Saturday, April 30, 2011

Raw Talk: Becoming a 'World Famous' Fashion Photographer

Picture this....You are getting paid to be close to super models, take their pictures and have them published in  fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Elle. You work with the most talented and creative people in the industry. Your name is renowned internationally. You hang out with the world’s most stylish people: models, fashion designers and socialites and most importantly, you have the potential to earn a six-figure income annually. Read more on how to really get there in 8 not so easy steps...

In this digital era, almost anybody can literally become a professional photographer and photo retoucher. As long as you own a reliable camera and photo-editing software, becoming a fashion photographer is within reach.

uh, Not really!

You work hard on learning the craft and finally can light your images like them and hire amazing retouchers to get amazing magazine quality pictures. You have already spent a couple of thousand dollars on creating your portfolio.  You feel good and take a look around, and there are 100s of you in every city, trying to get published in those same magazines and shoot books for the same model agencies. How do you get past this level you have achieved, which definitely was a dream few years back, and go to being published 'regularly' in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and all.

Times are different. Every young one wants to be a Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel or a Mario Testino. Being really good these days just doesn't cut in. You have to be exceptional. And when you are exceptional, you are just eligible to compete to make it. You will read all over to market your photography etc. That is true, and will get you some assignments here and there. If you expect to be noticed like how Annie was while at Rolling Stone, Avedon, Demarchelier or Peter Lindberghs' Black&Whites -it's not going to happen atleast in this lifetime.  On seeing Markus Klinko and Indrani's reality show called 'Double Exposure' you see how even they, at the top level, are trying to stay in the limelight in this flimsy business. In the 60's Photography was not an easy craft, and many ideas had been unexplored. Today, every one has a better Digital SLR camera to shoot their dogs, than what Annie had to shoot for Rolling Stone magazine. 

The Myth: 
Many people think that when they become famous photographers, they will hang around Kate Moss, Giselle Bundchen and other supermodels. In reality, to be a photographer of the stars, you have to have that lifestyle before you pick up a camera. Some facts to support this theory is the success of Mario Testino, Karl Lagerfield, Victor Demarchelier, Terry Richardson, Markus Klinko etc to name a few. Chances are, in the next eight years, Annie Leibovitz's daughter will be a bigger photographer than you if she chooses this profession.

The Hope: 
Don't be disappointed, you still have a shot to glory. It is much harder to achieve than any of the names mentioned above. All you really need is the will and the fire to make it that big. There are big sacrifices down the road until you get there. Its just what you are willing to give to get that success. You have to live for one Whatever you earn you invest back in it. I'm sure, out of thousands of you who read this, one of you will have the ability to do it.

The Path:
So here it is, 8 steps to be 'World Famous' photographer.....the really hard 'Kungfu Panda' way:

1. First of all, you need to learn the craft in and aware of all the types of Lighting in B&W, Color and advanced Retouching. You should be good enough to recreate any image you have seen. You have to be a true master of photography and yet, NEVER STOP LEARNING. Read books, internet blogs, magazines, Lighting and Retouching DVD's, practice, experiment, practice again. Brooks Institute is the best school for photography. The truth is that a degree from Brooks usually only gets you huge student loan debts. It's not likely to land you a job, and certainly not one that can make enough money to pay the bills. Brooks has always been place for the rich to send their kids to learn a hobby. People who can afford Brooks can afford not to work. For our path, its Brooks is only as good as any other photography institute. Remember, Good education can earn you a living, but self education can make you a fortune!

2. By doing the first step for 3-4 years, you will in time be aware of all the styles of photography out there and how to achieve it, This will enable you to build a style. Your OWN style. This is by far the hardest and the most confusing part. But don't pay to much attention to it as it develops on its own. Know the difference between 'How good you think you are' and 'How good you Really are'. Thousands of Photographers are satisfied after this point and shoot local models and small paid jobs. Good for them. Some try for big work in the city and are rejected or are still waiting for a call back from the editor. A photographer is only as big as who and with whom he shoots. A highly artistic image with dramatic lighting and awesome retouching of 'J' the photographer and 'N' the most popular model of his area is worth nothing compared to a snapshot of Kate Moss by Terry Richardson and his pocket camera.

