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Mastering the Art of Studio Fashion Photography

9 min read

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Quick summary

Studio fashion photography is a classic form of photography still important today.  With good lighting, camera settings, pre-production planning, angles, and workflow, photographers can create images that capture the vision of fashion designers and brands.  By using my tips and suggestions for a studio photoshoot you’ll have the bases covered for producing great images.

Studio fashion photography is one of the most classic and straightforward styles of photography provided by professional photographers. Many of the most famous images from magazines, showcasing celebrities, and famous models, are produced in a studio setting.

The photo shoot is a basic part of the fashion world. For fashion designers and brands, the photoshoot displays their products and creations as an artistic representation and produces content to be used commercially.

In this article, I will explain the best practices for conducting a fashion shoot and provide a few suggestions that I’ve learned from doing studio fashion photography over the years.

Lighting a Studio for Fashion Photoshoot

Most studio fashion shoots are done indoors and without natural light from the sun. But first, let’s consider when there is significant window light in the studio location and enough light from the windows to light the subject.

If there are windows, it’s best to begin by looking at the studio space without the subject and seeing where the highlights and shadows fall, as well as how they change based on the time of day and position of the sun. If the highlights and shadows form a desirable pattern from the window light, you can position your subject related to the light patterns in the background or foreground.

lighting a studio with fashion model wearing couture with hat.

When the subject is posed using window lighting that has shadows, either from the window frame or other obstructions of the sunlight, small adjustments in the subject’s positioning can make a big difference. Typically, variations in the lighting are kept away from the face or the essential areas of the photo.

Now, let’s consider the lighting when there aren’t any windows in the studio. Without any natural light, all lighting will be artificial. The best lights for studio fashion shoots are photography strobe lights (monolights). They are superior to the camera flashes that go on the camera’s hot shoe because they have faster recycle times, more power, and are more easily remotely fired using a transceiver.

Continuous video lighting is not a desirable lighting choice because the main light positioned in front of the subject can be uncomfortable for the model or cause them to squint. With monolights, the quick flash of the strobe light is easier to work with.

How many lights do you need? I recommend a lighting setup that has one to five lights. For a one-light setup, I suggest a main light 5–10 feet in front of and slightly above the subject, with diffusion. Ideally, a 32-46-inch softbox for diffusion, or smaller, since often a harder light is desirable for a fashion look. The larger the diffusion modifier, the softer the lighting will reflect on the subject in your photographs.

If you are using two lights, it opens up more possibilities and creativity for lighting position combinations. Usually, you will have one main light in front of the subject, while the other is a backlight or hair light. My personal ‘go-to’ lighting setup for a fashion shoot is a three-light setup with a main light in front of the subject using a large diffuser softbox and two lights with rectangular softboxes to the sides and slightly behind the subject. This setup gives the subject a nice soft light in the front combined with side highlighting in your imagery.

I use this setup so often that when I use a fourth light, I usually just add it as an additional overhead light at low power on top of the subject with a ball diffuser to act as an ambient light. Now that I’ve described my ‘go-to’ lighting setup for a fashion shoot, I’d also like to add that there is no correct lighting setup, and it’s quite common to want something completely different and artistic. Once you’ve mastered a one, two, and three light setup, you will become more comfortable and have fun using additional lighting.

For example, the art direction for a photoshoot for a fashion brand once wanted me to produce a hard shadow of the model’s silhouette against the backdrop. In that case, I used one main light far in front of and above the model, allowing me to get that look. You may want to use gels to add color to lighting to add that specific look to your portfolio. So, a lot of the decisions of your lighting setup will depend on the look and feel or concept you’re going for.

studio photoshoot couture fashion.

Camera Settings for a Studio Shoot

Briefly, I would like to cover camera settings. The camera settings for a fashion photoshoot should be pretty straightforward. I suggest keeping ISO at 100 or the lowest setting for the best image quality, and if you need more light, you can then rely on your lighting equipment.

Relying on your lighting is a key advantage to shooting in the studio within a controlled environment. I like to shoot at f7 to f11 since we typically want everything in focus when shooting fashion. For shutter speed, I recommend 1/125s, which is a fast speed that is ‘good enough’ at freezing motion and should be compatible with firing most strobes. If your strobe has the ‘high sync speed’ feature, you can speed your shutter up to 1/250s if you like.

If you use my recommended settings of ISO 100, f7, and 1/125s and your images are looking properly exposed with those settings, then most likely your photography lights are overpowering any other ceiling lighting or studio ‘house’ lights, which is good. By the way, non-photography lights in the studio are often referred to as ‘ambient lighting, so don’t worry much about it because, as I just said, it won’t affect your photos, and you kind of need some ambient lighting for the time when your strobe isn’t firing to help your camera focus.

Personally, I like to use the live view for studio shoots when I am composing. As much as I like electronic viewfinders, I only find myself using them outdoors. In the studio, you can switch from composing in live view to other tasks more seamlessly. As for the white balance camera setting, you can customize it with a color-checker or just not mind it since it can be non-destructively changed in post-production. I like to at least get it close to where I want because I like to see the best preview that I can right then within the camera while I’m shooting.

