How to Style Your Own Fashion Shoots on a Budget

How to Style Your Own Fashion Shoots on a Budget

Whether you're shooting a high-fashion model, a mom to be, or a high school senior, the clothes always matter. I'm a sucker for over-the-top drama in my own work but am not always able to find a stylist to help me out with these shoots. Even if you don't have a need to do this yourself, give it a go from time to time. It will improve your work from behind the camera too, as photographing people is usually involving fashion in one way or another. In addition to keeping up with the latest trends, you might even start to confidently help your clients out when they ask for your opinion about what they're nervously wearing.

Since high-fashion photography is the most obvious example, where the most importance is placed on the clothing, here are some tips for finding extremely cheap fashion shoot attire on your own.  

Find a Consignment Shop

Hop on Google or take a drive or walk around town like I do. When I pick a local shop at random to check out I end up finding the most amazing pieces. I love spontaneity. Goodwill is great if you have time to sort through a lot of stuff to find a complete high-fashion outfit. I like consignment and thrift shops because they're usually more selective with what they put on their racks, very high fashion, in with the times and for close to the same price.

I went for a walk in Louisville, Kentucky yesterday and stumbled upon The Wright Stuff Consignment and went in on a whim. When I saw a display holding the most poodle pins I've ever seen in one place before, I knew I was in the right place. The shop had an endless supply of items I wanted to photograph but I limited myself to one outfit when I walked in as to not get off track. I splurged a bit on this feathery piece, but I usually only spend anywhere from $15 to $25 on a full look. When envisioning your final outfit, don't feel too constrained by a models measurements, you can easily pin clothing to fit if you find something that's a winner besides the size.

Search Around for the Craziest Clothes You Can Find

The best part about high fashion is the limitless ability to express whatever you want; to be outrageous, daring, shocking, and even ugly. 

There are no rules in fashion but to make styling it a bit easier I usually find a top first. The blouse is the piece of clothing closest to the face and generally the half of the photograph our eyes are drawn to. Another reason to start with the top: you can crop the images if you don't get the rest of the outfit quite right.

Finding dramatic clothing at thrift shops

When I step into a thrift shop, I look at the first garments that jump out at me and capture my attention. If its eye-catching on a dusty old clothes rack, you know it will grab everyone attention with a model and some beautiful light on it. I saw these black feathers from a mile away and grabbed the sheer cardigan they were sticking out from and held on to it.

Feather blouse: $15

Find Some Bottoms to Match

The hardest part is putting a top and a bottom together. Luckily as photographers, we already have an eye for things that are eye-catching. Just like the fluidity in a photo forms, It can be the color, the pattern, the texture, or all three that makes two pieces of clothing mesh well together. I recommend starting with all black, white, or a solid color for bottoms because the overwhelming world of patterns and colors can quickly clutter images with distraction if not matched thoughtfully with the top.

How to style your own fashion shoot.

Finding polar opposites in clothes works well for me. This feathery top is short and shows the midsection so I knew I wanted a long skirt or pants for the bottom half of this outfit. There were several pants similar to the ones I chose, but these caught my eye because of the thin cutout strands around them that would blow around in front of a fan while the model posed in them. 

"Carwash" pants: $8

Don't Forget the Accessories 

The accessories are technically a smaller piece of a final photograph but it's amazing how much they complete the whole look. Don't worry, you don't have to get crazy with jewelry and other small trinkets to nail a fashion shoot, some neutral but bold items to add to the outfit will do wonders. Accessories can get pricey for a photographers budget if the shoot is for fun. Thankfully most subjects have a good selection of shoes and jewelry to bring to a shoot and it can be fun to mix and match with what they bring. If you know a models shoe size and are worried they might not have something to match, you can pick up some heels at a thrift shop for as little as a couple dollars. I am usually pleasantly surprised at the cool stuff a model brings to a shoot.

After finishing her makeup and hair, my model, Leah Rogers, threw on some earrings and undergarment that were both a few dollars at Forever 21 and we were ready to shoot in front of this turquoise wall in my basement. She already had the red and brown shoes in her closet, and they turned out to be just the color pop this outfit needed and inspired me to add some color while editing. 

How to style your own fashion shoot.

Find a Background

Start with some plain textured walls or backgrounds like this one. The textured surfaces are a great way make the clothes pop and add some moodiness. Using walls like this also makes a perfect canvas for fun edits like these. While you're getting the hang of things it's good to start simple so you don't accidentally drown your hard work with distractions behind your model.

Tips on styling your own fashion shoot.

Bring Your Vision to Life

I find it easier to pose a model and effortlessly get what I imagined after styling them myself. It makes sense since when we style we are thinking about the final images more thoroughly than usual. I see poses in my head as I'm shopping around for outfits. Even if I leave empty-handed, I come home from a thrift store with ideas, inspiration, and creative energy — the things we really need to create but can't buy anywhere.

