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Fashion Photography – a personal view, by Rodney Compton


Whether you are a budding photographer or a designer wanting to produce your own professional images for your collection this unique insight into the world of photography is exactly what you need. Rod guides you through a step by step process on all his top tips and useful advice picked up over the many years in the industry.

Organisation, organisation, organisation’ – you think you want to be a fashion photographer – then tell me, how tidy is your bedroom; how tidy is your headroom.

Talent will get you fifty percent of the way, but organisation will make you rich, so tidy up your mind and throw away your shit.

Here is a camera that is almost the same as the one David Bailey used to photograph Twiggy forty years ago.



Here is a camera that I use now – the main difference is that the image is recorded digitally.




When you are thinking of working on a fashion shoot the first thing you must ask your self is: who is the job for and why am I doing it.

When you start doing fashion photography it is like any other job – you are doing it for a purpose, friend or client, so treat it seriously and try to get a fee – it is good for your confidence and it makes others value professional skills.

There are three main types of utility fashion photography and they overlap:

Portfolio, Catwalk and Advertising.

The first type is the one you are most likely to encounter as a post grad student and it will probably be for aspiring friends and fellow students.

If you pass this test, then you may be invited to do the second type and finally the third, so good luck.

Model Portfolio

1) The Model: Don’t egg it, if she/he is too short, too fat, too… you are just boosting your ego and she/he will be disappointed – remember it is often the less obvious person who is more photogenic. You may meet such a person anywhere and they may be completely unaware how good they look in camera. The biggest mistake is to imagine because you fancy someone then they must look good in camera – love (lust) is in the eye of the beholder. Fashion is a much more public and objective statement, so cultivate the eye and don’t mix the two. Also the sort of beauty demanded by fashion changes from year to year, so keep up to date and also explore your own avenues of aestheticism. Some say that the face should be neutral to be right for fashion, but there are obvious exceptions.

rodney compton
2) The Brief: Talk over what the model wants and make intelligent choices about who to use for make up and hair and where to shoot the portfolio, and in what style – don’t compromise, your reputation is too important. Things to watch out for – too static – too contrived – too stereotyped – too smothered in style – and also, if you have to copy a magazine, you should not be doing photography!

3)  Camera: How you set up your camera depends on what you want to get from the shoot. She/he will want some appealing portraits and then some full-length shots. You can go hard or soft with makeup, but also with the camera. Long lenses mean shallow depth of field, short lenses mean greater depth of field, but unless you mean to, don’t foreshorten. Use good kit, hire if needed: Canon, Nikon, whatever, but a good quality IFED or L series lens is a must in most cases,  24-105 is ok on a small chip D200/300 or 40D/30D/20D, or full chip 5D/1Ds etc

4) Style: The portfolio should be diverse, different moods, different modes. Be intelligent about the model and how they look. It’s between you and the model, but think in advance about what would be ‘just them’ – don’t impose yourself, unless you know it will work. Don’t stint in preparation of the makeup and hair – it is sensible to put a good team together and stick with it. Treat each person with respect and concern, they make the picture work as much as you do.

5) Lighting:  Lighting is important, as is location. Use your head about where to shoot  – if it is urban and low budget, shoot street scenes – get organised – don’t piss about, make sure everybody has an itinerary and shot list and go early for the light and know what it is doing and where it comes from, learn where East and West is, it is basic physics. Listen to the weather forecast, and take notice of it, it’s rarely wrong on short term forecasting. If it’s crap light on the day, call it off, but make sure everybody knows what is going on – they will forgive you for calling it off, but not for being badly organised and letting them turn up for nothing.

6) Studio: If it is studio, don’t compromise, hire one – see what the tests look like in the studio, bite the bullet and pay the money, otherwise it is bullshit and the pictures will show it. Do your homework on the web or ask about the lighting set-up from the people hiring the studio – get familiar with the kit before the model arrives.

rodney compton

7) Print quality: Don’t compromise on print quality – put only professional prints in the portfolio.

8) Criticism: Let the camera do the talking. If you are propping up a sad ego by being a photographer, it will show in the images and the worst thing is that you will not see it – others, who know better, will!

