It’s tempting to view the work of a successful fashion photographer and think they’ve enjoyed many years of lucrative commissions, but the picture is seldom as clear cut as that.
Take Lindsay Adler, for example. She’s a New York-based photographer who shoots campaigns for leading international fashion and beauty brands but is the first to admit that her career has only really scaled new heights in the last few years.
This wasn’t due to one particular big break, though. The combination of imagination, hard work, dedication to her craft and energetic marketing has helped, but finding her style and using it to produce memorable work has been the most important factor, she says.
Read more: Photography tips
During a recent visit to The Photography Show in Birmingham, UK, Lindsay went into more detail about how to succeed as a fashion photographer.
And as this involved overcoming a painful double rejection, her story should be an inspiration to any young photographers keen to shoot fashion professionally.
Turning the clock back to her formative years in upstate New York, Lindsay knew she wanted to be a photographer from a young age. She set up a studio in her parents’ house, to specialize in family and graduation portraits, several years before leaving to study for a photography degree.
Lindsay carried on her studies in London, England, and stayed on afterwards to establish herself in fashion photography. Hawking her portfolio around agents, she got a “big, fat brutal rejection” and was told that her images were not memorable enough.
Years later, having forged a career and further established her style, she wrote back to the same agent – only to be rejected again. “Photographing a pretty girl in front of a background is not difficult,” she was told. “It’s what you’re saying with your images that matters.”
Although somewhat of a shock, this spurred Lindsay on and she went away with fresh determination to make the agent eat his words.
Today, Lindsay's images bear little relation to what she was shooting five years ago. Her signature look is now super-saturated color, achieved through make-up, styling and using gel modifiers to produce colored lighting effects.
“You can look at my work and see that it totally excites me,” she says. “I’m close to 20 years doing this but it’s only in the last three years I feel I’ve started to thrive.”
In addition to her busy shooting schedule, Lindsay offers photography advice tutorials on her own YouTube channel and has a standalone Learn with Lindsay website that offers instruction on a wide range of photography techniques including lighting and posing.
How does she find the time to fit it all in, we wonder? Dedication and inspiration clearly play a major part – so read on to discover how to succeed as a fashion photographer, in Lindsay’s own words.
How to find your style as a fashion photographer
"Look at work by your photography idols, and what it has in common – a combination of content, style and impact.
"They made these choices for a reason, and it defines the difference between someone who’s just started out and someone experienced.
"So be purposeful not accidental in your work – I see pictures where all the elements are there, but they’re not purposeful.
"Put three photos on a screen that define you as a photographer, as an artist. Then take a look and see what they have in common – composition, subject matter.
"Get an insight into what excites you. And the only way to get more excited about something is to go and shoot it.
"Be comfortable with making mistakes while figuring out what your style is. I used to ask myself: 'What is the unique voice I want to portray?'
"Everything is inspirational – movies, music videos, other photographers. You’re not creating in a vacuum. If you find a place that gives you creative ideas, go back there. Professional artists revisit ideas; why should photography be any different?"
Where to get inspiration for fashion photography
"One of my favourite quotes is: 'If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.'
"The longer I’ve taken photographs, the further back I’ve looked for inspiration. Right now I’m going back 50 years – Richard Avedon for lighting, Herb Ritts for posing, David La Chapelle for color, Christian Schumer for moving fabric… I get something from all these people.
"The key is to take an idea without ripping it off. Shoot a photograph or artwork that excites you, but shoot it with your own style."
Shoot personal as well as paid-for projects
"When I started out, not one pixel I shot showed creativity. Creativity is a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
"So two days a month, I shoot with no client, for no pay, and try something new. If I try 10 things and only of them two work, then I can put two things in my pocket and move forward.
"If you would like to have a style and be more memorable, then do personal work. You do not get paid for it but it fulfils you.
"Plus, you see things you wouldn’t have seen before and you talk to people you wouldn’t have talked to before.
"On my website is a gallery called ‘Seeing Red’. One year I made a list of all the different ways to shoot red, and twice a month I shot a different thing in red – a dress, make-up, nails, a headpiece. It made my work memorable.
"People who view the gallery think, 'You’re the person who did the red project.' It means you have a body of work rather than a load of one-off images."
You don’t need to spend a fortune on fashion props
"One of the things I pride myself on is being able to see the potential in things that are cheap. Just because it isn’t expensive doesn’t mean it can’t look really expensive.
"And 100% of this is using cheap purchases from Amazon, because if you say ‘What… if… but I can’t’, then it doesn’t happen.
"My favorite new toy is 'Haze in a Can'. When light hits it you can see where the light is coming from, unlike a haze machine.
"For this shot, I put a grid light with an orange gel behind her head, and it just comes to life."
"I wanted to do a religion-influenced shoot and saw a Dolce & Gabbana headpiece from 2013. Most people’s reaction would be, ‘I don’t have access to avant garde headpieces or designer clothing.’
"So I bought a mirror online, took the mirror out, put it on a seat stand and used it to shoot this image. To light it I used a beauty dish above, a full light below and a grid on the background."
"The headpiece is just a piece of fabric draped over the model’s head, and the thing wrapped around her neck and head is a ski mask.
"I wanted to do a shoot with a really graphic headpiece. People will say: 'I don’t have designer friends', but I guarantee that you can get hold of hardboard or foamcore – and that’s what this is. We shot it in silhouette, and it looks great. The modifier is a window and curtain sheers."
"The headpiece in this image is actually made from IKEA placemats, painted with black acrylic paint. I then added hairpins to make a big avant garde headpiece. There are two lights on the background and a hard light on the face.
"A designer had just come out with these headpieces and asked me to shoot them. They’re crowns, so I thought let’s do all gold, like an African goddess. The image on the right is what I made. Two flats, with gold poster board, just glued on. An inexpensive way to make a really expensive set."
You don’t need expensive equipment for fashion photography
"I can show you three different photographs, each one using different lighting setups – one with a cheap flashgun, one with a strobe, and one with an expensive strobe.
"I promise you that you won’t guess it right, and even if you did you wouldn’t have been certain about which modifiers were used.
"Photography is all about how you use your tools. If you don’t have a strobe or a flashgun, then go to a home improvement store.
"I bought a work light with a flourescent bulb in it and used it to craft a Hollywood shot, with the model wearing a headpiece that is actually place mats glued onto a headband."
How to market yourself as a fashion photographer
"Every other month I send a prints mailer to 250 potential clients, and the other month they get an email and a follow-up. Once a year I’ll send out a curated prints box containing 50 hand-selected prints with a written note.
"It means I get to shoot the clients I want to shoot, and I’m pushing and marketing towards them. You don’t have to shoot just what happens – you can craft your career to shoot what you want.
"For social media, I post images I want other people to see, rather than posting all my commissioned work. That way, people can see exactly what I’m about.
"Show that you’re aware of trends and use them in your marketing. Pantone of the Year is on social media at the start of the year, so I used it for a shoot, painting a model in Living Coral [16-1546] for a monochromatic look."
Lindsay Adler's surefire fashion photography tips
1. Creativity is a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
2. Don’t be afraid to fail. I went through all the failures, all the technical mistakes.
3. See the world in a unique way and discover what speaks to you.
4. Find your tribe, people who desire what you offer, because you can’t appeal to everyone.
5. Be consistent in your work and market it to the people who will be attracted to that work. Remember that persistence is the hard part.