What Is Fashion Photography?

fashion photography

Fashion photography often refers to taking images for advertisement purposes for clothing, hairstyles, makeup, jewellery, or other fashion-related products.

The success behind the portfolio of many models lies in the hands of a fashion photographer. 

This genre of photography is dedicated to showing fashion apparel and accessories in a way that enhances them. 

Over time, fashion photography has developed its aesthetic with the beauty of clothes, models, and accessories, enhanced by the use of exotic locations, storylines and stylized photographic techniques.

You typically need a team to be a successful fashion photographer. Models, assistants, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe specialists, and just extra sets of eyes and hands in general. When you think of fashion photography, think of high-end stylized photo shoots.

Proper lighting, posing and facial expressions, and creativity play a part in becoming a successful fashion photographer. 

A good start would be to look through fashion magazines and websites and note how the photographers draw attention to a specific theme or product to capture the viewer’s attention. “Boring” just doesn’t cut it in the fashion industry.

What Is Fashion Photography?

composition tips for fashion photography (2)

The term “fashion photography” describes a type of fine art photography devoted to the promotion of fashion items such as haute couture clothing and mass-market clothes, shoes, perfume, and other branded products designed by fashion houses around the world. 

Practised by many of the world’s most outstanding photographers, “fashion photography” should be seen primarily as a form of visual art rather than an applied art since the images created do not serve a practical function. 

Furthermore, 21st-century fashion photos – like mainstream TV commercials – are primarily concerned with promoting a brand (that is, a concept) rather than a physical product. (Please see also: Is Photography Art?) 

Whatever its precise meaning or aesthetics, “fashion photography” is closely linked to contemporary art and popular culture. 

Not only does it reflect popular attitudes, aspirations, and tastes, it also reflects the views that women have, about their self-image, gender and sexuality. In addition, “fashion photography” is inextricably linked to the media. 

Emerging initially to satisfy the needs of women’s magazines published by Conde Nast and Hearst, such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar – today augmented by publications like Elle, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, W, Grazia and Seventeen – it now has immediate worldwide impact thanks to the digital computer revolution and the Internet. 

Although New York replaced Paris as the Mecca of fashion photography as far back as the 1940s, Paris and Milan remain important creative centres. 

Simultaneously, Far Eastern cities in India and China will undoubtedly emerge as international fashion centres before long.

History Of Fashion Photography

The earliest fashion photos were produced in the 1860s to document the top Parisian fashion houses’ creations. 

The idea of employing professional models was thought to be repugnant, so fashion photographers were reliant upon social celebrities, such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney or Sarah Bernhardt, to act as models. 

Even when full-time models were later employed, they were sketched by artists rather than photographed because couturiers and designers thought that photographs would give away their secrets. 

It wasn’t until the late 1880s that photos of models were used and then printed in fashion magazines, following the invention of the halftone printing process by Frederic Eugene Ives (1856–1937). 

This new print process made it possible to reproduce fashion photographs in mass-circulation journals and market fashion to a mass audience. (See also: 19th Century Photographers.) 

The two most influential fashion magazines (both founded in America) were Harper’s Bazaar (founded by Harper & Brothers, first published 1867, later bought by Hearst) and Vogue (founded by Arthur Turnure, first published 1892, later bought by Conde-Nast).

These journals and their expanding readership, together with rapidly advancing American technology in the area of photography and printing, made the United States a vital centre in the area of fashion photography.

Paris Culture and Fashion (1880-1930)

But despite America’s technological edge, Paris remained the centre of Western culture, notably in fine art and printmaking. 

Indeed with the emergence of major artistic trends like Impressionism (1873-83), Post-Impressionism (1880-1900), Art Nouveau (1890-1914), Fauvism (1905-6) and Cubism (1907-14), Paris was the Mecca for all serious artists involved in painting and sculpture. 

Berlin was another important centre of avant-garde art and design, thanks to the influence of German Expressionism, as well as the influential Sturm Gallery (1912-32), the later Bauhaus Design School (1919-1933), and the activities of photographers like John Heartfield (1891-1968), Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), Hannah Hoch (1889-1978), Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).

It was the same in fashion. All the significant trends emanated from Paris and Berlin, and it was these French and German fashion trends that were showcased in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. 

And since most of the foremost couturiers and fashion houses were located in Paris, it was here that most of the pioneering fashion photography was done. Indeed the first serious fashion photoshoot was done in Paris in 1911 by the American photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973) when he photographed a series of gowns made by the couturier Paul Poiret to convey their physical quality as well as their formal appearance. 

Published in the magazine Art et Decoration, Steichen’s images were seen as the first modern fashion photos ever published. 

Other French magazines that employed fashion photography during the prewar years included La Mode Practique and La Gazette du Bon Ton, while other early 20th-century Parisian fashion photographers have: the Seeberger brothers – Jules Seeberger (1872-1932), Louis Seeberger (1874-1946) and Henri Seeberger (1876-1956) – Maison Reutlinger, Boissonnas et Taponnier and Henri Manuel.

