What Makes a Good Fashion Photograph?

Well, clearly there’s no single formula for good fashion photography. Rather there are probably almost as many ways of getting fashion photography right as there are good fashion photographers out there shooting it. Yet one thing we can say is that there are a number of obvious ways in which fashion photography will often go seriously wrong.

Whether you are a budding fashion photographer yourself, or a model hoping to gain a better understanding of fashion photography, it’s good to be aware of the most common fashion photography pitfalls. This guide will have you clued-up in no time.

What are the Ingredients of a Good Fashion Photograph?

Retouching

Retouching digitally alters an image in some way: for example by adjusting the colors, removing distractions and imperfections, shifting the lightness/darkness of certain areas to strengthen the balance and composition of the image. Good retouching makes these enhancements without the process ever becoming evident to the viewer. A badly retouched photo wears them on its sleeve.

Rarely should you be able to look at a photo and say something like “well clearly the photographer has erased skin blemishes, darkened the edges of the photo, increased overall contrast, pumped up the saturation of the reds, and added a lot of blue to shadow areas.” Yet even in a professionally retouched fashion photograph, the retoucher might in fact have done all of the above, and more. When done well, though, none of this will be immediately obvious to the viewer.

If we wanted to state this as a basic rule, then, we could say that if you can see the retouching, it’s bad retouching.

Retouching there is too obvious!

As we will repeatedly note in this guide though, it’s often a question of how appropriate the approach is for the overall result that is desired. For example, most good fashion photography will usually display subtle and natural retouching. But if instead the photographer’s intention is to create a futuristic cyborg-like look for the model, then in this case retouching the model’s skin so that it is ultra-clean and artificial-looking might be entirely justified.

As with almost every point we’ll look at here, then, retouching needs to be considered within the context of the particular photo in question.

Having said this, there are a few tell-tale signs of badly done retouching that you might look out for. For example, it’s probably not a good sign if a photographer’s work consistently displays any of the following:

  • The whole photo is incredibly sharp from front to back, or looks more like an illustration or CGI than an image captured from real life.
  • Perspective is strangely flattened and/or confusing, with background elements seemingly close by.
  • The model’s face is devoid of all detail beyond eyes, nose, and mouth, and looks more like it’s made from plastic than covered in human skin. Unless you reside in a store-window, resembling a mannequin is rarely desirable. It’s usually caused by the retoucher going overboard with “frequency separation” skin smoothing techniques.
  • People or things seem to have a strange supernatural glow around them: this is a sign that elements within the image have been individually lightened or darkened in a crude and unskilled manner.
  • Exterior areas (e.g. the view out a window) are darker than the interior: if the sun is shining outside, it’s highly unlikely that indoor areas would appear brighter.
  • The same applies to the sky versus the rest of the image: if the main source of light illuminating objects in a photo is the sky, then how is it possible that the sky itself is darker than the objects it illuminates? That’s just not how science works.
  • The model’s eyes and teeth are captivatingly bright: in all likelihood the model wasn’t born with eyes like luminous crystals, nor teeth that would blind an elephant: the photographer simply got carried away in Photoshop.

Of course, there are many exceptions to these rules. Photographers who want to achieve a particularly stylized high-fashion look (think Mert and Marcus) will clean up their models’ skin to a very artificial degree, and pump up the saturation of colors into a realm that only Gucci can get away with. This kind of approach needs to be done with real taste and sophistication though, or it risks turning trashy very quickly.

Composition

There are no particular composition rules that apply to fashion photography that aren’t just as equally valid for photography more generally.

Good composition will create a graphically pleasing balance of all the elements within the frame. A bad composition will be awkward and disturbing to look at.

Unfortunately things are a little more complicated than this though: it it has been common in the last few decades for certain photographers to deliberately produce images that break all the traditional rules of photographic composition inherited from classical European art. So although chopping half the model’s head out of the frame might well be a clumsy mistake on the part of a beginner photographer, it may just as easily be a deliberate compositional tactic employed by an advanced photographer who wants to inject a little bit of raw, documentary-style energy into the image.

