Fashion Photography: Is It All Just Pretty Girls in Sexy Clothes?

Fashion Photography: Is It All Just Pretty Girls in Sexy Clothes?

Browse any amateur fashion photography page, and you will quickly discover that a lot of the work is just pretty girls in average outfits. It almost seems like a lot of this “photography” is not so much about the clothes as it is about the girls. In this article, we will discuss the causes of this phenomenon and answer the question: what is real fashion photography?

When I started out taking fashion images, I was always working with models who were clothed. It took me a few years at least to attempt any sort of nudity in my work. Even then, it was awkward, and the shooting experience was not enjoyable. Yet, other creatives start with “sexy girl in a bra” photography. This has polarized the photography community for years now. To what extent is “sexy girl in a bra” fashion photography? I think it is not; in fact, I think it is one of the largest reasons behind the stigma of the “fashion photographer.”

A large portion of amateur fashion photographers has nothing to do with real fashion photography. The primary reason for doing such work is the remote possibility of meeting a sexy girl and going out with her later. I’ve personally known people who would ask girls to participate in shoots only because they wanted them sexually.

Usually, these are the same people who claim that they are unable to work if their subject is not sexy or attractive. Excuse me, but, if there is anything that screams “amateur hour,” it has to be this. One of the things that separates hobbyists from professionals is that a professional can fall in love with almost any subject they have in front of them. Just look at Platon’s image of Putin. Even at the time of photographing him, Putin had a horrible human rights record. Despite being a human rights advocate, Platon still photographed Putin, as a true professional photographer.

I believe it was Peter Lindbergh who said that while the model is on set, he is in love with her, but as soon as the camera is off, he no longer is. It is hard to photograph a subject you don’t love, respect, or admire in one way or another. However, a true professional can find something interesting in everyone. If you struggle with this, I strongly recommend looking at Peter Hurley’s Headshot Course available in our store. We have made a section on finding interesting facial features in human faces, which will help you tremendously in this. It is not easy; it comes with practice.

Claiming to be a fashion photographer if what you do is just take photos of pretty girls in sexy outfits is misleading. The entry point into this segment of the market is practically non-existent. All you need is a few basic light setups off YouTube, some cameras and lights, and you’re good to go. Do be aware of the fact that there is no money in this. While I personally don’t like this genre of fashion photography, I won’t judge you if you do. Be honest with your demands from all of this. I say that you are free to do whatever you want as long as it is legal, but please call it something else, not fashion.

For the rest of us who want to improve and become real fashion photographers, the first thing to do is to stop doing “camera club" photography. This is where you have to open your mind to a lot of new information.

What Is Real Fashion Photography?

There is a lot of content on YouTube claiming to be “fashion,” when, in reality, it is not. A lot of these videos are easy to tell by their style. The makeup is usually something inspired by a 2009 post on DeviantArt, the lighting is a three-light setup from YouTube, and the skin is so plastic that it kills sea turtles.

What you should be watching are videos of behind-the-scenes from big fashion houses and magazines. There is a lot of this content. I would recommend creators such as Ian Hippolyte, BTS videos from Vogue, Lara Jade, etc.  Another great way to see good fashion photography is to check out websites such as models.com. Because gatekeepers are protecting the platform, the content on it is much more refined and "real." 

Real fashion photography is about fashion. However, that is not to say that nudity and sexiness have no place in it. However, there is a big difference between a photo that belongs in Playboy and Marie Claire (even in their nude issue). Nudity on its own is just that. However, if it is elevated, and there is a meaning behind it, it becomes something more. Another reason for nudity in fashion photography is that it is perhaps one of the best ways to draw attention to an item of clothing or an accessory. Both male and female nudity has a place in real fashion photography. Take a look at some of the Tom Ford campaigns and the work of Steven Klein and Steven Meisel.

Unfortunately, there is a dark and disgusting side to fashion photography, and the dozens if not hundreds of legitimate cases of misconduct from all sides are not uncommon. Some of the nudity is not consensual, and models are sometimes forced to do it, especially at the beginning of their careers. Photographers that take advantage of models in such a way are harming not only their reputations but the reputation of the industry. While there is nothing wrong with two people meeting on set and ending up having a romance because they like each other, there is everything wrong with one party abusing their power to get an intimate relationship.

