inspiration, before you show it to me. I hope that makes sense. Otherwise I end up feeling like I am just regurgitating someone else's work. Another way of explaining it:

"Hey Jen, I am planning a shoot in a mansion built in the 1920s. The location is filled with luxurious details like red velvet, fur, and richly stained wood. I plan on having a color palette of *blank* on two models. I want the makeup to reflect a "gilded cage" era, maybe a feeling of 'distressed' beauty. Something like 'High class, come undone,' what do you think?"
"Hey Jen, I have a shoot coming up and I am looking for makeup like this (image). Are you available?"

I am just asking for a little foreplay, if you know what I mean. Then throw an image or two at me, just for clarity.

Jennifer Jensen

Hearing that made me decide to talk to the artists I work with about their process, so I can understand how they work best, and alter my approach to communicating to that they are capable of giving me their best work.

Another issue makeup artists are facing when dealing with photographers is not receiving images they can actually use in their portfolios.

Heavily editing images (for some of us, like myself) will most likely not be usable for my portfolio when doing trade. I've done a lot of work with photographers who over smooth, over edit, make my models look like poreless aliens and it's pretty to some, but I like to stick to attainable beauty being in my portfolio. 
Clear communication on how I will receive images. Some artists give me the gallery and I can select a few, sometimes I get all of them, or they select the handful they want to give me. However, what I am looking for in my portfolio and what a photographer thinks is a great photo are two totally different things. While a photo is beautiful, it maybe far away and really not show my work in detail.

Kat St John

I'd say, if we did a test shoot together and you're going to go ham in post (which, you're allowed to do, I acknowledge) to the point where the intrinsic nature of the make-up I applied is altered, it would be amazingly appreciated if you could include a less processed-looking image or two in the files you send me.

Kate Cohen

The makeup artist for this set, Brandy Rich, needed clean images that showed skin texture. That needed to be kept in mind during post production.

Other times, they aren't receiving images until several months later and, sometimes, not at all.

Instagram screen shots are NOT the same as actually giving me my f*!#$&! images.

Samantha Reese

All the responses I received to this question seemed to stem from, in part, miscommunication of expectations on both sides. When doing a trade shoot, it's incumbent upon both parties to be clear about what they expect to get from the transaction. If a photographer wants a certain style of makeup, that needs to be said in no uncertain terms. If a makeup artists needs work that is edited in a certain style, that also needs to be clearly understood. Contracts go a long to way toward helping iron out this problem, since they cover exactly what each party is responsible for and what each will receive once the shoot is wrapped.

Something else that seemed to be a common theme among makeup artists was the frustration about the lack of accountability in a very un-regulated industry. Since one doesn't require any formal training in order to become a photographer, makeup artists can often be handed images from events that are all but unusable because the photographer is inexperienced. This seems to be a common thread among wedding makeup artists in particular. The frustration is palpable.

What I wish photographers would know is how to take a damn decent beauty shot. What I wish photographers would KNOW is that just because you have a fancy camera does not make you a XYZ photographer. I have spent the better half of the afternoon looking at images from weddings over the last few years and I am so angry. Such beautiful brides with beautiful details and beautiful hair and makeup...

Then the photography...yo. What the f*!$ am I looking at? That s!*# isn't even good light, did you EVEN F!&#$!& TRY?

To get a winning image (in any area of makeup or photography) the team has to work together, the light has to be good and then you have money. In my 17 years as a wedding makeup artist, never in all my life have I ever seen such shit in terms of wedding photography. I can take better photos with my iPhone. Makeup artists aren't the only one dealing with so-called 'experts'

Sonia Roselli

If you find yourself feeling defensive, I'd challenge you to question, instead, why so many makeup artists are saying the same kinds of things, and to remember that this isn't a competition to see who contributes most to a final image, but a way to find out how we can improve our work. Sure, a wedding makeup artist could hire a photographer to do a styled shoot for their portfolio, but it's also important for potential clients to see how the artist's work looks on real brides during real wedding days.

Photographers and makeup artists need each other. Makeup artists improve the quality of our work and, without photographers, makeup artists wouldn't have their most powerful tool to promote their skill. Beautiful photographs are of value to everyone, and great final images are the result of a team who is invested and communicating well. If we, as photographers, value what makeup artists bring to the table, and we should, then we need to be doing our best to understand how we can improve our working relationship. Better communication equals better relationships which equals amazing images and a happier industry for all of us.