Again though, even in the case of such a non-traditional aesthetic approach, the result should still be in some way pleasing and balanced to look at. It would all a question of precisely where the model’s head is cropped and how this works in unison with the other elements within the frame.

Nonetheless, there follow a few points to look out for which might be a sign of poor composition skills:

  • The model seems too small or is lost within the frame, with other elements aggressively competing for attention.
  • A lamppost, tree, building, or other element is confusingly placed directly behind the model, appearing to grow out of their head.
  • The model is placed directly in the center of the frame: usually composition works best when following the “rule of thirds” by placing the subject off-center.
  • Focus is not on the model, but on some other element of the image. This is not strictly a compositional problem, but it nonetheless can be disturbing for the viewer if another area of the image is sharper than the model’s eyes.
  • The horizon is slightly slanted: a horizon that is just a little less than parallel to the top and bottom of the frame was likely a mistake caused by sloppy framing. But if the horizon is very obviously leaning one way or another then this is more likely to have been a deliberate compositional tactic intended to add a degree of dynamism and excitement to the image.

Just bear in mind that some more subversive photographers might take such a list of dos and donts and go out of their way to deliberately reproduce every “mistake” mentioned on it for ironic effect.

Exposure

Although exposure is often looked upon as more of a technical consideration than an artistic one, it can also be used as an creative tool. So depending on the desired result, it’s usually possible to expose any given scene in a number of equally acceptable ways.

For example, if the photographer wishes to give the image a clean, airy, and sunlit look, they could overexpose the photo slightly, resulting in large expenses of white and very little in the way of shadow areas. This might not be considered a “correct” exposure from a technical point of view, but it’s entirely correct if it’s the effect that the photographer set out to achieve.

Where an exposure of this kind would become a problem is if the photographer was actually aiming for an altogether different effect, and then later struggled to fix the mistake using editing software. In this case, darkening the image in Photoshop would lead to large expanses of flat and detail-less gray rather than white: a somewhat less pleasing result. Or, if instead the photo was accidentally underexposed, attempts to lighten the image in Photoshop would likely just result in thin and weedy blacks and a major increase in digital noise.

Either of these scenarios can be taken as a probable sign that the photographer hasn’t fully got their exposure techniques down yet. Given that achieving a correct (i.e. the desired) exposure is probably the most basic skill that anyone calling themselves a photographer needs to master, poorly exposed images are a sure sign that you are looking at the work of a real beginner.

It’s also worth mentioning in passing that a dark and moody photograph is not the same as an underexposed or badly lit photograph. A sombre or atmospheric photo has more to do with the quality or direction of the light than it does with the relative strength of that light. In any case, the photo should be correctly exposed (i.e. display detail in both highlight and shadow areas).

Similarly though, a dark and moody photograph is not the same as a normal photograph just made to look darker and moodier by means of crude postproduction techniques – such as “burning down” large portions of the image to black in Photoshop. Again, avoid photos that display such heavy-handed extremes.

Colors

The less confident a photographer is of their talents, the more likely they are to compensate by doing strange things to a photo’s colors in order to make it look “cool”. Some tweaking of colors in post production is totally legit, but as with other retouching techniques it can soon become trashy if not done with some subtlety.

Avoid colors that are overly saturated, desaturated, unrealistic, or just downright bizarre looking. Wacky Instagram-style color filters mostly just make photos look cheap.

What makes a good fashion photograph?
Here, retouching and colors are exaggerated.

Lighting

Good lighting is often not the kind of lighting that you immediately notice. Instead it adds to the beauty and atmosphere of the photo, but without screaming for attention.

Conversely, lighting that is overly dramatic or that dominates the photograph is often trying a little too hard. Be wary of lighting that is too “flashy”, as it might be a sign that the photographer is more interested in showing off their technical skills than producing an image that “works” overall.

