The Ugly Truth About Fashion Photography

The Ugly Truth About Fashion Photography

Fashion photography is most probably one of the most desirable fields of photography. We are lured by the prospect of working with the hottest and trendiest people out there. That is where I come from and all I can say is: what does not kill you makes you stronger.

Fashion photography, it is a genre of photography that focuses on displaying clothes or other fashion items. Said like that it seems so bleak compared to its magnetic power. What started as a commercial need of brands to illustrate their collections became in the last 50 years a galaxy on its own revolving around a new sun, this season trendiness, and full of stars; stylists, fashion editors, fashion brands, hair stylist, make-up artists and obviously models. You cannot shoot a fashion spread without a crew. It is collaborative work where connections are way more important for a photographer then their lighting skills.

A career in fashion photography requires, well a lot of things. First of all if you want a real shot at it, you need to be in one of the fashion capitals, Paris, New York, London, Milan, where fashion is actually happening and where you can gain access to a crew. To help you bypass the queue in front of the door of editors or fashion houses, you are required to have patience or connections (ideally both if not you might have to consider cryonics). It demands that your favorite dish is pasta out of a can, as you might not see any real money for quite a long while. It calls for a lot of self-control as you often work with prima donnas. Finally it entails a lot of will and creativity to build a portfolio with a recognizable style.

Here are a few reality checks so that you know what to expect.


I often hear photographers pest about image-makers that work for free. Working for free is normal in the fashion editorial world. And that is where you need to be if you want to be taken seriously. If it was just working for free for the time that you need to build your name, you could find a moral/economical investment to justify it. But it goes further then that: sometimes you actually pay to work. Does that sound ridiculous? Yes. And yet. It is common practice. Some editorial work pays a photographers fee, some reimburse your cost (and that is already great), and some pays nothing, leaving you to cover the production costs of a shoot, ranging from food for the crew to the retouching. Obviously when you begin you start at the bottom of the ladder.

Weirdly enough when you do get paid you can find yourself being limited in what you are allowed to do. You will not be able to choose your styling or your model or even your crew. The stylist or the fashion editor becomes your client even if they are paying you pocket money. There are two ways of getting out of that jam. Either morph into a star photographer to whom people will unroll the red carpet, or lockdown the direction of the shoot before. If you feel that you are not given freedom, weigh the value of being published in that magazine. If it is not that crucial to your career move on and don’t look back. Avoid yourself the frustration for time spent on something that does not embody your style.

The funny thing about money in the fashion industry is that there seems to be quite a lot of it but unless your name is part of the star system it seems to avoid your pocket. Clients rarely pay on time and some clients tend to forget about paying altogether. Agents and agencies are not to be always trusted either. My agent ran off with my money and exiled himself outside of France. No legal options possible. I guess he is sipping a margarita somewhere under a palm tree while I am learning voodoo.


Work ethics

There used to be a time when fashion photographers would not allow interns, assistants, or anybody that was not essential to their shoots on their set. This paranoid behavior was explained by the fact that when photographers were shooting film, their light set-up was the ink for their signature. They did not want their lighting secrets to be stolen. Today with retouching it is not that important anymore. But beware of idea thieving.

I worked for a Parisian brand that was just starting. I did their two first catalogues and my images ended up by bringing them an increase in sales rating 50%. Every time I got them deals on studios and crew, gave them very affordable photography and retouching services, and educated them on what was needed to make their shoots interesting for an efficient marketing approach. When I realized that they were choosing images for their catalogue based on how well the clothes looked and not on how good the images were I discussed the need for them to have a look book for their upcoming collection. I shot it for a low budget so that I would have more creative freedom on the advertising images.

For their third collection they took all my ideas, my light concept, my location, but used another photographer. I stayed in bed for a week finding solace in Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I was young. I was an idealist. I thought that I had shown them enough good will and that we had built an honest working partnership. I was wrong. Don’t expect a happy client to come back to you. Appreciate it when they do. They might be happy with your work but they will still want to change. Don’t give your creative ideas out for free thinking that it is an asset. Give your client what they paid for (with a smile!) and only that (keep on smiling when you say no!). There is no other way to be respected.

You might also encounter publications that shred your layout to a point where you are not sure if you shot it, they can also forget to tell you that, ups, they cut the story all together and they never send you the printed magazine and sometimes not even the pdf. I have seen all that happen. It is shocking the first time. Not the second time around. You grow thicker skin.

