Breaking Into High Fashion Photography

Darian Kaulahao
Darian Hilina'i Kaulahao is an artist who was born and raised in California and is currently based in New England. She spends most of her time creating, appreciating, or writing about art. Sometimes her dog sits on her laptop to remind her that they need to go for a run. 🐶

Fashion photography, especially high fashion photography, is one of the most prestigious and lucrative avenues available to professional photographers. It can involve anything from freelance work to a salaried position with a well-known haute couture brand, but whatever form it comes in, the coveted job of high fashion photographer is often tricky to land. This type of photography demands both incredible artistry and great technical skill, and the market is not exactly flooded with demands for high fashion photographers. Clients are, therefore, able to take their pick from the most talented professionals in the field.

It’s common for students, amateurs, and even professionals to feel intimidated by the idea of trying to become one of the best in the industry. You must remember that every great artist’s journey passed through a point similar to where you are now, and none of them became great by allowing themselves to be defeated. Breaking into a competitive field like high fashion photography is completely attainable for anyone with true dedication to their craft. It’s critical to develop not only well-honed skills but also a deep understanding of the industry and the nuances of the work.

What are the types of fashion photography?

There are a surprising number of subcategories (and subcategories within subcategories) in fashion photography, and you’ll want to be very clear about which one you’re aiming for. Although similar at a glance, the main types of fashion photography each have a different focus.

Catalog Photography Example

Catalog

The entire purpose of this genre is to sell the clothes, so everything about it revolves around making them look good. These photos use neutral backdrops and minimal editing so that nothing risks drawing your attention away from the product.

Street

This genre is about taking a snapshot of an ordinary person’s life. The models are usually regular people wearing their normal clothes, and the photos highlight what the person’s appearance tells us about the moment they are living in and their attitude towards it.

Editorial

Photos of this genre appear in newspapers, magazines, and online publications alongside an article. They are designed either to convey the overall feeling of the writing they’re accompanying or to reference a point in the article.

High Fashion

The final genre, which we’ll be focusing on from here on out, needs the greatest effort from the photographer and the largest team to produce successful photos. Unlike the above categories, high fashion photography is not about capturing realistic or even plausible images. 

Endless creativity can be employed to turn the photos into works of surreal or nonsensical art, with the help of makeup, hair, and lighting artists, among others. Supermodels or celebrities are often the star of the shoot, and the clothes and accessories are the sort of impractical but visually stunning creations you’d see during Fashion Week. In post, any amount of extreme editing or bizarre effects can be used to add to the salience of the piece.

What are the disadvantages of being a high fashion photographer?

You may not have considered this question to be an important part of breaking into the industry, but starting out with realistic expectations can make all the difference. By knowing what your biggest struggles are likely to be, you can prepare for them and avoid being taken aback or doubting your chosen career path when they eventually arise.

Expenses - Once you’re signed with an agency or brand, they’ll cover the cost of the photoshoots you work on, but until then you have to take care of it yourself. The photoshoots you do to build your portfolio, or even photoshoots for smaller publications, can be expensive and offer little to no immediate reward. This doesn’t mean you need to be a trust fund baby to pursue your passion for high fashion photography, but you should at least have steady gigs in other genres or a regular day job to help make it financially possible to start establishing yourself as an artist in the high fashion niche.

Time - Professional photographers don’t have conventional working hours. This is true across all categories of the industry, so you may already be familiar with this one, but it can be a more significant problem for fashion photographers. You can have photoshoots at any time on any day of the week, and you may work with clients all around the world. International clients offer a good excuse to travel to beautiful destinations, but they also expect you to work according to their time zone, meaning you may need to be available at all hours during a long-term project.

Deskwork - Most of your time on a project won’t actually be spent behind the camera. High fashion photoshoots require a ton of prep, and you’ll have to coordinate a full team as well as the schedule, the equipment, and the editing afterwards.


How do you break into high fashion photography?

If you’re passionate about studying fashion and constantly improving your photography skills, which we assume you already are, then the next big step to breaking into the industry is meeting people. We write about collaboration in another piece here.

Build your portfolio, website, and social media presence to get client attention. Interact with anyone and everyone who has ties to high fashion (without being pushy about it). Get to know your peers in person, at events, parties, or even one-on-one meetings. 

One of the best ways to network, if you can make it happen, is to work as an assistant or crew on fashion photoshoots. It gives you the chance to meet people, potentially even big names, in the industry, not to mention great hands-on experience. You’ll also be able to build up some savings for your own photoshoots, since you won’t be financing anything as an assistant but you will be getting paid.

Don’t Give Up

There’s no denying that the career path of a high fashion photographer is unique and somewhat open, but the fact that it is unlike anything you’ve done before shouldn’t stop you from going for it. Your love for your art will see you through many obstacles and lead you to amazing opportunities if you let it. Work hard, keep learning, and make it happen.