The fashion photographer How to shoot for a living

Cover Image - The fashion photographer
WordsAya Noël
IllustrationsMaria Ines Gul

There’s only one role in the industry solely responsible for bringing all the beauty of fashion to the world’s stage: the photographer. But if it was as easy as merely showing up with gear and taking perfect images, anyone with an iPhone or DSLR could snap a successful editorial spread. In the second of this how-to mini-series with 1 Granary, writer and editor Aya Noël explores the highs and lows of making this visual dream a physical reality.

Andrew Nuding was convinced he had made it the moment he finished his fine arts media degree and started bringing in his first photography gigs. Living with his parents in Dublin, he could easily get by on one big job a month. “I thought I was loaded.” It wasn’t until he moved to London a few months later and started accepting bigger projects that the National College of Art and Design graduate realized he was still a long way from building a career out of his skills. “As you get bigger, the expenses start to rise,” the photographer explains. “Doing your work gets more expensive and you need to start running your business.” 

Just like many of his peers, Nuding had to learn that being good at taking pictures doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good at being a photographer. You can build and expand your creative and technical skills, but unless you know how to promote and sell them, you won’t get very far. How do I price my work? Will I lose credibility by accepting commercial gigs? Should I always say no to free jobs? And is networking really that important? Art education doesn’t usually offer modules on these pragmatic questions, but knowing the answer can make or break a career.

“My advice to anyone stepping into the business of photography would be to work with as many professionals as possible before you engage in your own practice,” says Sam Rock, who has worked for i-D, Vogue, and M le Monde. The London-based photographer doesn’t have a traditional photography background but firmly believes in on-the-ground experience as the most efficient school. Sirui Ma couldn’t agree more. The steepest learning curve takes place on the job. “My biggest regret is investing so much in my art education,” the London-based photographer states. Studying in the UK capital with a Chinese passport meant Sirui had to pay international fees and “didn’t get value for money—the quality of art education is very low.”

Just as there are countless different ways to make a single image, there are countless ways to run your business, so it’s crucial to see different ways of working before setting out on your own. “The photographer’s creative process often dictates how they manage their business and you need to be flexible in how you run things to make sure this important factor doesn’t get diluted by the business side,” says Rock. “Your creativity is your business.”

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Just as there are countless different ways to make a single image, there are countless ways to run your business.

You might feel like you have your visual identity figured out, or your skillset mastered, but that same rigor needs to be applied to the organization of your creativity. “Being a photographer, there are so many elements, and taking the pictures is 10 percent,” says Nuding. “So much of it is planning, meeting people, finding new projects and organizing them.” It’s one piece of advice every photographer shared—do not underestimate the admin. “I often dream of having an assistant that does all admin work for me because there is so much to organize as a freelancer,” says Lina Scheynius, an esteemed Swedish art photographer who started her career doing editorials for Vogue and Dazed, as well as campaigns for Jil Sander. But her job wasn’t necessarily as glamorous as the titles she worked for. “As a photographer, you have to be good at managing a lot of practical things, one of them being chasing invoices.”

Unless you have an agent who does client onboarding and negotiation, and an accountant to manage your finances, you’ll only spend a fraction of your time making pictures. “Doing everything by yourself can be very overwhelming. You’re running a business,” says Nuding.

“It took me a while before I started making enough money to cover basic things like food and rent,” adds Scheynius. “I had another job before starting out and was living off my savings for a couple of years. I never got into debt. I would not recommend that because it was stressful enough as it was.”

Doing fashion editorials for independent magazines can be especially financially draining for photographers just starting out. “You invest a lot of money and don’t see a direct return,” says Nuding. Fashion editorials are what help young photographers get noticed and help them build up a portfolio, but print publications don’t always have a production budget. As the photographer, you are the head of the shoot, so you might be expected to cover fees and organize production. This includes booking the studio, renting the equipment such as lighting, covering post-production, and in some cases, catering and transport for the crew. It can be a huge investment, but to many photographers, it’s worth it. “Editorial is almost like your advertising for the season. The magazines you’re in define your image and the pool of people you’ll be associated with. It’s incredibly important,” explains Nuding.

