I'm an Asian female who have always looked younger than my age. When I left my hometown of Seattle to backpack around Europe at 30 years old, my fellow backpackers were just out of high school or college. They were always very surprised that I wasn't 18 or 25 like they were. Some even asked to see my ID for proof of age.
This is, of course, a blessing to look so youthful now that I turn 40 this year. But when I was 22, just a year out of college working as an interior designer surrounded by much older and much more experienced designers than I, looking younger than my age had lots of drawbacks.
Let's not even get started about my height.
I was told once that I was at a disadvantage because I looked young and I was also short. Older, taller clients wouldn't take me seriously. It was a struggle.
I spent much of my 20's pretending like I knew what I was doing. People! I faked it so hard! Of course I was inexperienced. I was only 22 years old! I had to talk the confident talk even if I never walked that walk.
This is why I was stoked to be appointed to the team of designers who handled every aspect of interior design for a brand new apartment complex in the heart of downtown Seattle. Our firm was tasked to select all the finishes of the apartment units, the public common rooms for the residents, and the model home unit.
My main role was to be the lead CAD designer. I sat in on all the client meetings, assisted with finish selections, wrote up architectural specifications, and fielded questions from the building site. Little by little, I developed a reputation for being a hard worker and getting the job done well and on time.
MY FIRST TASTE OF PHOTO STYLING
As is normally the case, the model home unit was the first part of the project to be completed. (This is so the leasing agents can use it as a marketing tool to get renters while the rest of the building is being finished.)
When our design team finished the model home unit for this downtown Seattle apartment complex, we hired a professional photographer to come in and shoot it for the company portfolio. Typically, the lead designer or creative director handled the styling for this work, but both were busy that night and they asked me to do it.
*Cue crazy, nervous butterflies*
Me? Be an interior stylist to a photographer? But how? I had never done anything like this before. I didn't know the first thing of being a stylist! Oh, I'm just getting all worked up thinking how unconfident I felt back then!
That was me at the ripe age of 22. I was a second year interior designer. I was still really green coming out of school. My biggest skill until then had been AutoCAD proficiency. I didn't want to mess this up.
Upon arrival at the building site, I shook off the butterflies, put on my big girl pants and walked straight into the model home unit pretending like I knew exactly how to be a photo stylist.
While the photographer and his assistant went about setting up studio lighting and camera equipment, I started staging the rooms for photography. There were specific rooms my superiors wanted to capture for the portfolio, so I made sure to communicate that to the photographer.
Together, we worked to create beautiful interior images. He printed proofs of the photos (this was before digital photography became popular); he discussed dark spots and hot spots with his assistant. The assistant fixed any lighting issues while the photographer reviewed the proofs with me.
After seeing the first proof, I got a good feel of what to do. I noticed which props took too much focus from the photo. I suggested moving things around so there was more flow to the room. I saw how certain objects could be placed in order to draw the viewer into the photo.
If the photographer made a suggestion, I listened and executed if I agreed. I always talked over my ideas with the photographer before acting. Communication is a huge factor to being a team player.
BUTTERFLIES BE GONE
The happy ending to this story is that I freaking knocked it out of the park!
I had never felt so confident at doing anything in my life. I will always remember that experience because it was the first time I was introduced to photo styling. Why didn't I realize then how much more comfortable I felt being a photo stylist than I did at interior design?
If I may toot my own horn for a brief second... The next morning, my boss told me that the photographer called her to tell her how much he enjoyed working with me and how professional I was. She added that she had worked with him for more than 10 years and never had she ever received a phone call like that from him.
Not bad for a 22 year old short Asian girl with no experience, huh?
I did go on to do some more work as a photo stylist during my interior design years. Here are a few things I've learned about the differences in the roles of photo stylist and photographer.
The photographer's main job is to take photos. They work with the camera and manipulate lighting so that the photo looks good. Sometimes the photographer will have an assistant to help them with lighting adjustments.
Overall, the photographer's duties usually include the following:
- Manages lighting
- Handles the camera
- Edits and enhances quality of photos
- Delivers final product to the client
The photo stylist's main job is to create the scene, oftentimes using props. The photo stylist usually does not handle the camera and only looks at the photos when the photographer invites them to.
In larger commercial projects, there might be more than one type of stylist working together.
- An interior photo shoot could have an interior stylist who could double as a photo stylist.
- A food photo shoot could have a food stylist as well as a prop stylist. In this case, a food stylist cooks/bakes the food while the prop stylist provides the plates, cutlery, and supporting story telling elements.
- A clothing shoot could have a wardrobe stylist and a fashion stylist. The fashion stylist would put together the outfits and accessories, while the wardrobe stylist's main focus is to press and clean the clothes and make them look flattering on the model.
Overall, a photo stylist's duties could include any of the following:
- Sets up the scene with props to make the photo look good
- Adjusts props as necessary after viewing the photo
- Shops for props
- Steams fabrics
- Cleans surfaces
- Removes price stickers and labels from props
- Makes sure everything looks beautiful in front of the camera
Before any prop shopping or photography can be done, there needs to be a creative direction in which the photos will look. This is usually done in the form of visual aids: sketches, inspiration boards, and mockups being amongst the most popular forms.
The task of creative direction is usually assigned to an art/creative director. In the event that one does not exist on the team, then the lead supervisor can take that on themself or assign this job to the photo stylist or the photographer.
Either the photo stylist or the photographer can perform these duties:
- Art direction
- Creative concept
- Assembles team to work on the project
- Leads the team to get the right images shot
- Communicates directly to the client
It's very possible for one person to do both work. I see lots of photographers do their own styling. I am a perfect example of a photo stylist who does her own photography. On larger photo shoots, however, these two roles are usually exclusive.