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Fashion Photography

Updated on April 28, 2011

Fashions in fashion photography change almost as fast as they do in clothes. In the past few years this branch of photography has been revolutionized in Britain, America and France.

There is a changed market for the fashion industry, and thus for the fashion photographer and the publishers of his pictures. When the glossy fashion magazines started, their market and that of the couture houses which produced fashion, was the rich, sophisticated, middle-aged woman. Her tastes and habits dictated the style of fashion photographs and fashion magazines up to during and just after World War II. Then, the points of interest about a garment were the texture of the cloth, its hang, its decoration, and the setting it was seen in.


Techniques, lighting and cameras were adapted to show these details.

But since the War there has been a great change. A vast new market has appeared: the young wage-earning woman. Her demands are rather different. She wants smart cheap clothes for everyday wear. She is unimpressed by embroidery, decoration, fussiness. So the manufacturer discards the elaborate fabrics and the costly handwork and turns to large volume output. To keep the turnover up, styles must change frequently-hence the importance of the two Collections a year in Paris, London and Italy. Clothes must become obsolete before the next batch is ready for the shops, so very distinctive "looks" follow each other with extreme rapidity.

Speaking very generally, there is no time today to appreciate the finer details of a garment. It is made, sold and discarded quickly. So the fashion photographer's function is not so much to create an accurate and attractive visual record of the garment, which will be appraised by critical and well-informed buyers, as to project romance and excitement, to suggest that the clothes have magic sewn into them. Wit and artistic sensitivity have become more important in fashion photography than the traditional expertise of the photographer.

Fashion photography divides broadly into two aspects: editorial and advertising.


This branch of fashion photography began in the glossy magazines. Basically the editorial purposes of a fashion photograph are: (1) to inform the reader that a garment exists; (2) to express a preference- this dress, of the many available has been chosen because the editors feel it embodies an important fashion point; (3) to contribute to the excitement of the magazine; (4) to stimulate its manufacturer or seller into buying space in the publication.


All serious fashion magazines create their own illustrations, that is, "hand out" pictures are never used. On a large magazine a great deal happens before the photograph is taken. The fashion editors on the staff keep a continuous watch on the market, and report trends to the editor. Two or three months before publication day the editor, the art director and the fashion editor decide what kinds of clothes they are going to show, and roughly plan the make up of the magazine: say eight pages of Paris Collections, a spread of cheap winter coats, four pages of skiing clothes, and so on. A fashion editor is assigned to each feature, who chooses the actual clothes to be photographed, and gets them together in the office, with all the necessary accessories-hats, shoes gloves and jewellery. The art director assigns a photographer, who, with the fashion editor, engages models. The photographer may work full time for the magazine, or be under contract to produce so many pages a year or he may be a freelance. The art director will also specify whether the photographs are to be taken in the studio or on location.


With the change in the emphasis of fashion journalism and photography, photographers have also changed. Five years ago, the successful photographer was typically a mature, artistic, sophisticated man. There are still one or two who survive, but the majority now are in their mid-twenties, from a variety of backgrounds- the east end of London, or a university-but they are in touch with their time and the all-important world of the young, and they know how the young women of our time want to look.

As well as this being in touch with the undercurrents of fashion, he must combine a number of talents. He must be a stage director- for part of his job will be the creation of dramatic tableaux. He must be able to make contact with his sitters-whether professional models, or celebrities, and be able to put them immediately at their ease. He must be able to dissect the fashion qualities of a garment, to analyze its line, texture and mood, and be able to devise poses to bring these out. He has to have a feeling for pictorial composition, be able to flatter the girl and the garment, and create a two-dimensional image that is a harmonious whole in itself. He must be able to put some new quality into every picture he takes. And finally he has to be a competent photographic technician, if no more-though this is perhaps the least important part of the job.


Models are now younger, less supercilious, sexier. The professional demands on them are no less, perhaps even more, and the rewards are immense but, as ever, girls with the right qualities are very scarce. A good model is half way to a good fashion picture, and many photographers work with a very small number of girls, perhaps only one, so that the essential sympathy and understanding between them is maintained. A model and photographer working well together show an almost balletic harmony.


With the use of digital SLR cameras, fast speeds and high aperture lenses, it is no longer necessary for the model to hold a rigid pose. Often she is made to move about while the pictures are taken, and in general her positions will be much more natural and easy than in the traditional fashion picture.

As the photographer shoots, the well-trained model will make small alterations in the positions of her head and limbs at the rate of perhaps one a second for exposure after exposure.