Lighting should always be appropriate to the subject matter and mood of the photo. Not just because it looks “cool.” Sometimes this means not using artificial lighting at all. Indeed, some of the most talented photographers will simply make the best of the ambient light in its natural state, without adding anything. Such a photographer will move the model around looking for the best light available within the location, but won’t use any artificial lights of their own.

Of course, there are also those photographers who are very skilled at using artificial lighting. Depending upon their style of photography, they might use lights in a very natural way, effectively mimicking the behavior and quality of daylight – only with greater scope for control. Alternatively they may be much more stylized in their approach to lighting, creating bold and distinctive setups that would be unlikely to ever occur in real life. Either tactic is equally valid; what matters is that it’s done well, and with purpose.

Sometimes good lighting requires very advanced technical knowledge. At other times it can be ridiculously simple. All that matters is the results. Either way, you’ll increase your chances of producing good lighting setups if you understand how light behaves.

An understanding of photographic lighting comes from plenty of experimentation, and, above all, from careful observation of light in the real world.

Unfortunately “good lighting” is something that is difficult to describe in words. The best way to understand lighting is to study the setups used by top photographers, trying to recreate what they’ve done. And, again, to look carefully at light as it occurs in the environment around you.

Nonetheless, there are several questions you might ask when assessing the quality of photographic lighting – whether it’s another photographer’s lighting, or just as equally your own.

  • Is the lighting the first thing you see when you look at the photo?

If so, this is unlikely to be a good sign. Lighting should be a secondary consideration that helps to reinforce the aesthetics of the image, but rarely be allowed to dominate the entire shot.

  • Does the lighting fit with the mood or story of the photo?

Just as you wouldn’t expect to see a horror movie shot using romantic soft-filters, or a video of newly born infants bathed in dramatic chiaroscuro, there should be an obvious connection between the lighting and the subject of a photo.

  • Is the lighting flattering for the model and clothing?

Dramatic lighting can be great, but perhaps not if it makes the model look like the video to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Or, worse still, gives them a big nose and unhealthy dark rings under their eyes.

Good lighting emphasizes the models features, increasing the impression of three-dimensionality and giving greater definition to jawlines and cheekbones. Meanwhile bad lighting can increase the visibility of skin defects, emphasis things like a double chin, or make a model look gaunt and unhealthy.

The same advice applies to the clothing: if anything, good lighting will make the clothes look better than in real life. It certainly shouldn’t make them look worse.

  • Are there any awkward or ugly shadows or bleached out highlight areas lacking all detail?

On their own, neither of these problems are foolproof indicators of bad lighting. Nonetheless, if combined with other signs of poor photography skills, they might be cause for concern. Consider whether the lighting is sophisticated and cinematique, like something Glen Luchford would produce, or instead looks more like a suspect eBay listing.

Crude lighting using the camera’s built in flash – with the foreground violently overexposed and the background gloomy – can have a certain lo-fi charm. Indeed photographers such as Jurgen Teller and Terry Richardson have made their careers out of shooting with the aggressive light of a naked flashbulb, so it’s not a look that we’d entirely discourage. But redeye and harsh shadows are rarely flattering, so this is clearly a technique that needs to be employed with some skill.

Otherwise the effect is less likely to be “American Apparel campaign” and more “random inept snapshot taken on a very drunk night out.”

Product

Ultimately fashion photographs exist for a specific purpose: to sell clothes. If you can’t see the clothes in the photos, or they aren’t looking their best – say because the items don’t fit the model properly, or because they are badly wrinkled and creased – then they aren’t really doing their job as fashion photographs.

As a model trying to judge the quality of a photographer’s work, this point is not of any great concern (although if you can’t see much of the models in any of the photos either, then perhaps you might want to consider working with a different photographer!). However, for a photographer hoping to pick up some paying gigs in the fashion industry, shooting creative and arty shots is all very well, but just bear in mind that any client potentially interested in hiring you will usually have one criteria in mind above all else: to show the clothes.

As ever though, there are exceptions to this rule. See our next point for example.

Atmosphere/Story

Despite what we’ve just said above, occasionally a great fashion photograph shows little or no clothing at all.