9) Budgets: Don’t go in cheap; if there is no budget, then it becomes charity – and we all know what charity shops are like. There can’t be any pictures – unless everyone derives some benefit, if it is barter the all must know they are doing tests, in which case you are morally obliged to send everyone images. Remember and learn that fashion photography is a team effort, you are dependent on the hair stylist and make up artist to get your pictures right. False promises to co-workers and models about test prints will get you a reputation as an arsehole.


10) Commercial EditorialCatwalk: This is arguably the easiest sort of fashion photography  – all the work is done by someone else: hair, makeup, outfit. All you have to do is turn up and shoot. The downside is you have no control. It is vitally important to get very specific instructions from the commissioning editor as to which show and what clothes are wanted in their feature. This again is organisation and knowing about fashion design will be a great advantage. Remember that communication and organisation is the most important thing. Make sure that your editor/journalist has the knowledge to access your work effortlessly. This may mean uploading your work to a third party site so that the images can be viewed on line and downloaded. For editorial, use 300dpi images, for web, use 72dpi images, but always have a 300 dpi image in reserve, in case it is needed for print.

11)  Catwalks – the photographers rostrum: Most shows are set up with a special photographers area and they get very crowded at the major shows, so get there early. Sort out any passes in advance and wear them. Other photographers appreciate professionals of there own kind and will acknowledge your needs and occasionally help, but not always. A great tip is to take a three or four rung lightweight ladder with you  – if you see a man or girl with one on the train, he is probably a photographer.

12)  Shooting for catwalk: The camera and lens set-up is very specific and consists of a zoom 70-200/300 f2.8- f4 with VR or IS capability and probably a monopod – everything else is a novelty and if you use a shorter lens you will appear an amateur. Take loads of memory cards, 20GB if you can and ideally shoot RAW files. Lots of professionals shoot JPG’s for speed of post processing, but your exposure must be absolutely perfect. Colour temperature becomes very critical if you shoot JPGS, so set your camera up very carefully. Most catwalks are lit at 3400K, but this years La Dolce Vita was done by stage lighting specialists and had all sorts of colour gels, which played havoc with the colour of the garments. Generally flash is a waste of time and a nuisance to your compatriots. Light levels are usually high enough for a reasonable shutter speed at a moderate ISO 400, but if you are shooting for web, then ISO 1000 is just about acceptable on a modern Canon EOS Camera. Nikons will struggle at high ISO ratings unless the D3 is an improvement on the older digitals. I/200 second or faster with a moderate ISO works well for subjects approaching the camera, but remember to set your IS up accordingly. 

rodney compton
13)  Post Processing: Lightroom or Aperture, everything else is either too expensive or too slow. I prefer to use an Apple Mac Intel based PowerBooks or an iMac with lots of RAM.

14) Shot List: each garment and model will require a range of shots. As the outfit appears you will see what is important, hats, shoes, tights, special embroidery or decoration, don’t forget the face. So as the outfit appears, use maximum focal length, 200/300mm. Take some full length shots then concentrate on the features in the garment or the models face, especially if she/he is unusual or specially made up – remember the rear view is important in fashion. Sometimes these rule go out of the window because the catwalk is lit unevenly, then you have to improvise and compromise. Just remember, the zoom lens usually seems sharper towards the shorter focal lengths, but foreshortening and too much depth of field is often the price we pay.


15) Commercial: Advertising: Here it is all up for grabs, you are in control, but one rule – don’t undercharge, you will be amazed where the money goes when setting up an advertising shoot. There are so many aspects to a commercial fashion shoot and each one has to be costed carefully. Make a contingency; always have the all-important plan B.

16) Brief: listen carefully to what the client wants, you may be full of yourself, but don’t second guess your clients requirements  – if you get it wrong he will not pay, you will! Get a written brief, even if it’s a basic outline of requirements and always get the client to sign off the work – don’t leave it open ended.

17) Location: Make sure you have done your research on the location; it is so easy to turn up and find someone has parked a truck across the frontage you wanted to use. As before, go early and get the light right. Interiors can be hired or borrowed, but make sure everything is properly organised in advance. Some people who let their houses out to photographers, live-in and don’t leave till 9 am – no good to anyone. Think about the coast, beach house locations are nice with good light, old buildings, fortifications etc, etc.

