How To Become a Beauty Photographer: Realization, Education and Career Roadmap
I didn’t intentionally choose to become a Beauty Photographer, I think I was always meant to be one. But right out of high school I took a more realistic path and got myself into Finance and Accounting for the following decade. I am very fortunate that things turned out the way they have over time and I do what I love now, but you may be in a different stage in your life and I want to share how I would approach a career shift if I was to become a Beauty Photographer now.
Being involved in teaching Beauty Photography & Retouching around the world for a few years, I have seen many people follow similar steps in their lives – chose the wrong (for them) profession at first, then later in life realize that their love for photography doesn’t go away.
Some start from zero, some shift into Beauty from Portrait or other types of photography, some add photography and retouching into their skill set after being a part of the scene for some time as a Makeup Artist, Hair Stylist, Creative Director or even a Model. I actually know of a very few professionals who became Beauty Photographers from an early age or grew up being one.
So, don’t worry if you want to do it, but are already past your early 20s – you have pretty good chances in finding success if you really want it.
I always loved drawing and painting, but I never went to an art school or even drawing classes to develop any artistic skills as I was growing up. I think my real beauty and photography education started indirectly when I was a teenager and began collecting glossy magazines and pretty pictures from them.
Initially I used them as a girly inspiration for myself. I wanted to learn how to use makeup, what to do with my hair, what to wear, and etc. When the stacks of magazines became too big to store in my room, I started going through older issues and tearing the pictures that I liked out and glueing them into a large notebook.
Over time the notebook had filled up, which forced me to become more selective with my choices of tear sheets for it, and that in turn affected my visual taste.
As silly as it may sound, I think this hobby was actually my best education for my future profession: visual balance, poses, facial expressions, colors, feel, standards and exceptions – all of it was being registered in my mind’s eye, even though I had no idea I was effectively teaching myself to become a future professional.
It’s no accident that I tell everyone who is interested in Beauty Photography AND Retouching to observe and analyze the industry imagery on a daily basis. When you consume so much quality visual material, you are bound to make the right choices when planning your shoots, lighting, framing your images and directing your models, and – what’s most important – selecting the best images to retouch!
My story is unique – just like your story and the next guy’s – I chose to go to Australia to study Commercial Photography, which cost me a lot of money and was a very challenging thing to do on so many levels. But in all honesty, I took a weekend studio lighting workshop in Moscow a year prior to my Australian course and practiced shooting throughout that year, so I already came to Australia with a relatively strong beauty portrait portfolio. Yes, I am very happy that I had this amazing opportunity to live and study photography in Melbourne for 2 years, I don’t regret that decision for a second, but if YOU cannot do it, it’s not a deal breaker.
If I (from the past) was to begin this journey all over again and I (from the present) could help my old self out, I would recommend the following steps:
- Figure out your own preferences. Invest as much time as you can into researching, viewing and analyzing the type of images that attract you the most. Figure out what YOU like shooting the most. Check out Step 1 from my article 3 Steps in Turning Your Dreams Into a Creative Career.
- Everything begins with fundamentals. Once you know what it is that you would love to shoot as a professional Beauty Photographer in the future, evaluate your current skill set as well as your toolkit. If you lack the necessary fundamental lighting or photography knowledge or not sure if you have all the relevant tools (cameras, lenses, strobes, etc.) that you need to produce quality Beauty images, check out my Go Pro: Studio Beauty video course – this will be the best technical jumpstart for your new journey.
- Don’t limit your self-education to one-sided tutorials and books, find a photographer (or two, or three) who already produce the work that you love and contact them for a one-on-one training session. Group workshops are an option, but often you will walk away with so much more usable practical knowledge from a one-on-one than from a dozen of group workshops. I have done both as an instructor and I know for a fact that I was able to give a thousand percent more in one day to my one-on-one students than I could possibly offer in two days to my group students. It is not only the time limitations that work against students in the group education scenario, but the possibility to ask the instructor specific individual questions as well as the degree of openness with which the instructor will be willing to answer some of such questions. Yes, one-on-one education is much more expensive, but hey, the tuition fee in my photography college was $15,000 Australian dollars + just as much in living and other expenses per year. At the end of the day – you are investing into your future profession and you’re getting a HUGE shortcut when you go and learn from a working professional photographer, who already does what you want to do.
- Don’t get fixated on looking for and studying new material. Go and shoot! (Check out Step 2 in my article 3 Steps in Turning Your Dreams Into a Creative Career). If you are a complete beginner and don’t feel ready to approach other creatives to collaborate, start with just a model (your cousin, sister, neighbor or friend), anything goes at this point and what matters the most is that you SHOOT relentlessly. Try various lighting techniques, polish the basics. You may have heard it before “Practice not until you can get it right, but until you can’t get it wrong”. When you have more material to show, you WILL be more experienced and approaching Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists in your area will become easier. That in turn will take your work up to the next level.