The reality of the fashion industry is that there really isn’t that much difference between a $2,000-dress and a $30-rag. Of course, there likely will be some difference, but as far as quality of materials and construction are concerned, it won’t be one that reflects the $1,970 disparity in price.

In a case like this, a big part of what a customer is paying for is image: a mood, an atmosphere, a story. So that when the client puts on that $2,000 item, they are psychologically transported elsewhere: they aren’t wearing a simple piece of fabric, but a whole identity.

Good fashion photography plays a big part in creating this identity.

A strong fashion image may show little or nothing of the designer’s clothes, but instead help to visually conjure up an exciting or alluring story about the brand. One that is “aspirational,” as the marketing mantra goes.

So just because a particular photographer’s work isn’t all clean and brightly-lit in the studio doesn’t mean that they aren’t talented: darkness, blur, and even an “unflattering” and crude-looking aesthetic, can sometimes make for much more effective fashion photography than the kind that graphically shows every single fiber of a garment or the precise silhouette of an outfit.

Whether a fashion photo is strictly atmospheric or almost forensically literal in the way that it shows the product, what is always essential is that it fits with the image of the brand or publication commissioning it. A good fashion photographer instinctively understands brand identity, or the concept behind a particular collection, and interprets this in visual form.

Styling

Showing clothes is one thing, making them look stylish is entirely another. Some fashion photographers have their own unique sense of style. Most do not. Indeed, statistically it’s likely that the average fashion photographer is a middle-aged man in jeans and T-shirt: hardly the most adventurous of dressers. It’s for this reason that professional fashion stylists are employed on a shoot.

Styling can make or break a fashion photograph. Good styling will elevate a shot from the average to the sensational. Bad styling can turn what was otherwise a very promising scene into a cheap and hammy pantomime.

Choose the right combination of items and the outfit will become the hero of the shot; but add one accessory too many and the result can easily turn into an overcooked mess.

Styling needs to function in coordination with the concept of the photo. Sure, it’s conceivable that if the photographer is working in one direction (say referencing 1950s B-movies), while the styling pulls in entirely another (baroque luxury), something fresh and original might come out of it. In most cases though, when styling and photography aren’t singing in total unison, the result is unlikely to be harmonious.

As with lighting, it can be difficult to explain verbally what differentiates good styling from bad. Unlike lighting though, there are no obvious technical errors that we can point to in order to help identify an amateurish stylist from the professionals. After all, styling is largely a matter of taste: a somewhat subjective concept.

That’d be too much for your portfolio.

Again though, just as with lighting, sometimes less is more: badly done styling is often a result of trying too hard to make a shot look obviously “FASHION!!!

Yet, at other times, more is actually more.

There are no fixed rules. Instead it’s a question of identifying wether the styling choices are right for that particular shot. What could look dreadful in one photograph might be just what’s required in another.

Hair and Make-Up

Similarly to styling, sometimes an outlandish haircut or really artsy bit of make-up work can become the centerpiece of a shot, with all other creative decisions following from there. In other cases, though, you’ll know that the hair and make-up have been done well precisely because you don’t pay any attention to them. In fact, it’s often the case that it’s only when there’s a problem that the viewer will even notice the work of a make-up artist or hair stylist.

Again, it’s largely a question of considering what the hair styling and make-up add to a particular shot. As the clothes and model are usually the real stars of a fashion photograph, most of the time hair and make-up should function as mere supporting actors. Like lighting and location, they should help to reinforce the story and mood, without competing with the lead.

So, for example, if our photographer is still following the gritty ‘50s B-movie theme from above, it would be unlikely help to bring this idea to life if the make-up artist were to paint the model’s face like a futuristic geisha, or if the hair were styled in the manner of an Elizabethan aristocrat.

Credibility

In photography, credibility – or a lack of it – can manifest itself in many different ways. In fact nearly all the points we look at above can be done more, or less, credibly depending on the skill of the photographer.