When the paid gigs do start coming in, negotiating the price is another challenge. There is no standard fee, and the fashion industry is notoriously opaque when it comes to money. Figuring out how much you’re worth is a game of trial and error for most photographers. “I have learned to not be afraid to ask for the money I would like and to turn down work that is free,” says Scheynius. “So many people will ask you to work for free and you have to be vigilant and really listen to your gut.”

For Nuding, the most important question remains: How far can you push negotiations until you push away the client? “Sometimes they’re very transparent with their budget, but most often they just ask me about my day rate. It’s rare to have a day rate because each project is so different, so there’s no concrete answer.” Getting straight answers from peers can feel even more daunting, as a hyper-competitive environment creates a culture of secrecy. “An old boss once told me, ‘just ask whatever feels right.’ That is so frustrating. Nobody is transparent with pricing.”

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You need to get used to working for little, and then you get the big clients who cover the smaller projects you do.

Client negotiation is a huge time investment, as it’s not just pricing that can be a source of debate. Rein De Wilde is a Brussels-based photographer working with a wide variety of clients. His least favorite ones, however, all have one thing in common: a tendency to underestimate the time it takes to do a good job. “Some clients don’t appreciate the work it takes to create a beautiful image and they’ll try to rush you,” he says. “If you’re a beginner, that pressure can be difficult to negotiate around.” De Wilde warns that time should always be non-negotiable. You might gain a couple of hours on set by rushing, but you’ll pay it back double when you’re stuck in post-production trying to save a picture you didn’t fully pay attention to. “I stopped working with clients who don’t understand what I want to do,” the photographer concludes. “It’s a waste of time. My biggest investment is the time it takes to complete a job according to my own artistic standards.”

Ma recognises the problem. Whether she’s working for fashion brands like Nike, Gap, and Stüssy or developing her personal practice, her biggest costs are always in film and printing, and the time spent printing and retouching, a “very tedious and time-consuming” process which she’d outsource if she could. This example is a reminder not to say yes to any paid gig, especially when you’re just starting out—it might cost you later. Scheynius remembers being a newcomer in the field and feeling pressured to say yes to everything. “I had little time or energy left for my personal work. I was very much sucked into the fashion editorial world.” The London-based photographer explains it took her some time to find the right balance between creative and commercial work. After a while, she learned to save the big commissions and use them to sponsor the gigs she most enjoyed. Nuding agrees: “You need to get used to working for little, and then you get the big clients who cover the smaller projects you do.”

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You’ll invest a lot of time and money at the start of your career. That option is not available to everyone.

But those side gigs don’t necessarily need to be massive commercial projects. For De Wilde, financial stability was found when he started working in places that offered access to the facilities he needed in his creative practice. The Brussels-based creative used to work in a photography studio and now manages the darkroom of an art school. In both cases, De Wilde could develop his own images for free. “I can afford to work with someone who has no budget [if] I really like them because at least I won’t lose any money.” Therein lies the most important, and most often underestimated, aspect of building a career as a photographer: who you can afford to work with. “You need to build a network of people whose work resonates with yours, and then grow together,” he explains. “You can be the best photographer in the world but…that’s not something you can do by yourself.”

Whether it’s the stylist pulling your looks for the shoot or the model wearing them, you need a solid circle of reliable collaborators—sustaining those takes a particular set of social skills. “Especially in fashion, it’s all about who you meet,” Nuding says. “Building up your relationships is the most important thing, you want to grow together.” 

Don’t underestimate the admin, invest in editorials, protect yourself during client negotiations and build your network: it’s obvious a photography career in fashion takes a lot more than talent and it’s not something that happens overnight. “But not everyone can afford to hold out,” Nuding observes. 

The photographer raises an important question. You need to invest a lot of time and money at the start of your career. That option is not available to everyone and there might be a sea of young talent that never gets the opportunity to show their worth. A cost the fashion industry should start taking into consideration.

The Business of Creativity is a cutting edge educational series about how to navigate the fashion industry, in partnership with 1 Granary. In this series, we introduce emerging creatives to the expertise of industry professionals and key specialists. Features explore three highly coveted fashion professions and the financial realities that shape them.