18) Models: When you are shooting models, don’t overwork them, they get tired and show it in the pictures. Don’t flaunt your ego, it is energy wasting and they are the ones that will make it work as much as you, it is salutary to remember sometimes that you just press the button. If you have something to say, just think about it first and be precise. Photography is not that special any more it’s a job and although it looks glamorous, most photographers are pretty mundane people in themselves. Models are also normal people and although they can look great in-camera, in normal life many are overlooked. So respect, but be aware how flaky some models are – timekeeping and performance is important and if you are hiring, you are also firing – and if they are agency hired, then they will know that and they will not keep their job if they get bad feedback.

rodney compton
19) Props/Stylist: Important to prop correctly. Use a professional stylist; it saves hours of frustrating telephone calls and web browsing. Use your stylist to the full, you are paying and they can be like a second assistant on the shoot, advising and moving objects around – remember though you have overall responsibility to the client.

20) Studio/Assistant: Choose a well-equipped professional studio with an assistant. This saves hours of frustration and costs only a small amount of extra money. Be sensible about the studio location, cheap is not always convenient. Your client may come from anywhere in the country, so be prepared to be flexible, but if you have a favourite patch, push it.

21) On The Shoot: Once again, organise everything in advance – simple things like refreshments. Work to a time scale, learn to watch time and be realistic about what can be achieved. Sort out cameras in advance, clear memory cards, have a back up camera, charge batteries, put everything you need in one place. Have a contingency plan and don’t get upset if things go wrong. What each photographer does varies enormously – the more experienced and less fussy photographer can work wonders – typically, with two intelligent models, fifty separate, plain walk-on shots in half a day is possible, or, a complete small brochure shoot of sixteen pages and thirty separate shots turned round in 48 hours, including the design work is also manageable. Most clients will not expect that, but be prepared for anything.


General stuff

22) Finance: Bills are paid when you send an invoice, ha, ha! Don’t be frightened to talk openly about payment terms to your client – 30 days is normal, but try for an up front payment of 25%. If you have to compromise, weigh up the options involved. Do you want to do the job that much that you are prepared to wait six months to be paid? If a client is a good one, then he will not mind talking about it in a business like way, he needs you as much as you need him, but there are so many pretenders in fashion that you have to learn to spot the good ones and steer clear of the time wasters. 15b) Hire a book- keeper and accountant, listen to what they say and put your receipts in one place – a petrol bill for £40 is worth £40, would you throw £40 away? Your time is costed per job – say £100 per hour, so why do bookkeeping, which costs £10 per hour? Costs for accountants vary – £250 per year is typical, but a good bookkeeper and accountant can save you thousands and thousands of pounds.

23) Staffing: When you are hiring assistants give them a trial period. Test them on timekeeping, if they are late more than twice, drop them. If they smell of drink or fags, it will not give a good impression to a your client, drop them – but the same applies to you. If they talk a lot and are not attentive, drop them. If they are keen and want to help you shoot the jobs, give them a chance to do so. Inspire loyalty by fairness, but choose on a range of abilities and don’t be frightened to employ people who are more skilled than you in their own area of expertise. Remember, you are a photographer, not an assistant; the roles are separate, so mutual respect is in order – the best assistants anticipate what you need.

24)  Psychology: Your work is an extension of you. If you are lucky, you will discover yourself in your work. Remember though, a camera is a blind, mute artefact, no more or less than a tool that any tradesperson might use to do a job. I am convinced that the perfection some people generate through their psychology and project on to fashion objects is a product of the deeper psyche. Talent is something attached to these psychic objects and it carries the personality along with it, inspiring and possessing the individual to create beauty and meaning. The problem for most people is that they are identified with their talent and I have long held the view that the most objective images create themselves, despite the photographer. This is a curious viewpoint, but it is borne out by the fact that very few ‘good’ photographers are articulate beyond their work. Like children, most are simply rapt in awe at the endless and repetitive images that flow out of their cameras.

Words Rodney Compton
Images Rodney Compton

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