How I Got Into the Commercial Fashion Photography Industry & Worked with Sasha Pivovarova!
I made a Youtube video rant the other day on about how I got my foot into the commercial fashion photography industry and now it’s time for a written article.
This is for people who don’t want to spend 20 minutes listening to me rant and want to get straight to the point.
So here it is, a summary of how I got into the commercial fashion industry.
First Step: Become an Assistant at a Commercial Studio!
Make a list of all the studios in your city. If your city doesn’t have studios then move to one. Trust me, it’s not as hard as you think especially if this is what you want to do with your life. If a broke Korean guy can move to NYC and London without any money, so can you. To add on to this tangent, when I moved to London, I had zero connections but I knew I can try my luck with the big studios there. As soon as I landed I went to Spring Studios and got hired as an assistant. Literally the same day I landed. You can do it, too.
From the studios you listed, separate them by “commercial” and “boutique”. Commercial is what you want to go for but keep those boutique ones in mind as you will run into them in the future.
Here are some reasons why you want to apply to big, commercial studios:
- Biggest reason why is because they will most likely hire you. Big commercial studios have high turnover rate within their assistants and are always looking to hire. If you just moved to a new city to realize your dream you need to make a living and this is a good place to start.
- Only clients that are commercially successful shoot there -or just clients with money, but they still hire the best in the industry. Now, this doesn’t mean boutique studios don’t get the same clientele but big commercial studios are always and only booked by them.
- Commercial studios usually consist of multiple studios. This means that you can study various types of shoots happening everyday at the same time. Music video shoot to a Conde Naste magazine editorial, a commercial campaign for Marlboro, to a video ad for Danone, etc.
- There will be integrated branches to learn from as well. Most common one being an equipment room where you can learn all the different types of equipment used everyday for different types of shoots. There may be an e-commerce studio, retouch/post-production, creative agency, etc. attached to the studio as well.
- There are standards clients expect from high end studios that boutique studios may miss out on. It starts from how clean and well maintained the studio is to how employees are expected to behave around clients, celebrities, etc. It’s good to learn these things as you will not see this culture from lower end studios.
- Usually free food & leftover goodies. At Alva Studios in London, all the employees got food from the studio restaurant, but at Pier 59 and Spring, the assistants scavenged the leftovers. Basically once the client leaves the studio, there are a ton of leftover goodies. This can be food that can be packaged for lunch or dinner later, or even scraps of consumable equipment such as diffusion paper that you can use for your own shoot.
Send out a nice personable cover letter along with your resume and apply to be an assistant or to work in the equipment room at the studios you listed. Boutique studios will most likely only have space for a manager on their roster and won’t look to hire anyone without any prior studio experience.
Being a studio assistant is basically being a butler for the studio clients. You will be cleaning, setting up studios, accompanying client requests, and delivering things back and forth. Equipment room assistant will be similar except you will probably be doing more heavy lifting.
By working a few months in a commercial studio, you will now have great insight on how commercial studios and sets operate as well as have developed a network of colleagues looking into doing the same things as you. And perhaps, as this does happen quite often, a producer or a photographer may notice your work ethic and contact you for a job. Either way, now your resume is boosted up with a name brand studio that any producer or agent will easily identify with and you have the experience to back it up as well.
Second Step: Become an Assistant on Set!
Now that you have some experience as an outsider looking into what goes on on set, it’s time to actually be on set!
This can be achieved a couple of ways: either contact agencies or photographers.
In cities like NYC, there will be an array of agencies that can help you with this. I personally contacted creative agencies, production agencies, and the photographers directly. The idea of this is the same as above: they deal with a high volume of work and need to constantly fill in gaps as they process productions. They would be happy to put your resume into a pile of available assistants and pick you out when they need to. Technically, you can skip step 1 and do this if you’re financially stable and have had some set experience already.
Contacting photographers directly is also very effective, but there’s a trick to this. When I emailed them inquiring about assisting opportunities, I often got no response back. Sometimes it’s also because the first assistant may be the one who’s in charge of the photographer’s inbox as well. And perhaps they don’t need an assistant at the moment, but that’s not getting your foot on the door. You want to establish a personal connection by meeting them. What I did was to ask for a ‘portfolio review’. This may not always work either but I’ve had some success through it. At least I had some photographers to come out and meet me at a cafe for coffee and we chatted a good hour or so.
After assisting like this, I eventually landed steady assistant gigs when I met Damien Kim whom I became first assistant to. Sticking with one photographer is great because that person can become your mentor into the industry. Which leads to the final step.
Third and Last Step: Find a Mentor/Become a First Assistant!
Create a mentor for yourself in the industry that will help you on becoming your own brand and business. For me, it was Damien as mentioned above. This is such an important step because up until now was just building your foundations. Having the experience in commercial studios then being an assistant on set will offer you great insight as well as allowing you to become a valuable right hand man to a photographer. And once the trust has been established, you will move up to being the photographer’s first assistant.
As the first assistant, your responsibilities go up as well as the amount of work. However, this comes with perks such as having access to the photographer’s inner circle. Personally, Damien had invited me to join his client meetings and production meetings, which had been immensely helpful. He had also passed me jobs that he was too busy to shoot himself. He also helped me produce them if I needed help. Continuing to work with the same photographer will also allow you to understand style and how to achieve it yourself. These are all the things that are going to slowly morph you into being your own working photographer.
To this day, I am in very good relationship with Damien, and even when I moved to London, he called me to help him on a set for Vogue in Paris. I love working with him so I flew in and out just for him. Great thing is that you also get to meet new people or become more acquainted with people you already worked with in the past.
Now I’m sure if you have the network and the financial stability you can jump right into the industry and work as a photographer. But for the rest of us who don’t; I hope this helps.
Before I end this, I’d like to correct some stuff I said in the video rant as I over exaggerate when I open my mouth:
“I worked in the industry for over 10 years” -I have worked as a professional for well over 15 years but in commercial fashion it’s a bit over 6 years now. But you know, you gotta round them numbers up when you’re talking shit.
“I only worked a month at Pier 59 Studios” -I believe I probably worked at Pier 59 Studios 2-3 months -probably 2 months. I did get hired to work on Dan Jackson’s set early on in the job but I lasted about a month after until they fired me for being late. 2-3 minutes being late for work may be an exaggeration as well. Maybe it was like 30 minutes, but I remember thinking it was kind of bull shit since other guys got grace periods.
“I was like 4-5th assistant on that set” -Technically I wasn’t part of Dan Jackson’s crew as the producer just hired me on his own. Oh well!
Some links to which I mention in the video:
Damien Kim: www.damienkim.com
Paolo Testa: www.paolo-testa.com