Crew drama

Fashion photography being based on a collaborative workflow, your crew is your secret weapon. It takes time to find people who you can count on to technically make your visions reality, who work with you towards a common goal, and who you like as human beings. Once you have found them you want to keep them with you on every shoot possible, especially if your careers have grown together. It just makes things fun and easy. Sometimes it is conflicting schedules that make it impossible, other times it is politics. The stylists and hair and make-up people that have careers in this domain work a lot, way more then photographers if you compare the actual time spent on sets. This translates in less excitement and less patience. They want easygoing days. On editorials, stylists will often impose either a hair or a make-up person, or both, because they want a friend that they can gossip with when they are waiting around. Clients that have contacts will do the same. Team members who are imposed on you have an annoying habit to overstep their roles and suddenly start directing the model, the shoot, or make comments on your light. That’s when self control needs to step in. To a point. If you let yourself be walked on once they will want to do it again. Channel the diplomat in you but make sure they get the message. Respect on a shoot might need a metaphorical bitch slap. Of course with a smile!

You might be doing all the right things and still end up with a team that just does not click. The hair guy hates the make-up artist so they will go out of their way to make the hair and then the make-up escalate during the day until you end up with a panda that put her fingers in an electric slot, the stylist did not order the clothes you asked for (“Daaarling I thought this would be more modern!”), the models agencies forgot to tell you that the model cut her hair yesterday and needs to leave 2 hours in advance to catch a train, and the art director shows up after lunch and decides that he prefers to shoots outdoors because "indoors is so 2009." In a nutshell: it is a shitty day and you are asking yourself, "Why did I decide to shoot fashion again?"

That’s the tipping point. You either embrace the craziness or you move on to greener pastures. At last if you decide to hang on to the fashion merry-go-round you will have some emblematic stories to tell during social outings. A sense of humor to the disproportionate is a lifesaver. I am still practicing.




Anna Dabrowska's picture

Anna Dabrowska is a beauty and fashion photographer based in Paris.

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Great article; interesting for a guy, who never worked in fashion and even, by large, don't want to. Now I'll wait for comments from other fashion-togs to roll in. Don't let me down, guys!

I'll never complain about weddings again.

After just finishing my first successful fashion editorial, I can relate to this! Great read, Anna!

After reading this, I'm slowly starting to second guess getting into the fashion industry. lol I mean I want to, but I don't want to at the same time. But yeah, def a great read! Thanks for this!

Yeah, fashion can be cut throat. But there are ways to go about it that are a little easier ;)

I'd love to read those ways on a follow up article? Unless you have another article up already?

I'll put one together! Ive been meaning to for a while. Just want to make sure I properly express my thoughts. :)

So is there a fashion photographers chapter in Masochists Anonymous?

There should be! :)

I started photography to honestly do either commercial or/and fashion... I've been shooting personal fashion projects for about 5 years.. in the middle of nowhere pretty much, no where near fashion capitals (other than NYC), and it is extremely difficult getting a crew, and heck even fashion models with the look accepted by the fashion industry. At most I could afford is doing 1 personal fashion project in NYC a year (since I live only 2.5 hours drive from there). So my new realization is to focus in other areas instead and hold off my fashion venture for years down the road. Thank you for giving me that clarity. Now I will focus on commercial and editorial which is my 2nd love, but still love it. And it'd be much more possible without the restrictions of very specific type of models which are impossible to find locally.

I thinks she is saying is that it is a frustrating endeavour and if you want to choose this area of photography to make your mark you need to understand what is going to happen. I didn't expect it at all.

The fashion side of photography is full of really artistic people who are very passionate of their part in fashion. An they tend to take everything personally...very personally.

You are right about the client choosing the shots that work for them, however I find that the client usually don't have any clue what they want until you steer them into some direction. Thats why I highly suggest the client is on set to choose which shots they like as they come into the computer, so I am not waisting time, effort and most of all my mind with the question "What do they want/like"?

Hugh, great points!

You're right that clients generally have less ideas in mind than they let on...So the photographers that can handle them the best are the ones that know when to listen and know when to stop listening. It's a high-wire balancing act.