Note: Modern French fashion photography originated with three Parisian postcard photographers known as the Seeberger brothers (Jules, Louis, Henri), who began taking portrait photos of the upper echelon of French society around 1910 onwards. 

As these casual portraits of beautiful women, clad in the latest fashions at horse races, holiday resorts and cafes, began to appear in journals and magazines, couturiers such as Chanel, Hermes, and Madeleine Vionnet rushed to send their fashion models to be photographed by the brothers.

Although struck by The Great War (1914-18), France retained its position as the centre of art and fashion throughout the 1920s and 30s, thanks to the birth of Surrealism in 1924, as well as the rise of couturiers such as Chanel, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, and Lanvin. 

Each of them became known for their distinctive styles. As a result, the city continued to attract top camera artists, including Horst P. Horst (1906-99), Man Ray (1890-1976), Cecil Beaton (1904-80), George Hoyningen-Huene (1900-68), Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969), Brassai (1899-1984) and Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), as well as the design-genius Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971).

Note: On both sides of the Atlantic, department stores’ emergence significantly increased the accessibility of women’s fashion. In Paris, the leading fashion stores included Le Bon Marche, La Samaritaine, and the Grands Magasins Dufayel, while in America, they included Macy’s, McCreary’s, Abraham & Straus, AT Stewart Dry Goods Store (all New York), Marshall Field & Company, Carson Pirie Scott (both Chicago), and Wanamaker’s (Philadelphia).

Fashion Photography in America (1900-1930)

Such activity in Paris did not prevent American fashion photography from progressing also. 

The country’s growing wealth, the power of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, as well as its tradition of photographic art – exemplified by the work of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), and later Paul Strand (1890-1976), Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Walker Evans (1903–1975) – all combined to make New York a hotbed of innovation.

The first notable American fashion photographer was Baron Adolf de Meyer (1868-1946) – best-known for his elegant portraits of celebrities such as Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Ruth St. Denis, Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary. 

In 1913 became the first official fashion photographer for the American magazine Vogue, now owned by Conde-Nast. 

De Meyer was the first to imbue his fashion photos with a sense of “mood” by bathing his shots in a limpid atmosphere and shimmering light. 

This refinement opened the way for fashion photography to evoke a wide range of feelings in the viewer, thus abandoning the traditional convention of using fashion photos for illustration purposes only. 

(For the evocative effects created by early portrait photographers, see Julia Margaret Cameron’s work: 1815-79.)

During the early part of the 20th century, another significant factor in the growth of the American fashion industry (and thus American fashion photography) concerned the rise of the “ready-to-wear” clothes industry and the contemporary development of an independent US style entirely unconnected with Parisian fashion.

In effect, the American fashion market switched from Parisian couture to individualized ready-to-wear clothing, marketed and promoted through magazines like Women’s Wear Daily (founded 1910), Harper’s Bazaar, and Ladies Home Journal (founded 1883 – and in 1903 became the first American magazine to reach 1 million subscribers).

In 1924, Adolf de Meyer’s ‘soft-focus effects were superseded by Steichen’s clean geometric style of photographic modernism, which substituted simple but sleek backdrops for de Meyer’s rococo settings. 

Like the smooth lines, geometric shapes, and streamlined forms of Art Deco – the hugely influential design movement developed in America – Steichen’s photos showed that US fashion photographers intended to lead Europe, not follow it. America was the land of European emigrants, liberated from the traditional and old fashioned values of their homelands, which was an added advantage. 

Thus, Steichen portrays the modern woman in a modern style of clothing that reflected her newfound freedom from the corset – a situation later portrayed by Horst P Horst in his seminal Vogue image, entitled “The Mainbocher Corset” (1939). Steichen’s series of photographs of Marion Morehouse also embodied the archetypal “contemporary” woman, the flapper.

Another significant development was engineered by Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, who arranged for the Hungarian sports photographer Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963) to shoot some swimwear photos spread out in the open on a windy beach. 

As Lucile Brokaw, the model, ran towards the camera, Munkacsi photographed her in motion, blurred and hair streaming. In that instant, she shattered the convention that fashion photographs could only be taken inside a controlled studio environment. 

Munkacsi’s spontaneous realism revolutionized the aesthetics of fashion photography and opened the way for others to follow.

Also noteworthy was the invention of Kodachrome, a type of colour film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935. 

One of the first camera artists to use colour in fashion photography was Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989), best-known for her outdoor photo shoots for Harper’s Bazaar. 

She was also one of the first to use natural light and use exotic locations for her photography.

Surrealist Fashion Photography

Its chief theorist Andre Breton (1896-1966), presided over by its chief theorist, the Paris-based Surrealism movement, with its fantastic, dreamlike attributes, had a significant influence on fashion photography. 