The two closest settings tend to be AWB (auto white balance) and Flash, but it seems to me that AWB makes the photo a bit too cool and the Flash setting makes it too warm, and in the middle of those two is usually the best and closest to what you’d get with a color checker. So, either AWB or Flash will leave you pretty close to a desirable white balance. I’d also like to add that it’s more common in studio fashion photography to have a cooler white balance and a slightly darker gray backdrop.

model wearing flowy dress shot in studio.

Angles for Photographing Models

Angles are important in model and fashion photography in particular. First, the model’s angles in her posing are important. Often, it’s said that creating triangle shapes are important in posing. I agree because when the joints are in triangle shapes, they are in positions perpendicular to the camera. When the model is extended toward the camera, it can give the appearance of bad proportions.

For example, if the model’s elbow is facing toward the camera, it will blend in with what is behind it and possibly appear too large or too short. If their elbow is in a triangle at their side, it gives a more desirable appearance. All of the classic rules of composition, including symmetry, rule of thirds, etc., are still important to fashion photography.

I would just like to add a few things based on experience. Typically, the models for a fashion shoot are tall. 5’9 and above, but not always. I recommend shooting from a position with the camera about 2 feet from the ground for fashion shoots when the model is standing for a full-body composition. If you shoot from too high, you won’t get the desired editorial look in fashion photography. Getting the right look or vibe in your photos, as well as consistency in the look, will help acquire more clients. In addition, shooting from a low angle will also make the model appear taller.

If the composition is not a full-body photo when the model is standing, then you will have to switch it up. Generally, you can follow the principle that you put the camera in a position at the center of the subject’s mass. For example, if you are composing a photo from the model’s waist up to the top of their head. In that case, you place the camera at a height that aligns with their chest. Also, things like camera height depend quite a bit on the focal length of your lens.

I strongly recommend shooting at 50–85mm for model photography and greatly prefer the long end toward 85mm for studio fashion photography. Shooting longer makes the model slimmer, taller, and generally more attractive. The tighter the focal length of your lens, the more details you’re able to showcase in your fashion images. You take selfies with 24mm, you see with your eyes at about 50mm, and you do fashion shoots with 85mm. Oftentimes, if I am shooting from a low camera height, I will direct the model so that their neck is bent forward so that their face is at an angle that is flat to the lens. If their chin is too high, it could make their head look small when you’re shooting from low.

published image from magazine with two models.

Pre-Production in Studio

A considerable amount of planning goes into professional fashion photography. A photographer might communicate with a fashion designer or art director and the model to come up with creative ideas before the photoshoot. It’s not uncommon that a mood board or other forms of inspiration would be created and shared to establish the look and feel of the photoshoot.

If the suggestions for my ‘go-to’ lighting, camera settings, and angles are followed, and you are shooting a single subject against a seamless backdrop, you will most likely be producing high-quality fashion images. However, you might be going for a style that showcases boots and want to do a low, wide angle, making the boots large in the foreground. Or you might want to showcase a hat and shoot above the model’s head.

It’s important for the photographer to know the vision ahead of time and plan new ideas on how to shoot it best. Also, preproduction might involve changing the backdrop or adding props for your project. A fashion stylist might want the backdrop color to match the clothes and accessories or any number of possibilities that are best thought through before the photoshoot. The photographer’s job is to improvise how to get an amazing image, and good planning is the best way to do it easily.

studio fashion photoshoot example.

Timing and Flow

Managing your time when producing a studio fashion shoot is important. Whether you’re renting a studio hourly or your team is on a timeline, it’s important to allow time for all aspects of the photoshoot. It’s not uncommon for a fashion model to get her hair and makeup done at the studio prior to the photo session and take a bit of time custom-fitting the clothes. In which case, from my experience, this process takes about an hour, but be prepared for and remember to be kind to makeup artists and hair stylists that work a bit slower.

Also, how many looks are you shooting? If you are shooting five looks, you might want to get 30–50 images in each look to cull through and factor in the time it takes to change and touch up. If you have extra time, you can shoot slower, take additional test shots, and keep progressing to top your favorite images thus far. My advice for something to be aware of is not to keep taking too many similar photos, especially when they are looking good.

Sometimes, when your photos look great and exactly as you want, you can actually start taking too many similar ones. Once you’re sure you’ve got the shot that represents that look or a few to choose from, move on to another look or change. This progression is basically done for the sake of variety since it’s usually the case that you will want multiple great photos with different looks for studio fashion photography.

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Billy Pissios is a beauty and fashion photographer based in Chicago. His work has been published in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. He still practices, producing studio photography and commercial work and loves collaborating with designers and brands.
Billy Pissios is a beauty and fashion photographer based in Chicago. His work has been published in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. He still practices, producing studio photography and commercial work and loves collaborating with designers and brands.
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  1. This was a lovely article Billy. I loved the tip about where to put the camera depending on if you’re doing a full-body photo or not. The entire piece was quite a logical approach to the genre, making it pretty accessible, even to beginners. 

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