To an outsider, the fashion photography world seems like a glamorous dream. Picture days spent in exotic sun-drenched locales, being surrounded by gorgeous models, and going home with the most coveted swag from favorite designers. A look inside the life and career of a successful fashion photographer shows that there’s a lot more to it than that, but it sure does have its perks.
Dean Zulich, an Art Instutite Hall of Fame alumni, is one of the few who gets to travel to foreign lands and meet incredible people as part of his career as a fashion photographer. It sounds lucky, but his good fortune was really a result of passion, education and extreme dedication.
GETTING YOUR START
In any highly coveted career in the arts, like fashion photography, getting there is half the battle. Dean notes the importance of passion. He had never even picked up a camera until his sister give him a simple point and shoot model as a gift one year. It took him six months to even take it out of the box, but once he did, he was hooked.
Dean realized that his passion for photography could only take him so far—he needed an education in order to realistically make photography into a career. That’s where the Art Institute came into play. He enrolled in the summer of 2004, coming into the school with no technical knowledge of photography, just a passion for making beautiful pictures.
“I slept and ate and bled photography,” he says of his years spent in the darkroom at the Art Institute. The dedication paid off: he graduated with honors and the best portfolio of his final show. He left the Art Institute with invaluable experience and an impressive portfolio that would help him win over clients.
Becoming a successful photographer requires knowledge, passion, dedication, but sometimes a little luck doesn’t hurt. Dean found his luck in the form of an ad posted on Craigslist, promoting tryouts for a television show. The show was VH1’s The Shot, a reality show that pitted hopeful fashion photographers against each other in a series of competitions. The experiences that he gained in the month-long filming session, as well as the collection of photographs he was able to add to his portfolio, made it an invaluable experience.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
There is no typical day in the life of a fashion photographer. A good fashion photographer must be flexible and willing to catch a plane at a moment’s notice. Clients will take notice if you are willing to change your plans in order to accommodate a shoot. However, many of these last minute destinations are to gorgeous locations. A sense of adventure and the desire to see the world are definitely key personality traits for any hopeful fashion photographer.
Mackenzie Hoops is the Art Director for WHIRL Magazine in Pittsburgh. She has hired fashion photographers and has her own formula for finding the best fit for her fashion spreads. Besides being skilled behind the lens, her photographers must also be masters of photo editing. Unless they can hire an entire staff for retouching and editing, it is essential that a photographer know how to crop and retouch their photos. For every photo shoot, there are hours spent behind the computer screen, tweaking the images to get them ready for print.
MARKETING YOUR TALENTS
It’s not all jet-setting and getting models into the perfect pose, though. In fact, a majority of Dean’s time is not even spent behind the camera. He’s lucky to have several shoots a month. The rest of the time is spent doing the back-end work, like editing photos, answering emails and catching up with clients.
Yes, marketing is an unavoidable aspect of the life of a fashion photographer, or any freelance career. Most photographers are responsible for drumming up new business, making sure clients are invoiced on time, and maintaining good relationships with current customers.
Some photographers rely on gorgeous, high-quality look books and promo cards to send to potential clients. Others rely on trademarks. For example, famed fashion photographer, Chiun-Kai Shih relies on his nickname, “Chunky”, as a way to stand out from the crowd.
There are great photographers that are not financially successful because they haven’t mastered marketing, and there are lousy photographers who make a lot of money because they know how to get customers. Mastering this aspect of the field is integral to the success of the photographer.
Being a successful photographer is not just about getting the job, it’s also about how you conduct yourself once you have the job. When shooting commercially, it is essential to be able to please the client.
“It is important that the photographer is able to collaborate with our staff on concepts when shooting for our editorial,” says Hoops. The photographer can voice his own styling recommendations, but in the end, it is the client who dictates the final choices.
Spending time with models, designers and the glamorous world of fashion can be overwhelming, and for many people, it can go to their heads. Though some people would revel in this lifestyle, Dean finds it very important to keep himself grounded. One of his favorite parts of his job is that he can pass his knowledge on to others. He also teaches photography, sharing what he’s learned and helping others cultivate their own artistic style and technical mastery.