Authenticity is a popular word these days. That’s a part of what it means to be credible. But credibility can take other forms too.

As we’ve already mentioned above, photography can be a strong method of creating a story about a product or brand. But as with other forms of visual storytelling such as movies, for a story to ring true, it needs to be told in a convincing way.

For example, a movie director will build up the personalities of the main characters in the story over a series of scenes, until we start to view them as if they were entirely real people. But if later on these characters suddenly act in a manner that is totally at odds with how we’ve come to expect them to behave, we’re likely to think “why on earth would they do that?” and consequently lose trust in the movie. And by losing all credibility in the viewer’s eyes, the magic spell of storytelling is broken.

It’s the same with photography. If elements in a photo seem strangely out of place, the viewer will start to ask questions. Why is the model behaving in that way? What are they doing dressed in that outrageous manner (in what is otherwise such a normal situation)? Where does that weird light come from?

Sometimes a photographer might play with incongruous elements on purpose, so as to surprise the viewer, to confound their expectations, or to make an ironic or critical statement. But mostly photographers will want the viewer to trust their image. This means keeping things believable, natural, coherent – at least within the context of that particular photograph.

Casting

If you’re a model reading this, then obviously the casting means you. Consequently there’s not much to do here other than just be yourself.

But for a photographer, choice of model is all important. No matter how good your composition, lighting, technical skills, and even talent for directing models might be, if the models you choose are unprofessional, or simply unsuited to the particular shoot you’re working on, the results will never be anything but disappointing.

Developing an eye for casting takes time. And while many unscrupulous photographers may confuse this side of the job with Tinder, being good at casting doesn’t simply mean working only with models you find physically attractive on a personal level.

For sure, there definitely needs to be a spark of interest in any model you shoot. But this applies just as equally to models of a gender you have no romantic or sexual interest in.

Casting is not to be confused with simple physical attraction or lust.

Model’s Pose and Expression

Even photography that is otherwise very good from a technical point of view can be massively let down by bad posing or a vulgar expression. Although in part expression and pose are of course the model’s responsibility, a talented photographer will help guide the model in this area, so that even an inexperienced model will put in a good performance.

The difference between a psychologically alluring or sensuous expression and one that is just trashy or crude can be quite subtle. Similarly, it’s a fine line between an arty bit of voguing and an over-the-top and amateurish pose. But it’s attention to such details that elevates a fashion photograph from the banal and clichéd to the sublime.

For more advice on this topic, check out our separate guide to posing for models.

Final Thoughts

This article is meant for both models and beginner photographers alike. For photographers just starting out, it can be a good resource to consult from time to time – just to be sure that you aren’t committing any classic newbie mistakes. For models who may have no background in photography or any other area of the visual arts, it provides some pointers to help gain a clearer idea out what makes a good fashion photograph.

This can be especially handy for a model, either when choosing photos for your book or deciding on whether to collaborate with a particular photographer or not.

Of course, we must stress that this checklist is meant as a rough guide only. With one or two exceptions, the points we look at here can be, and indeed regularly are, ignored to great effect – at least by photographers who know what they are doing.

Consider them as suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. But until you are 100% sure that you really do know what you are doing, keeping them in mind will likely lead to better photos much more quickly than just blindly following all the “tricks” you may see others using on Instagram or elsewhere.

Indeed, don’t expect to see all of the above features checked-off on every good fashion photo. For sure, strong composition and correct exposure are the basic minimum requirements of any attractive photograph. But many other points will become either more or less relevant depending upon the precise style of the photograph and the photographer’s creative intentions. So, for example, if the entire point of a certain photograph is that it is ironically over-the-top and melodramatic, then clearly “credibility” will not be high on the list of criteria in this particular case.

If it isn’t already obvious above, then, understanding what makes a good fashion photograph in large part comes down to style and taste. And some would say that you’ve either got style, or you haven’t.

In reality though, nobody is born with style. Instead it’s something that is acquired over time. And anyone still lacking in style will need to do some serious looking and learning until they get it.

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