If it is possible to generalize about so diffuse a subject, the modem trend in fashion pictures is towards two-dimensionalness. This in tum is part of a larger trend towards simplifying the composition of the pictures, eliminating details and strengthening the basic shapes. The best contemporary fashion pictures seldom try to suggest a real three-dimensional space in which the model exists. Perhaps this can be traced to the influence of the Impressionists and their followers, perhaps it is due to modern layout which demands much greater adaptability to form the elements of a page make-up.

The illusion of depth (a "hole in the page") which can look up, or down, or be shallower or deeper, only makes pictures more difficult to place beside each other.


Nowadays light is seldom used to achieve three-dimensional modelling, but to create pleasing patterns on the printed page. The apparatus of front, three-quarter and back lighting of the classical set-up has been discarded.

In its place there is a very simple, standard set-up which can be used in the studio or found on location with ease. In the studio it imitates window light: a bank, placed to one side of the model, between 450 and 900 to the photographer. The model is placed within 4 or 5 feet of a plain mid-tone background, so that her lit side stands out against a darker wall, and her unlit side is seen in silhouette against a brighter wall. If the picture is full length, a paper backdrop is used which rounds off the corner between the floor and wall, and in effect suspends the model in a dimensionless, shadowless, limbo.

This set-up can be seen in almost any issue of any fashion magazine and, of course, it has numerous adaptations.

Another common arrangement uses an even density of light in all directions, from above, behind, below, in front and both sides. This is particularly effective in pictures of diaphonous lingerie, producing a composition of delicate mid-tones against a white ground.

Another trend is to use a ring light round the camera lens, producing a perfectly even flat light, with shadows round the outer edges of the face, limbs, and so on.

Whatever the lighting set-up used, multiple shadows, such as mar much cinema lighting, are never seen, and single shadows very seldom, and then only when they form a definite part of the composition.

On location this approach to lighting means that pictures can be taken under overcast skies, in shadow, inside rooms, or in flat sunlight with equal success. But English weather being what it is, this last seldom occurs. When light is available on location, artificial aids are seldom used; that is, reflectors, or fill in-flash. The gain in picture quality is offset by the complication of the equipment and the possible ugliness of the results. With most locations, it is always possible to move to find better light.


The basic aim of the high fashion picture is the creation of a mood and an atmosphere. The photograph is only a means to this end, and a great deal of the effect is obtained in the darkroom. To simplify the composition of the picture, contrast is often manipulated, either by sharply increasing it-sometimes so far as to eliminate the mid-tones altogether or by reducing it. Definition is often decreased, either by using extreme high speed films and force development to produce "golf-ball" grain, or by using a long exposure and moving the camera, or by moving the printing paper under the enlarger. Every photographer has his own favorite techniques, and again generalization is impossible, but it is safe to say that no fashion photographer can afford to neglect dark-room techniques as, say, the photojournalist can.


Generally it is the decision of the art director whether the pictures are to be taken on location or in the studio, but as pictures tend to concentrate more and more on the clothes and less on their surroundings, the two kinds of picture, which were once very distinct, are beginning to merge. When clothes are photographed outside the studio it is usual now to show them in suitable or neutral settings. Not long ago it was fashionable to use surrealistic backgrounds-e.g. evening dresses photographed in gas-works

Locations in fact present magazines whh embarrasing problems. The new fashion picture often requires only the simplest of props- a tree trunk or a spray of leaves may provide all the setting that is needed. But editors are beseiged with offers of free travel from airlines in return for publicity given in the editorial matter.

Thus it may well be cheaper to send a photographer, two models and a fashion editor for three weeks to Japan, than to send the same party for three days in the Cotswolds. But when the Japanese photographs are published, they either look fussy and old-fashioned by showing too much local color or they show so little of Japan that the airline is dissatisfied.

The foregoing remarks apply to the glossy fashion magazines. They can be extended to fashion photography in other publications by observing that the less sophisticated the surrounding matter, and the less the space available for the fashion pictures, the simpler they will be; also, the poorer the quality of printing, the better the photographs have to be, in newspapers, there is no room for extreme high or low key, and definition must be high.



As in editorial work there are graduations of technique and interest. Generally though fashion advertising pictures will show the garment more clearly than in editorial pictures; they will attempt to create less of a mood; technique, lighting and models will be more ordinary.

Larger cameras are quite often used and, since an advertising picture has to be suitable for a number of different publications, quality has to be higher. Less freedom is allowed the photographer in choosing his model, pose and lighting- he often has to work from a sketch prepared by the advertising agency.


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