Closing Thoughts

Real fashion photography is far from sexy girl photography. Personally, my favorite models are far from traditional standards of beauty. When casting for personal projects, perhaps the last thing I look for is how sexy the model is. Sure, once I had to cast someone solely based on their breast size, however, that is an outlier.

Be honest with your intentions when doing fashion photography. If all you want to do is sexy girl photography and they’re up for whatever it is that you want, go for it! But for the rest of us who want to do real fashion photography, this is not the way.  

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10 Comments
Jon Winkleman's picture

Rather pompous clickbait article. So wonderful of Mr Ovchar to appoint himself the arbiter of who is a real fashion photographer and who is not. I guess Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber and Mario Testino are not REAL fashion photographers as they have used their craft to pick up people who otherwise would not be interested in them. A lot of legit paid work in fashion photography such as catalogue, might require technical skills but has little creativity and artistry. Not all legit professional fashion photographers are artists like Averdon.

Fashion photography can refer to either a profession or a genre. If someone is photographing clothes or ad campaigns for fashion brands and being paid they are a real fashion photographer even if they are also creepy men with cameras such as Richardson who is also a great artist. Also many brands, notably Abercrombie had extensive campaigns with photos of nudes, rather than the clothing to sell their brand, That still is fashion photography.

Also there are vastly different fashion brands selling to very different customers. High fashion very expensive brands do work in a more artistic style that we see in Vogue. However there are also tables that sell less expensive clothes to working class customers, others with trashier fashion aesthetics, these hire photographers to shoot campaigns appropriatefor their clothing style and target customers.

As a genre, like every other photography genre there is a range of practitioners from amateur to high paid pros along with those who are fine artists (Ritts and Avedon) to hacks whose work is mediocre at best.

I wish FStoppers would stop publishing articles like this that cast value judgements against other photographers. There have also been multiple articles about nudity and photography that would be laughed at in any Art School Photography MFA program. It is sophomoric and does little to elevate the photographers, the community or the profession. It would be more productive to instruct new would be fashion photographers on how to grow beyond taking snapshots of someone in clothes and especially to encourage them to see the works of the greats such as Avedon, Horst, Ritts, Helmut Newton, Edward Steichen. I also have strong opinions on #metoo and creeps in photography. Better to discuss how to work with models and ethical and professional boundaries between model and photographer. Teach people to be better rather than condescend and put down.

Peter House's picture

I see where you are coming from but I just don't agree with your take.

You manage to acknowledge legendary photographers that infuse their work with sex and glamour, but also dismiss that type of work as not real fashion photography in your conclusion. But here is the thing, it very much is.

Fashion photography is simply about crafting a visual mood that compliments the clothing and brand. If the brand is very edgy and sexy, the photographer may have to go into that visual space. That's all.

Is there a lot of photographers poorly shooting scantily clad women and lazily calling it "fashion"? Of course. But there are just as equally a ton of terrible fully clothed images that should not be called "fashion" either.

The lack of fabric doesn't make a fashion image, but it also doesn't inherently NOT make a fashion image. You still need good execution, good taste, and good intent.

What you are doing is simply judging bad photography and bad photographers (which is fine), but making a false correlation to amount of clothing (not fine).

IMO.

Matthew White's picture

I don’t get the negative takes on the article.
Illya noted that nudity and sexiness have a place in fashion photography if properly incorporated.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

You must have missed the part where he is deciding what is "real fashion photography." Re-read the last paragraph.

If you've read his past articles, he's anti anything sexy and only his way is the real way.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Well, Eddie, I am not sure about the anti-sexy part. there are some images I consider sexy in my own portfolio at www.illyaovchar.com . Though, I would not advise making sexy the centerpiece of anyone's fashion portfolio.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Well, therein lies the problem. Your version of sexy. There's like literally nothing in there that can be construed as sexy. Yes, you have one under-boob and perfume image. But, 99% are basically just studio shots.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Oh absolutely! We have vastly different portfolios with vastly different definitions of sexy.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

My version is the "real" version. :P

Alexander Petrenko's picture

It Is All Just Pretty Girls in Clothes. And free editorials.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Well, guys too haha. And you're right about free editorials. Could not agree more haha.