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Taz Rahman's picture

The skin is plastic in all of these photos even though the photographer taking these knew how to instruct makeup artists.

Alexandra Angelone's picture

The photographer should know "how to instruct makeup artists." ? Can I ask you how you would appreciate a makeup artist instructing you how to do your job?

Can I ask what knowledge of makeup application you have?

David Hynes's picture

The overuse of FS (frequency seperation) as a "high end retouching" tool is deplorable.

Nicole York's picture

Hey David, I agree that it's no good when FS is overused. It's not a technique I use, though, and the retoucher who handled these images doesn't use FS either ;) In fact, most of the people I know who work in the high-end side of the industry don't use it.
This was shot with a very large, very soft light and two large reflectors, and the makeup artist used some lotion to make the skin glow. No FS, I promise ;)

David Hynes's picture

ahh okay! - maybe its just the extra texture they added in post that's throwing me off.

Nicole York's picture

That could be it! They were also edited to be viewed large, which can sometimes make them seem much softer when viewed on a smaller screen.

David Hynes's picture

True! :)

Deleted Account's picture

Nicole, you provided a great service with this article. It's very insightful.

Nicole York's picture

I appreciate that, Mike, thank you! I hope it helps :)

borisschipper's picture

At the end it is very simple, a make-up artist puts light and shadow on a face using make-up, a photographer does the same using lights...
If both understand each other and go the same direction, magic is happening.
Oh, by the way..., look for a make-up artist that goes with your style (and vice versa)
If you book a make-up artist known for 'dewy skin' you are supposed to know how to light that.

Nicole York's picture

Great points, Boris!

Alexandra Angelone's picture

Yes! It's great when we both love skin looking the same. I love Dewey. If they want Matte, it may not work.

Justin Rosenberg's picture

The timing on your article is perfect. I'm starting to work with more makeup artists, and admittedly, I know so little about that side of things. This is super informative (and I'll be sending to a few of my MUA friends, because I know they'll agree with you :))

Nicole York's picture

I'm so glad, Justin! I hope it helps :D

Ken Yee's picture

Being a female photographer definitely let's you communicate better with a MUA and hair stylist. I've been trying to learn makeup/hair descriptions over the past year or two and it's hard for guys so it's sometimes easier to communicate with photos... It does bias the MUA and stylist though...I sometimes just tell them to be creative and take a tangent for their portfolio and I'll tune my editing to make sure they get strong images.
Nice job with the editing... What some folks don't understand is that if you edit for print and you shrink the size of your images for posting in these articles, the skin might look too smooth.
Feel free to bash my photos for being too smooth. My Instagram is
I'm posting that for the folks who complained that commenters don't do it ☺

Nicole York's picture

You're outstanding, Ken :)

Reanne Wilton's picture

I think great communication is the key. It's nice to hear a few honest comments from makeup artists to make photographers think a bit more. All photographers are different, they have different ways they take photos and editing is also a huge thing that sets them apart. Some don't edit and some spend hours editing one image.

I think the photos posted are nice and clean and would love to be able to edit my photos to look that good :) would love to see a before and after to see the difference.

I have worked with models who have asked if I can edit the photos to look like another photographers edited work. I'm still learning new things all the time, so I don't have a set style at this stage, some might think I do, but it's evolving and the majority of people are happy with it.

Miss Ernie's picture

Very informative. I'm definitely going to share this article with my fellow photographers. I've made several of the mistakes mentioned by the MUAs and hang my head in shame. LOL!

Art Altman's picture

Excellent article (thank you!) but the photographs look extremely fake to my eye. Looks like excess retouching. It could be that the client demanded this look of course.

Dennis Murphy's picture

What if you're a photographer and you hate beauty lighting but you still want the person sitting for the photograph to be professionally made-up? Do we have to consult with MUA if they approve of the lighting before pulling the trigger?

David Mawson's picture

Lighting is lighting. If you want to use natural light instead of a beauty dish, just tell the mua. In general, tell people everything that might affect their work - put it an email and uses subtitles so they can skip stuff they don't care about. Giving people information never hurts.