Above is my final result of styling a cheap high-fashion photoshoot without a stylist.

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Boyan Georgiev's picture

Thanks for the article, some great advice there for hobbyist like me. And great results from your shoot!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Thank you very much! Can't wait to hear how your's goes!

Dan Howell's picture

While the suggestion for going to thrift stores is a good one, is it quite dramatically not the same as working with a stylist. The gist of your article is go out and find good fashion for a photo shoot which is not the much different than an article on lighting saying go out and set up nice lighting without providing any fundamentals about what good fashion or good lighting is.

Stylists are important for fashion photography for several reasons. They have the ability to source past, current and future fashion, the knowledge to co-ordinate outfits and concepts, and the ability to manipulate and fit the items to the model. With knowledge and experience an individual photographer can learn one or a number of these roles but this article doesn't provide much tangible information about them.

For a photographer wishing to build an initial fashion photography portfolio, finding a stylist is as important as finding a model or a make up artist. I don't read many articles that suggest photographers learn makeup for their shoots. I say this as a photographer who toiled with these issues at the outset of my career. I was lucky to find a make up collaborator early on, but I struggled finding a stylist and fashions. After 20 years of fashion shoots, I can pull together the styling for a shoot if I am forced to, but my efforts would still pale in comparison to what even a newer stylist could do.

For a modest investment a photographer could look into an account with Rent The Runway or other wardrobe rental services to gain access to real fashion pieces. Or they could put effort into finding a student who is studying fashion merchandising or styling at the university level. Sort of that, I honestly recommend photographers aim towards shooting lifestyle if they are not going to shoot more professionally styled fashion. The reasoning is that a fashion photograph will be judged not only on the merits as a photo, but also on the creativity, quality and timeliness of the fashion.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Your absolutely right, I always prefer working with a stylist and in no way is this advice on how to do their job, what they do is extensive and incredible. I'm only trying to show that when you don't have one for a shoot, or just want to try something more casual without a full team, you can easily throw together something simple but still styled yourself. Thanks for the thoughtful input!

HOW TO STYLE YOUR OWN FASHION SHOOTS ON A BUDGET... ON A BUDGET.... A BUDGET... BUDGET! Lol your totally right but the response to your Long four paragraphed comment is in the title of this article

Dan Howell's picture

You know, you're right. What do I know? It's not like I literally spent decades doing this or anything. I mean how can you put a value on creating images that are useless? Surely taking great photos with horrible fashion won't cause anyone to doubt your merit.

If you'll read, I gave 3 solid suggestions to photographers who are sincere about shooting fashion. If you are strictly and only concerned with cost, taking NO photos is the cheapest recommendation I have for you.

Josh Thomas's picture

How ridiculous. If you need a stylist and can’t actually choose the fashion for your fashion shoots, you probably shouldn’t be trying to get into fashion photography. Generally you pick the professions that you’re knowledgeable in.

Dan Howell's picture

You do realize that fashion styling is a profession on its own, right? I'm not seeking to be a professional stylist. What I am is a working fashion photographer. As such I appreciate both the efforts and inspiration of stylists. The job that I do is likely not the job a stylist can or would want to do. While I can style some shots, I know where my efforts are better focused.

Styling is not only about coordination, it is actually a business activity that relies on resources and effort. On-set styling requires more than a casual knowledge of fit and construction of garments and what can or needs to be done to fit a garment to a model. In some cases the stylist is the bridge between the designer or client and the photographer and requires some knowledge of both sides.

So basically you as a self-professed 'semi-professional' photographer are saying that my efforts working in editorial, catalog and advertising fashion photography for the past two decades is ridiculous. Ok, it's fair to have an opinion. You'll have to forgive me if I choose a different one based on my actual experience and that of my friends and peers.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Great article! Thanks!!!

Very informative.

I am a new photographer from Pakistan and have a small studio. I have also put together a small wardrobe mostly for portfolios. Sometimes models doesn't bring strapless bras and nude color underwear. Is it common to have these in studio for emergencies. If yes then what sizes should we have.

Thanks in advance.

Wish I knew about those tips when we've been making a photoshoot for a line of merch that we wanted to get from . Sadly, we wasted a ton of money and wasn't able to get a desirable result so we'll make another attempt soon. Hope that this time we will handle it better.

Guys, thought about throwing a photoshoot with different handbags for my portfolio and renting authentic stuff is a huge pain, I'll have to waste a ton of time so thought about getting some cheaper replicas, like those ones described on . I am pretty sure that on photos it will be impossible to spot that I used replicas. Do you think that it would be a good idea?