Fashion Shooters Reveal: Their First Paid Gig Stories!

I’m still new to the fashion photography side of the business, and I’m expanding as fast as I can. I know I’ve had lots of questions along the way, and I figure others do too. While the “how do I break in to the industry?” question is most-asked and hardly ever answered, I thought I’d take a slightly different tack. Rather than asking fashion photographers how someone should break into the fashion photography field, I asked them how THEY got started. I asked three top-notch fashion and advertising photographers how they got their first paying fashion gig. These aren’t “big break” stories, they’re “little break” stories. But it’s the little breaks that lead to the big breaks. And knowing how they got their toes wet in the industry can give you guidance and reassurance, and perhaps give you ideas on how to get your first “little break”.

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Lou Lesko has written a great book on the fashion and commercial photography business, with lots of tips on how to get started, and to stay in the business once you’re there. It’s called “Advertising Photography: A Straightforward Guide to a Complex Industry” (you can buy it here.) I’ve read it twice, and highly recommend it.

Lou said:

My mother knew a graphic designer who as a favor to mom, asked me to bid on a yoga video box cover.  The only thing I new about bidding a job was that the word “bid” had to be included, and there was a party involved after the shoot was done.

In a new word processing document, I wrote the word “Bid” in the upper left, entered four carriage returns, wrote the word “Fee”, tabbed over five spots and wrote “750.00 (US)”.  Five minutes after I faxed that over to the designer she called me and said that he video was going to be distributed world wide.  Totally unaware that she was hinting that I might want to revise my numbers, I got all giddy and said, “That’s so cool.”

I got the job.

I paid a friend, who was a model, fifty bucks to do her own make up and wear one of her own bathing suits in front of a pool at just before sunset with promises of a fabulous party when we were done.  The shoot, a direct lit set up shot with a 35MM camera and 300mm lens on a tripod at 5:00 PM was wrapped by 5:20.  The party started at 6:00 and wrapped at 1 AM with a food and bar tab of 665.00 including an enormously generous tip for the server with the big boobs.

Net profit: 35.00 (US).

God I love this business.

Jamie Nelson works in New York City primarily, where she does advertising and editorial fashion photography. She has worked for clients such as Warner Brothers, Camel, Sunban Eyewear and Disney, and for magazines Blend, Plaza, H Magazine and others.

Jamie said:

My first paying photoshoot was for an actress. I was still in school at the time. I used all my available resources, including the studio and lighting that was available on my campus. My art director and I went to Home Depot, got some oversized props, and loaded them all on the top of a tiny car. We hardly had the proper securing devices, and had to stick our arms out the window and hold the props as we flew down the highway, terrified that they would fly off and go through someone’s windshield. We stayed up late and painted all the props and lugged them to the studio the next day.
Needless to say, the shoot came out brilliantly and the client was happy. These days, I prefer the aid of experienced set designers.

Ken Weingart generously agreed to chat with me on the phone, and related his “first paid fashion job” story.

His first job was for Teen Magazine in New York. He doesn’t recall how he first got in contact with them, but it was either by sending a promotional card or just simply showing up with his portfolio book to drop off. But he didn’t have any tear sheets to show, and of course magazines like to know a photographer can actually complete a project for a paying client. So it made the magazine a little nervous! They actually sat on his book for four weeks before finally feeling comfortable enough to book him for a beauty shoot. But book him they did, and they arranged for the models, studio, rental equipment and everything else.

Ken had some great advice for someone trying to break into fashion photography. While it’s not completely impossible to work with the big magazines right out of the gate, those magazines primarily work with established photographers with a long track record of editorial fashion shooting. A better bet is to approach smaller, independent fashion and style magazines. They’re more likely to give your book a chance.

He also recommends approaching clothing manufacturers directly, as they are less inclined to choose a photographer based solely on the size of his/her ‘name’. While it might not be as glamorous as shooting for a magazine, it’s likely to be just as challenging, and perhaps more lucrative. And Ken points out that sales and marketing are big parts of being a photographer (or any business, for that matter). While you need to be able to complete the job to the client’s satisfaction, you also need to sell the idea of you shooting it in the first place. You shouldn’t rely on your work speaking for itself…you’ll have to do the talking for it.

Thanks everyone for taking the time to answer!

– Matt Haines

micro site “What Not To Wear To a Family Portrait” here.

2 thoughts on “Fashion Shooters Reveal: Their First Paid Gig Stories!

  1. So you can write and you can shoot. Bastard. Oh don’t worry, I’ll smile and play “friendly” in public. But behind the smile I’ll be secretly looking over my shoulder as you move quickly up the ladder. Well done Matt, and thanks for asking.

  2. Thanks Lou, for both your comment and contribution. I’ve always been of the opinion that if I can’t do any one thing well, I should do a bunch of things in a mediocre fashion. So your position as top dawg is safe.

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