3. You have to be around super stars to be able to understand how they behave and how to shoot them. And since you are not the son of Patrick Demarchelier, you HAVE to assist him or someone at his level who shoot celebs and supermodels day in and day out. To do this, you HAVE to relocate to where these guys are. My guess is you will have to live in either New York, Paris or London. If you have done the first two steps, you will have one spot as an assistant to the big guys. But don't take my word for it yet. You might have to work as a waiter or do small photography assignments until you get a paid assistant job. These jobs are 16-20hrs a day for minimum wage type of jobs. World famous photographer Rankins speaks out in this insightful interview, on what he looks for in an assistant. A must read for you. Read here.

4. Once you land an assistant job, you will probably have to work your way to become the first assistant or the Photographers right hand by handling all the Photographers job as good as him, and think like he does, before he does. This takes atleast 3 to 5 years of dedication. Depending on Photographers, an apprenticeship will be fun or nightmare. Some Photographers are known to treat their assistants like $h%t just to look better. There will be days when you will seem so close and yet so far away from your dream. You will miss the simple life in the suburbs and the joy photography once brought. This is a break out point for many dedicated and aspiring Photographers. So, it is very important to choose a Big guy who is 'Mentor' material.

5. If you have successfully assisted any such Photographers for at least 8 to 10 years and you are now friends and talk about photography and life, it is time to move on. By this time, you will notice that you know all the celebs, supermodels, best stylists, makeup artists, magazine editors, retouchers, rental studios, equipment rentals, business ethics and much more. It is very important to have made friends with atleast 2-5 of each of the above top talents/artists. Being in a good book of a celeb/socialite will help tons. When you assist so long, you have access to the phone numbers of all the above people, or their agents. Build up a new portfolio while assisting with these best talents. 

6. The next step is to show this work to all the art directors and editors you have met over the years while still assisting. Some may be okay with this. If they aren't, make sure you don't do this behind the Photographers back. In such a case, get started with an online web gallery of your portfolio and just mail it to all the guys just for critique, not asking work. They will have your work in mind, and they might think of you without you asking. When you start getting good offers and are confident to survive with basic assignments, bid farewell to your mentor. If you have established a good relation, it goes without saying, there will be some decent jobs forwarded to you from his end.

7. There are very good chances for you to get a decent editorial shoot, from a well known magazine if you hang in there and keep in touch with all the contacts. Beware, there are many one hit wonder Photographers who finally have shot one cover for Vogue and maybe another for Harpers Bazaar in the 90's, and then back to mediocre work. The reason for this is CONSISTENCY. This is what differentiates between the top level professional photographers from other professionals. Vogue Italia goes to Steven Meisel every year for 2 decades as they know he will deliver no matter what. He hasn't given them a reason to look elsewhere. Staying fresh and yet consistently great all these years is his big accomplishment.

8. When you become a regular at Fashion Magazines and some Brands, you will get call from agents to represent your work. It could be the same ones you had tried ages back, but they showed no interest then. Choose an agent wisely as they can get you out there in the scene. Its also time to invest in your own Camera system and lighting gear, hire full time assistants and an office studio. Remember, 'being consistent' is the key to prolonged success.

Photographers who have taken this route are Michael Thompson(assisted Irving Penn) and Solve Sundsbo(assisted Nick Knight) to name a few.

Like it or not, achieving this dream is a lifetime dedication. If you dedicate your life to follow this dream, you WILL get there. It just depends how far you are willing to go. 

Here are a few tips on what makes a Fashion Photographer.

Visual Imagination
Artistic Sensitivity
Ability To Get The Shot In Difficult Conditions 
Respect for Models
Knowing The Poses
Organize: The Whole Shoot Is Your Responsibility
Making The Clothes Look Better
Knowing Your Equipment
Working With The Best Talent and Crew
Staying On Budget
Never Settling For Anything Less Than Excellent
Producing Consistently Amazing Work

For those interested in this discussion should look up this excellent book by Selina Maitreya...
How to Succeed in Commercial Photography: Insights from a Leading Consultant

Good Luck....


  1. Having done some of the above, and worked with some of the names htere, the above post did rasie a cheeky grin [but I wont name names or reasons]. As ever, enjoyable post !

  2. Awesome blog, thanks to share this site.

  3. very inspiring post...thank you

  4. Wow what a blog. I was searching a blog like this. Your blog is so informative. Commercial Fashion Photographer

  5. I've always been afraid of the fashion industry so I don't think I'll ever do that kind of photography, but your tips are wonderful! Thank you. Fashion photographer New york.