Shooting Fashion Editorials

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I am a firm believer that a great photoshoot must involve more than just a great photographer.  It takes a TEAM.  A team of specialists that know what they are doing to make things happen.  I am a fashion and agency testing photographer.  Fashion and agency testing is of the most unique and misunderstood areas of photography, probably since so few do it, or the fact that it is a very difficult area in which to build a presence.  We all see magazines and articles that are editorial in nature featuring models wearing the latest fashions.  Did you ever wonder how those come to be, how they are organized and most importantly to you is how they are photographed?

Fashion editorials always begin with an idea.  It can be simple, or very complex involving dozens of team members.  I thought readers might like to follow how a recent editorial titled “Ravishing in RED” was produced.  Like all editorial pieces, it starts with an idea.  In this case, with the Fall season on the horizon, a very talented stylist, Ashley Nudge, represented by The Clutts Agency, a leading modeling agency, envisioned a piece focusing on how the bold color red would be a fashion trend this Fall. Ashley has a degree in Merchandising and Digital Retail from North Texas State University, so she knows this business well.  Keep in mind that Fall and Winter fashion editorials are usually shot in the summer so they can be ready for seasonal catalogues and publications, so all of this was shot and produced this past summer.

To develop the “idea,” the stylist creates a “mood board,” a graphic visual tool that contains ideas of the desired looks.  The moods can be from art, fashion, patterns, architecture (which compliments fashion directly), or any other visual cue that the designer can draw from.  A well thought-out mood board will also indicate the sequencing of the shoot so that the wardrobe changes can flow.  Once the mood board is finalized, the stylist will consult with the photographer so that lighting, backdrops, locations, etc., can be determined.  The shoot will often take place a month or so after the mood board is complete so that there is ample to time scout locations and assemble the team.

The team will typically include the photographer, a photographer’s assistant, the stylist, the stylist assistant, the make-up and hair artist/stylist, the model(s), and sometimes a general assistant to handle just whatever comes up.  As you can see, there is a team of 5-8 people behind the scenes working to make the shoot a success, each focusing intently on their respective portion of the shoot to make certain the look is right.  I cannot tell you how many times I was ready to pull the trigger on a certain shot when the stylist interrupts to make a small adjustment on the wardrobe, or the hair stylist must fix a small detail that I don’t see as the photographer.  But that’s the level of detail that makes an editorial shoot work.

An editorial shoot cannot work without a model, and I mean a great model.  I work pretty much exclusively with agencies and agency models.  Agency models know how to emote, move, understand the lighting, and how to pose to showcase a wardrobe or accessory.   This is critical.  It’s all about the fashion, and a good agency model understands that.  When the model arrives at the studio or location, they usually have not seen the mood board.  I generally have a five-minute team meeting to go over the mood and concept before the model goes into make-up and hair.  As soon as the model is ready and dressed in the first wardrobe, he or she goes on-set for the first look.

The studio environment is very fast paced.  Most of my fashion and agency shoots take, on average, three hours.  There is no time to adjust and set lights or backgrounds at that point, other than the initial light check.  Time is money.  The set should be ready to go as soon as the model goes on.  As is with all photography, lighting and equipment is paramount.  I shot this “Ravishing in RED” editorial using a simple white seamless background to make the red really pop.  I used a simple lighting set up with only two strobes, a large 86” diffused silver PLM for the main light, and a large 4×6 softbox for the fill.  I am convinced that simple lighting set-ups work best.  Most fashion work tends to be a bit flat with the lighting so that details in the wardrobe are not lost.  My go-to fashion lens is an 85mm 1.4 prime.  I just love the focal length of the 85mm and the sharpness of primes.  When doing a fashion editorial, lighting and color is critical, as the result must accurately portray what the stylist and designer are trying to show.  An incorrect white balance can skew the color of the wardrobe, making the images unusable.  It’s imperative to get it right in the camera so that the time for post-production is minimized.  A publication needs a very quick turn-around.

My post production processing generally involves slight color balance if needed to get an accurate representation of the wardrobe, and cropping.  Unlike most photography, fashion cropping breaks the rules.  A fashion editorial is to promote the fashion, not the model.  A technique that I, and most all fashion and agency photographers use is to slightly crop the tops of heads, feet, hands or whatever to draw attention to the wardrobe being shown.  The model is secondary.  The eyes must be drawn to the point of the image.

Most of you are saying, “But that’s not what we are taught to do,” and you would be correct.  But fashion photography, like fashion itself is supposed to be creative and that means breaking the rules when necessary.  I cannot tell you how many times I have been criticized because I crop “too tightly”.  But when I explain why the psychology of the image works, people seem to understand but it’s still very foreign.  In my class at the Texas School of Professional Photography, I am constantly told that applying a fashion crop is the hardest psychological barrier my students must overcome.   For those of you wondering, I apply almost no retouch to the models.  One of the things about agency models is that they are ready to go, good skin, complexions, figures, etc.

When looking at a fashion editorial in a magazine or on-line, it’s not always apparent that the image was created by a team of people to make it happen.  The team is critical.  Viewers see the model, but they also see the work by the behind the scenes team that scrutinize every detail, making it look simple.  Job well done.


Steve Ellinger, CPP will be teaching his class “The Fashionable Side of Photography” at the Texas School of Professional Photography this coming April!  To see more of Steve’s work, his website is: www.steveellinger.com