What It Takes to Create A Full Fashion Story


Fashion photography is notoriously difficult to define. However, everyone agrees that one thing sets this branch of photography apart — fashion photography is all about the clothes.

However, the best fashion photographs have something else, too. The images featured in prestigious editorials look almost effortless, generating emotion and drawing the viewer into the article. These pictures have a story, a narrative surrounding the model and setting.

Good fashion photography captures a moment in another world, filled with its own characters and settings. Without a good story, an image is flat and shallow — a compelling narrative gives a photograph depth, interest and vitality.

A good story is what makes a striking fashion photograph exceptional — and every story begins with an idea.

The Idea

When you are shooting an editorial fashion project, you want to create a fascinating narrative. You are giving the viewer a glimpse into an imaginary world, filled with its own characters and settings. Before you ever pick up a camera, you must have an idea of the world you want to create.

To create a compelling and complete story, a fashion photographer begins by describing their idea. Start with the impressions that come to mind when you imagine your shoot. Inspiration can come from almost anywhere — maybe you are especially inspired by music, like the rebellious undercurrent of punk rock or the classic tones of jazz. Another source of ideas could stem from colors, from blinding neon hues to fading sepia. Setting can be an invaluable guide when forming your photo shoot's story. What seems to fit better with your impressions — an abandoned industrial warehouse or the clean, urban lines of a modern loft?

Once they have a few keywords in mind, a photographer begins to form a brief, the summary of the story behind your shoot. Focus on words or phrases that capture the emotions you want to convey through the project, like "old school" or "vintage." The more precise your words, the better — for example, instead of choosing "bright," you could pick "glistening," "luminous" or "glossy," which produce slightly different responses. Keep the language simple, precise and easily understandable, but also make it descriptive.

After a photographer has a list of words and phrases, they look through the list to find common ideas. These ideas will thread through keywords, linking and connecting them so you can build a succinct brief. Take the common ideas and shape them into a few sentences. Try describing a few of the following aspects in your brief:

  • Subject

  • Lighting

  • Mood, theme and aesthetic

  • Hair, makeup and styling

Creating a brief gives your shoot definition, outlining and grounding your story. It allows the shoot to have consistency and brings cohesion to your team. A good brief can answer many of the questions that your stylist, artists and models will have, and will help guide the overall aesthetic of your project.

When you have a concise and concrete brief, begin building your mood board. A mood board is a collection of visual references that embody different aspects of your brief — it helps fill out your world and story.

Start by selecting a few keywords from your brief and explore online resources — numerous websites offer endless free images. Look through the online portfolios of established photographers, or search through the archives of online fashion magazines. The more images you find, the better — a full mood board helps create a clear picture of the story you want to convey.

A mood board makes a photographer's ideas concrete and lets their team see, understand and contribute to their vision. It takes an abstract concept and turns it into a clear, visual presentation — this enables clear communication, a vital component of any collaborative project. However, although a mood board is important, don't feel stuck or bound to it. The purpose of a mood board is not replication, but inspiration — the best fashion photographers let instinct influence their shots.

The Team

For a professional fashion photographer, a compelling and successful photo shoot relies on a good team of collaborators.

It's difficult to achieve your vision and story without collaborating with an experienced team of creative artists. Most fashion shoots have a team including a stylist, a model and hair and makeup artists.

To a fashion photographer, a clothing stylist is an invaluable asset and ally. In a fashion editorial, clothing plays a central role in the image, and a professional stylist creates the best outfits to match the story behind the photo shoot.

An experienced stylist designs the ensembles worn by the model during the shoot. Typically, stylists are well-connected with brands, designers and stores — they know how to find the best pieces to complement the aesthetic and mood of your shoot. Patiently observing international markets and trends, a professional stylist will make sure that your photos reflect the latest movements in fashion.

Stylists collaborate with photographers from the first stages of a fashion shoot. They can give insight into the tone and themes threading through the brief and mood board, providing invaluable insights into the looks that fit the shoot's story.

During the photo shoot, a stylist dresses the model and adjusts the clothing as necessary throughout the day. After the shoot, a stylist ensures that every item is accounted for, and will return borrowed pieces if necessary. A fashion stylist works as an extra pair of eyes on-set, helping to guide and smooth the process so the photographer can capture compelling images.

Once an editorial photographer starts working with a stylist, the next step in the process is finding the right model or models. The model is the subject of the photo shoot, and choosing the right person can make or break your story. While some professional photographers begin a project with a specific model in mind, many choose the model after creating a brief and consulting with a stylist— the model must fit the story as well as the clothes.

When looking for a model, go back to the background story and emotions that you want to convey. How many models will you need to project a specific feeling? What genders would work best with your theme, and what physical features will complement the style? The best models don't just have a unique look — they are also timely and professional, and they communicate well.

Because so much revolves around the subject of the photo shoot, a professional and creative model is an invaluable asset to the team. The best models not only understand the vision of the photo shoot, but they also bring their own creative instinct and unique perspective to the images.