- Keep developing your visual taste. While you’re doing all that – keep observing and analyzing more of the beautiful imagery of the type that you enjoy and want to shoot. Coupled with your practicing your visual taste will begin evolving and your understanding of lighting, framing, directing your models will deepen.
- Treat every creative collaboration shoot as a job, even though it is still a large part of your self-education. Always be prepared (check out my recent article on how I plan and prepare for my skincare shoots) as if you were shooting for a client. Not only this will positively affect the outcome of each of your collaboration shoots and you will be able to add stronger work to your portfolio, it will also help you figure out your routines, steps, setups and workflows – you will get comfortable producing one shoot after another, so when your first big commercial project comes along you will have it all under control and won’t ruin it because you’re flipping out.
- Don’t jump the gun. If you still have a full-time job that you dislike, but your photography isn’t providing as much income, and your phone is not ringing of the hook with new generous client inquiries at this point, keep the job. I don’t think this needs to be explained, but I do want to bring up one element that you may not think of when dreaming to jump into photography full-time: if you quit the job, you will be forced to chase clients to make up for the loss of income, and you may be forced to take any and all clients that come your way. Not every client and every job will be what you wanted to do as a creative professional, so this may drain you very soon – the thing that you once loved will turn into a chore, you will start hating it and will get burned out very soon. So, keep the job, grow your photography business on the side for as long as it takes until you’re financially secure to move on. It’s totally doable, just be patient and SHOOT more! I know it’s tiring, I know you will want to rest on a weekend after the work week, but by resting instead of shooting you will be delaying your dream, so suck it up and do it.
- Shoot more creative stuff, editorials, don’t be afraid to create unusual work, be your own innovative Creative Director. It’s necessary to have the ordinary type of work that you would like to shoot for clients in your portfolio, but it’s the unordinary, creative, brave imagery that will set you apart from the crowd of people with cameras in your town. And the more pairs of eyes your new work attracts, the more potential clients may be among them.
- Stack the odds in your favor. In reality, the simple showing up may be the most difficult thing. You can have a dozen serious excuses as to why you can’t shoot regularly, but they all are just that – excuses. If you want something bad enough, all obstacles can be overcome. When I decided that I wanted to focus on my own career as a beauty photographer a couple of years ago, I was living 50 miles away from LA. I could not find a studio to shoot at in my area, but I knew I’d struggle getting people drive all the way to my town for shoots anyway. All of that was a comfortable set of excuses as to why I wasn’t producing new work. Once I realized that, I started changing things around: I found a studio that I could afford to rent for a few days per month for my creative collaborations in Los Angeles and started inviting people to shoot. I knew it was my investment of finances and time and I was fully and solely responsible to make things happen, so I did. Driving out to LA for shoots was very tiring and time-consuming, so last year I convinced my husband to move closer to the city and we relocated to Pasadena. Now it’s only a 20-minute drive for me to the studio, not only it makes scheduling my shoots much easier, but I am also much more likely to get out and meet with my colleagues for project planning and just hanging out.
- Learn to be a good leader. In your shoots, unless initiated by someone else, you will most likely be the director, team coordinator and manager, so use your creative collaborations to learn to become an inspiring leader. In my Go Pro: Studio Beauty video course I talk about choosing the “right” creatives for your projects, as well as how to brief your team and how to work with your models. On a big scale of things though, it’s all about gaining supervisory experience besides growing as a photographer, so be respectful, helpful, understanding but firm when necessary with your team members. If you allow things to get out of order in your shoots – that’s just how they will be. So, set high standards for your team and make sure everyone complies. Some of the elements that you can expect from your team are: showing up at there call time, being fast when doing their job, not bringing unrelated people to the studio without checking with you, not taking BTS images and sharing them on social media without first checking with you, never failing to give credit to each member of the team when sharing the work you shot together and etc.
- Leverage your Social Media presence. In this day and age one must be silly to not use the power of social media to grow their career, especially in our industry. I can’t tell you what platform is best for you – we all know how things change over time – but at this point I find Instagram very helpful in getting my work out there and having it seen not only by local creative professionals, but also by large cosmetics and skincare brands. So, if you don’t know anything about Instagram, but think that now might be the right time to get social, first do your research – there are thousands of articles online that will give you the basic training on the Instagram etiquette and strategies.
- Be ready to work hard. If by looking at successful creative professionals you think they lead an easy and amazing life, you’re mistaking. Everyone started from zero and continues to put in a lot of hard work to continue to succeed. I am sure everyone has moments of self-doubt and maybe even wanted to quit many times, but didn’t.