I love the stories of how Guy Bourdin would cut all of the film he didn't like with a pair of scissors so that only the shots he chose could get published. Helmut Newton was known to shoot just a few frames from a single roll of film so that editors didn't have many options. Of course, they were shooting film which put them in a little more control than shooting digital. There used to be a Hollywood celebrity photographer that didn't allow monitors on set when shooting digital, but I don't know if he's able to still get away with it. These methods are great ways to stay in control but it sure would take a big ego to pull them off.

Excellent read Anna, can totally related to the crew over stepping their roles and the photographer being walked on.

This is SO TRUE!!

Im in a super small market and it is everything you just described! I ran a workshop last year for a NY Fashion photographer and the crew was awesome and worked well with each other!

Now I try to bring a new group collaborative pre-maddonas together and all I get is the infighting, your lighting doesn't look like (some no nome student photographer who just graduated part time school because I have done real fashion shoots for sone local no-name upstart clothing company)....because I know, I don't like mayo on my sandwich (I hate mayo), I want the hair like this, I have to leave by 1:30 to take my dog to the vet people.

I have seriously wondered why I am doing this.

I think because I'm crazy.

beside of that: it took me a fstoppers registration to say: beautiful pix you shoot, great portfolio you have, chapeau!

I can relate to a lot of this! Nice piece.

Great post, here in Brazil is the same think, nothing different. Sometimes I'm so disappointed with the money because I work a lot and don't give any money with my work. Nice to see someone with the same problem.

Supereb article, being a beginner in the fashion industry i can relate to a lot of points mentioned above. great read though !

I moved to Paris after doing well in my tiny ass country (Costa Rica). It's the same story everywhere you go, from tiny markets to the top ones. It becomes pure business in a saturated market. By the way, love your beauty shots! And I think we have shot the same model :)

If you're in Paris, hit me up and let's go grab a coffee. It's always nice to meet more photogs :)

Great article with strong reality check for those interested in fashion. My wife is always watching all the "fashion" reality shows. It only took me about five minutes of watching how people acted to realize I would hate working in that industry.

Brilliant article. Absolutely enjoyed the realistic insight into your world.

One thought. This idea of photographers being forced to work for free and being walked on in the process. I hear this sentiment over and over, also outside of the world of fashion photography. But aren't we to blame ourselves? Aren't we the ones who allow for this? It feels a bit like the abused wife complaining about her abusive husband — OK, he's an @(#&@#. But darling, you've got feet! You can walk. Walk away!

I know, easier said than done. There's a 100 hungry photographers ready to fill your spot, you think. Ah, but there's not. They do not have your experience, know how, track record, name. I honestly believe that if professional photographers look at each other and agree to not work for crap fees, and not tolerate crap behaviour from clients, the clients will wise up. I am seeing this happen in my local context: slowly but surely there is a positive shift in clients appreciation for the skill, expertise and person of the photographer.

one of the best articles I have read here so far, a truly realistic insight in the world of fashion photography

Well in my country if you are shooting fashion for the money then you are stupid. Fashion photography is like art, you do it because you love it, and not everyone get lucky and sell a million dollar painting that every other artist can paint it exactly the same for free.

Money come from other boring stuff to shoot unfortunately.

Bader Alwazeer... I don't what country you are from, but here in the United States we are groomed to be Capitalist. If a business person is not making the money they are considered to be stupid.

I have had a long career as a fashion photographer. Survived the analog/digital transition. It made me smile to read Anna's story. Things have not changed much in the past 25 years. About the money part, well, I was lucky enough to get a good run at the money jobs for a while, but I see now how the web has changed the game.The life of images is now very short, and looking at any image on a small portable device...well it sure diminishes its beauty. Also the web is a 'content beast', hence quantity is more important than quality. 70% of fashion images consumed on the web are shot on white backgrounds and are very budget minded. Photography was one of the first industries disrupted by digital, fashion came shortly after.Fashion photographers have been at the forefront of constant change and disruption. It has become much harder to make a good living at it. I'm still shocked by the attempt of Amazon at patenting/trademarking a specific studio light setup. In the near future, with AI, AR and machine learning, fashion editorials will be 100% virtual. On IG @lucababiniphoto

this is depressing ... but thank you for sharing.

Very entertaining and informative article. I happened to assist a European fashion team here in the US recently and observed many of the issues you touch on. The highly accomplished photographer had the talent, years of experience, and people skills to keep everything running smoothly.