Experienced hair and makeup artists transform your model to fit the mood and tone of the photo shoot. These specialists help place your model in the world of the photo shoot, creating a vivid, realistic and believable image. Like stylists, hair and makeup artists can provide insight during the planning phase of a photo shoot, helping a photographer visualize the model's look.

A professional photographer can't rely on post-production alone to create stunning images — experienced, on-site artists help bring a photo shoot's story to life, leading to a complex and compelling photograph.

High-end photo shoots have a large team beyond stylists and artists, including set designers, props managers, nail technicians and a collection of other creative and technical collaborators. As an editorial photographer becomes established in their career, they develop relationships with a broad range of creative specialists.

The Location

For a fashion photo shoot, a photographer chooses between two general settings — a studio or on-location.

In an indoor studio, a photographer typically has better access to equipment. If the studio is not pre-equipped with different technologies, it at least provides electricity and stable surfaces for a photographer to arrange their own supplies. While an indoor studio may not have access to natural light, the space is often rigged with enough wiring and technology to allow for a variety of effects. A studio is a blank slate, allowing the photographer and team to have full control over the aesthetics of the shoot.

In contrast, a shooting on-location means that you come into a space with an existing look and structure. From warehouses to ballrooms, these settings were not designed with a photo shoot in mind. Typically, fashion photographers bring in all needed equipment, supplies and additional props, including lights if the space is not well lit.

Local buildings can give a photo shoot a personalized and contemporary feeling, grounding the image in reality — a viewer could be reminded of a similar location in their own neighborhood. Alternately, glamorous locations such as the Le Palais Royal give an air of extravagance and exclusivity to a photo shoot, working well with opulent and elegant styling.

Outdoor locations are unique and inviting, often conveying an ethereal and mythical emotion. Endless hills or gentle farmland give a dreamy and whimsical tone to a fashion photo shoot. Peaked mountains provide more contrast and strength, while forests bring a mysterious and sometimes eerie quality to a picture. The sky can bring deep emotion to an image — a sky filled with flat, gray clouds can bring out unusual colors and create a gloomy and otherworldly atmosphere, while a bright blue sky adds clarity and crispness to a setting.

However, weather often complicates outdoor photo shoots — while shooting through rain, snow or fog can create moving and striking images, it can also make some sessions impossible to complete.

As you consider your story, think about what space will bring it to life. Does the styling need a real wooded backdrop to compliment an otherworldly aesthetic? Would the clean lines of a studio add subtlety to an outrageous and bright '70s look? Or would a warm brick background give an urban and timeless feel for an otherwise futuristic ensemble?

When choosing a location, think of the colors and style of the outfits. What colors dominate the pieces — bright pastels or cold, dark blues? Next, think about the colors in your setting. Is it dominated by warm earth tones or cool neutrals?

Consider the setting of a photo shoot the second subject of a photo. The right location will transport viewers into the photographer's world and narrative. The wrong one will create an image with too much dissonance or boring sameness, repelling viewers.

Exceptional locations tell their own stories — the key is picking the one that fits into your own.

The Shoot 

On the day of the shoot, the idea, team and location all come together to create one thing — images with a story. With the project brief and mood board visible for everyone, the team can jump into action, helping you prepare the model and the setting. Displaying your mood board helps keep the overall theme in everyone's mind, guiding the project through the shoot.

In the end, fashion photography is about the clothes — a professional photographer will showcase the pieces without letting the clothing overwhelm and weigh down the shoot. The location and the model should draw attention to the clothing, but the fashion should complement and deepen its surroundings. Ultimately, the entire image should convey a distinct impression of time and place, of a world beyond the photograph.

During the photo shoot, your team of collaborators is standing by, ready to fix a stray hair, reapply eyeshadow or troubleshoot issues. Continue to communicate the overall theme and tone to each other as you work, and take advantage of your location's natural props. If you are shooting in an area filled with rocks or boulders, let your model experiment with different approaches — they might climb on top or sit underneath in shadow.

At this point, allow your team to improvise. If the story has been well communicated, your collaborators will be able to add their own interpretations to the photo shoot, broadening your scope and bringing new, unique perspectives to the images.

After the photo shoot, a photographer edits the images in post-production, emphasizing details and specific elements. However, hours in post-processing can't save a bad image or give a photograph story and depth. An experienced fashion photographer knows how to capture all of this in the moment, and the post-processing simply emphasizes the beauty and complexity already present.

Professional Fashion Photography With a Story

The best fashion photographers capture more than clothing — they communicate an entire world in one image. In an excellent fashion or editorial photograph, you are giving the viewer a glimpse into an imagined reality, all through your unique, individual perspective.

Excellent fashion photographs require an experienced photographer who knows how to bring depth and character to images. A photographer must have the creative vision to evoke emotion in the viewer, drawing them into the image and the message behind it.

The team at Mark DeLong Photography is committed to compelling visual storytelling. From pre-production planning to the final beautiful image, Mark DeLong Photography will see to every detail. An Emmy Award-Winning Photographer, Mark DeLong has worked with many prestigious editorials, including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Elle.

For more information on images with full, creative stories, call to get a quote on your project today.