Man Ray’s work best exemplifies this, the American camera artist who charted an entirely new fashion photography direction, mostly because he disregarded the conventions and experimented with surreal, expressionistic imagery in his darkroom. 

In effect, his contrived, indoor, pictorialist style of work represented the opposite end of the spectrum to the spontaneity of Munkacsi. Another influential pictorialist fashion photographer was Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969), who employed numerous techniques, including solarization, overprinting, juxtapositioning of colour transparencies, and even chilling wet negatives in the refrigerator to achieve his surreal effects. 

Other camera artists who incorporated surrealist ideas in their photos included the Englishman Peter Rose Pulham (1910-56), the Frenchman Andre Durst (1907-49), the American George Platt Lynes (1907-55), and the inimitable Cecil Beaton.

Fashion Photography in the 21st century

how to plan a fashion photoshoot (2)

The twenty-first century has already been marked by three things: the 9/11 bombings, globalization and the impoverishment of the Third World, and the economic downturn (2007-2014). 

This appears to have influenced fashion in numerous ways. Ethical trading practices and green policies are shaping buying policies. Ready-to-wear clothes are now primarily manufactured in China. 

Escapism to mitigate financial and political uncertainties has encouraged a revival of surrealistic or kitsch-style fashion photography, as well as the continued use of celebrities and long-established supermodels. 

Growing dissatisfaction with established values in the wake of worldwide austerity continues to stimulate the use of controversial elements in the design of fashion photoshoots, although not to the extent of Oliviero Toscani’s confrontational 1980s fashion shoots for Benetton.

With the deaths of Herb Ritts (in 2002), Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Francesco Scavullo (in 2004), and Irving Penn (in 2009), today’s leading fashion photographers include Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Meisel, Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh, Oliviero Toscani (b.1942), Annie Leibovitz (b.1949), Nick Knight (b.1958) and David LaChapelle (1963). 

Younger camera artists include Christophe Kutner, Glen Luchford, Craig McDean and Javier Vallhonrat.

Although Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bundchen and other ‘established’ models continue to lead the field, the new crop of professional fashion models of the 21st century – as cited in American Vogue (May 2007) – includes Agyness Deyn, Lily Donaldson, Chanel Iman, Doutzen Kroes, Sasha Pivovarova, Hilary Rhoda, Coco Rocha, Jessica Stam, Caroline Trentini and Raquel Zimmermann.

Meantime the leading fashion magazines (aside from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar) now include Elle (the world’s best-selling fashion magazine), Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, W, Vanity Fair, GQ, Grazia, Marie Claire, as well as Dazed and Confused, and Sleaze Nation.


This genre can be divided into three main styles; editorial, catalogue and high fashion. A fourth style that is slowly gaining prominence is called street fashion photography.


While catalogue and street styles are easily distinguishable, it is pretty difficult to distinguish between editorial and high fashion because they share a similar manner.

Editorial fashion photography

Most fashion magazines feature this style of photography. Here, styling takes a prominent forefront. 

In most cases, there is a story running through the shoot; the models are often photographed through the course of the day, morning wardrobe, mid-day wardrobe and finally, evening attire. 

These shots depict a theme, and the models need to enact the role they are given and emote to convey their story. The whole image is shot to create a powerful statement.

High Fashion

Big fashion brands and labels often advertise their products using this style of photography. The photographs generally feature supermodels, famous actors and actresses.

The clothes and accessories featured are often styled in a way that is a complete departure from reality. 

The poses can be exaggerated and over-the-top. All the model elements, the wardrobe, styling, hair/makeup, lighting and location work together to create a perfect image.

Catalog Photography

This style is used by companies that print to market their products to their consumers. 

This is an information image where the model is made to pose against a specific background, and you see the clothes very clearly. 

Here, styling is hassle-free, the experience usually is white or grey, and the photograph is so that the dresses’ details are visible. Most of these photographs are shot in studios or another ideal location.

Street Fashion Photography

This style is all about the people of the street. It’s about capturing the essence of what is fashionable amongst typical people, what they wear, how they perceive style and how they make a statement with their clothes. 

Photographers of this style would shoot fashionistas out and about their daily chores, highlighting trends in the real world.

Freedom & Control

As a fashion photographer, you usually end up taking direction from a fashion editor or stylist. 

Accepting images for advertising and editorial purposes is much different than taking portrait photos of a family or children.

Fashion editors know precisely what they are looking for in a shoot. They usually have their team of stylists and assistants to work with. As the photographer, you are simply part of the team. 

You need to be able to communicate with them and understand that what you may think works best may not for them—being able to work with/as a team player is vital in the fashion industry.

Practice, study other fashion photographers’ work, invest in the proper equipment, and create a portfolio showing off your skills. 

Becoming successful as a fashion photographer requires time, patience, practice, research, adequate equipment, and knowledge. Invest in these things and create a brand for yourself, and you, too, could become a successful fashion photographer.


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