- Aim for the Moon. Initially I was thinking that I had to pursue small clients, small magazines, make small steps, so over the years I could hopefully get to big clients, big magazines and be happy then. But then a few meaningful conversations happened here and there and something’s changed in my mindset: “Screw that snail race, go big or go home”! You know the wonderful quote by Norman Vincent Peale: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” We are living in a very special time, things happen much faster when you make the right choices. So, no matter where you are at in your career right now, be brave and dream big – it works! 🙂
- Rinse and repeat. Yes, once all of the obstacles are out of your way and you’re shooting on a regular basis, making new friends, meeting new colleagues via social media, getting together and shooting more, coming up with new ideas, polishing your lighting skills, trying out new things and most importantly loving it – that’s when great things will start happening. Just be patient and “dress for the job you want”.
The “waiting time” will be different for everyone depending on how much and how well you will be shooting, how good your creative team choices and concepts are, how well you run your social media, how large the city you live in and etc. But I promise you, if you are patient and can demolish all excuses on your way and just go for the win – you WILL get there.
One year, two years, five years until you’re shooting for your dream clients? I don’t know, but it’s all in your hands, just don’t get discouraged too soon – you have to put in the time and effort, nothing worth having comes easy.
Beauty Retouching Workflow Checklist
A free PDF checklist for those who strive to be a better Beauty Retoucher
oh my… thankyou so much for this article julia!!! now, i’m more inspired for my personal shoot this sunday! i was a bit disappointed coz my stylist wont be able to style my shoot this sunday, and i was thinking to just postpone it (even if everything was already set) … but i said to myself, heck no, i wont allow this problem to hinder, so i searched and asked a lot of stylist until i found one (im still starting and i have no connections thats why) so yeah, demolish all excuses and get that shit done!!
I hope this article stays, because I feel I need to read it more often until it sticks in there. It is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you very much.
Your wirk is super beautiful. I wiuld like to know if you do retouching for others. I have some raw Beauty Pics that need your touch. Please share any infirmation or recomendations regarding Retouching. I’m a Make up Artist looking to get more into photography as we. Any advise would be helpful. Thanks for your time.
Love your work I want to become a fashion and beauty photographer.
JUST WHAT I NEEDED ON THIS DAY!!! JULIA YOU’RE GOD-SENT, THAT’S WHY I WILL ALWAYS REGARD YOU AS MY GODDESS.
ABSOLUTELY OVERWHELMING. GET UP AND DONT GIVE UP!!!
Hey Julia! I love beauty photography and I’ve been doing a lot of spec work and editorials to pad my portfolio with more in this field.
My question is what type of clients should I be targeting? I do a lot of cold-calling, but I feel like my I’m targeting the wrong audience. Should I be looking at only hair care and cosmetics companies?
Recently I’ve been calling high-end hair salons. What I’ve been pitching to them is creating personalized prints for their salon walls that actually show their own work and not the free promotional materials that are sent from suppliers. But once they see my pricing I get no responses.
Basically what I’m wondering is what is my main target audience for beauty photography?
I hope you see this, thanks in advance!
I have never done cold-calling and I don’t know if it ever really works for visual artists (photographers, retouchers or glam masters from our teams). I think you’re attacking this from a slightly different angle. The best way, in my opinion, to attract clients is to make your work very visible, which means more exposure on social media where your potential clients are too. Ditch photography sites like Flickr or 500px – it’s only a popularity contest there, I doubt businesses spend time there in search of visual masters.
As for your main question – YOU are the only one who can answer it. Nobody knows what your personal preferences are, where your talents are and what you would like to be doing for many years ahead for your clients better than you yourself. Your geographic location also matters a lot. But I would mainly focus on the clientele that would require the type of work you like creating the most.
I’ve just had a few super busy months where I was completely “enslaved” by retouching commercial campaigns that I photographed. There were weeks where I was so busy, I had to stop going to the gym, taking any time off, getting out to reset my head space. I had to work very late into the night and get up later than I usually do – I was really tired all the time.
I clearly understood very well at the time that this would not be a sustainable business for me if I did not absolutely love what I am doing. I would get burnt out in no time with such a schedule. But my love for beauty photography and retouching kept every day and every image I worked on for many hours exciting!
Choose ONLY the type of clients that need the type of work that you LOVE doing.
Hope this helps!
I’ve actually been following your work for a while now and I’ve only just stumbled across this during my research, your work is amazing! I’ve been studying film at the moment but I’ve always had passion for beauty photography, I’ve been meaning to try it as a practical hobby on the side but I’d also like to see where it’d take me. Thank you so much for the advice, it’s really inspiring and I feel really motivated to start.
I can totally relate with this article and I love it. I’m a makeup artist and I want to start shooting my work. I took photography classes, but I didn’t really put my knowledge on practice after that because I wanted to focus on makeup. 2 years later I still want to take photos and I’m not happy with the quality of my content. I’m not working doing creative makeup looks just a lot of the same for weddings or events and I do the creatives at home. I mean I’m glad I can do makeup for living, but I have bigger goals. Thanks to this article I’ll stop with excuses.!