Nicole York's picture

It's not about consulting with them to see if they approve, it's about them knowing which product to use.
For example: some products that look great in natural light will have flash back when shot with strobes (especially from certain angles), and powerful strobes also tend to wash out color, so the MUA may need to use product with more pigment if she knows you're planning to use strobes. If you plan to shoot with ambient tungsten light, the MUA might need to adjust what colors she is using so that the makeup doesn't go too warm and throw the color palette off.
Letting the MUA know what kind of light isn't looking for their approval, but giving them as much information as possible so they can use the right product and give their best. Knowledge is power ;)

borisschipper's picture

It's a late answer but I hope it still reaches you.
In general a make-up artist doesn't care if it's beauty or natural or whatever lighting, as lo g as it's communicated and the final results are good.
I would advice you to make a mood board so he or she knows what you are going for and mail it to them some days in advance.
Like you, they need time to prepare mentally for a shoot to give it their best

David Mawson's picture

Rather than just telling male photographers that they lack a vocabulary to talk about make-up with MUAs, wouldn't it be more useful to write an article establishing the basics of one??? Just 12-20 terms should go a long way. Perhaps one of the MUAs reading would like to tackle this?

Nicole York's picture

I can definitely ask ;)

David Mawson's picture

That's a very positive response!

I think a useful technical vocabulary would start with defining what the options and trade-offs are for skin texture, then move on to contouring, and finally cover lips and eyes. (But I could be completely wrong...)

Ideally it would be nice to be able to relate options to lighting and models - eg "The dewy look isn't a great choice for redheads or a gridded beauty dish, so forget about a shoot that combines all three."

borisschipper's picture

David, If you would ever want something like that I could do it for you

David Mawson's picture

Boris -

I'd love to see something like that any time you have the time. Maybe it would make a good fstoppers article?

For me the big issue is powder. At the moment I feel it should be applied to the t-zone only for most shoots - and the ability to apply the stuff without clogging is critical. I'm researching liquid vs powder foundation at the moment. This is how I want to see skin look by default when I shoot - I think this is called "the dewy look"?

borisschipper's picture

Hey David, I wouldn't mind to do that I just have to find the time.
I notice that the big problem is level of skill with make-up artists.
A lot of photographers think, I have a make-up artist so I'm good but as in any job you have really talented and extremely lousy people.
Another point of importance is taste level and market, every market has it's own do's and dont's which I personally think the make up artist should be aware of all though they usually aren't (so you better know yourself)
If you give me some basic doubts I'll try to clear things up for you.

borisschipper's picture

P.S. in general if people refer to a dewy skin it would mean something looking like this

borisschipper's picture

Oh, and one tip already, forget the over cleaned, frequency separated, perfect skins, the trend is moving away from that.
At least in high fashion (so usually the rest follows)

David Mawson's picture

Boris - you're quite right about skill. I think it's harder by far to be a competent makeup artist than a reasonable photographer - getting basic shots is so easy with digital. And yes that is a superb example of dewy! A problem I do see is too many MUAs wanting to cover models in glitter before they've really learned to get foundation right. Another thing is MUAs not testing products with cameras and flash before shoots - a test with a compact or phone could go a long way.

But turning around the other way, I see MUAs let down all the time by photographers. It really is a mess all round.

Robert Nurse's picture

Nice article Nicole. I've just contacted the two MUA's I use for their input!

Jason Ranalli's picture

This is a good article but I think a few points need to be made. Some of the makeup artists featured with quotes in this article clearly didn't do their homework - at all. Had they looked at even a fraction of the photographer's work or even discussed how retouching would be done they wouldn't have had issues where the retouching was overdone. If we're asking one side to communicate more clearly then the same needs to be said for the other side - don't assume anything, simply talk about it openly and nicely.

With regards to bridal work gripe(or any work for that matter) if it is a paid gig I don't think you should expect pictures to your liking - the pictures are to please the clients of the photographer. That being said, if it is a test-shoot then you should do you due-diligence like I mentioned above and have an open conversation about the process and end result.

I work with MUAs frequently and have none of these issues. My style and communication is clear and I really try to be open to creative differences.

Miro Hristoff's picture

I am just about to start working with MUA, hair stylists, wardrobe dresser... and your article came right in time for me. For now I don't have the opportunity to take some courses on how to work with time or smth. like that, not because I don't have the money, but I can't find the right person with the right course or workshop for me (I talk about Bulgaria)
So I try to gather the right information piece by piece. Your article is such a piece of precious information :)
I think over the idea to put this article on my FB wall and to ask the MUAs what they have to say :) May be I'll post their answers here :)