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Picture perfect

Fashion photographers transform mere consumer goods into objets d’art. Sanchita Guha looks at the wizardry.

education Updated: May 23, 2012 11:38 IST
Sanchita Guha

You have the camera, the model, the costume… But would all of that add up to a great fashion photograph? Not without vision, says A J Raina, who is something of an amazing success story in this field — he began working as an ad copywriter, had a forced break after an accident, decided to switch fields, picked up the camera for the first time less than two years ago, and has since taken home a bagful of awards, including rich pickings at the Prix de la Photographie, Paris.

Raina likens his work to writing or penning poetry, or even fine art. It is the indefinable that separates the superb from the merely pleasing. “You can learn the technique, but does the image speak to you?” That, he believes, is the litmus test of a good fashion photograph. “A sensibility is what you are born with,” he says. “Then educate yourself in the arts — books, films, music, fine art — and you’ll begin to develop a vision.”

While the mind soars, one part of the aspiring fashion photographer also needs to keep his feet planted on the ground — the part that learns the technique. “When I took up photography, I invested all my savings in the best equipment… And then spent two hours looking at it, as I didn’t know how to use anything,” Raina recalls. He began with the manuals and then tutored himself, aided by his exposure to ad photo shoots. A contact got him his first big campaign, and his new career took off.

Though most budding fashion photographers can make okay money, it is hard work establishing oneself in the top bracket, warns Raina. Be prepared to struggle for a couple of years, at least. That is how much time Manjari Singh, a graduate of APEx, New Delhi, has given herself.

Singh, 24, did a fine arts course at Kashi Vidyapeeth, Benares, and then shifted her focus from nature to fashion, starting out as a pro seven or eight months ago. “I am into photography because of Tarun Khiwal and Atul Kasbekar… I found their work inspiring,” says Singh.

The likes of Khiwal and Kasbekar are the A-listers of a group that Raina calls a “tight clique”, and breaking in is not easy. Singh will not spell it out, but being one of the very few women in this field has meant “difficulties with people”. She is now doing commercial work, portraits and working on fashion brochures for people like Mumbai’s socialite-designer Nisha Jamvwal.

The best way ahead, suggests Raina, is to assist a major photographer for some time to build up contacts, learn the job etc, or to sign up with an agency like Elite that will get the assignments. If you must be independent, Raina advises that you “take photos, put them up on your site, send them to agencies” and maximise visibility.

what’s it about?
Top fashion photographers shoot photo spreads for glossy magazines, or work on big-ticket print campaigns for top brands. Younger photographers often build up portfolio doing ad shoots and creating brochures for designers. The set is under your control and, as AJ Raina often does, you can sketch the frames before shooting to get a sense of the final images. It also calls for a sound understanding of technique and the ability to convey to the shoot team — model, make-up person, stylist — what you want. It helps to build a network of people you can work with comfortably

This being creative work, the hours are not fixed, but a photographer is usually booked for a day, which can go like this:
8 am: Wake up and work out
11 am: Start shoot
2 pm: Take a break
3 pm: Resume shoot
7 pm: Wrap up and chill

A fashion photographer just starting out must be prepared to settle for Rs 15,000 or so for a full day’s shoot. Not bad money, but not so much either considering that buying good equipment will set you back by Rs 4 lakh- Rs 5 lakh. Magazines offer a lot of visibility, but the trade-in is that lesser known names are paid less. An assignment may even fetch only Rs 5,000 at the initial stage. As one’s fame rises, so does the fee. Big names can make Rs 50,000-Rs 70,000 a day and the very best command up to Rs 1.5 lakh a day

n An eye and a passion for photography
n An interest in art, books, music, films
n Communication skills
n Teamwork skills
n Perseverance, as establishing oneself is hard work

How do i get there?
There are exceptions, but as a rule you need to know photography well before specialising as a fashion photographer, says Sundeep Bali, founder faculty member at APEx academy of photography, New Delhi. The institute has a course in fashion photography that is contingent on a certain number of students enrolling. Otherwise, it holds workshops on this from time to time. Bali advises that aspirants do a one-year fashion photography diploma course and then work or specialise further

Institutes & urls
n Jamia Millia Islamia
n National Institute of Design
n APEx (Academy for Photographic Excellence)
n Shari Academy of Professional Photography
n Light and Life Academy

Pros & Cons
n Highly creative work
n Allows enough free time
n Lets you travel a lot
n Huge investment needed
n Initial years of struggle
n Income may be erratic

wanted: dedicated courses

Sundeep Bali, founder faculty member, APEx, talks about what fashion photography means in India

How easy or difficult is it for an aspiring fashion photographer to get the right kind of training in India?
Fashion photography requires one to be conversant with local and global fashion trends, apart from the technical expertise and aesthetic finesse. It is relatively easy to acquire technical skills and sometimes even aesthetic sensibility, but an awareness of trends is something one has to acquire largely on one’s own. Among institutions, I believe Light and Life Academy in Ooty, Shari in Mumbai and APEx in Delhi can impart the requisite training. Overseas, Brooks Institute, California, has produced some of the most renowned fashion photographers and artists.

What kind of course fee and investment are we looking at?
In India, the fee for a year-long course with

specialisation in fashion photography could be between Rs 1.2 lakh and Rs 4 lakh. A good 35mm SLR system would cost Rs 1.5-2 lakh, and a basic studio lighting set-up costs Rs 50,000. Thanks to digital imaging, there is no need to buy film rolls, develop and scan them anymore. But on the flipside, fashion photographers need to constantly update, as technology moves ahead by leaps and bounds.

How is photography positioned in the career market and in public perception?
The traditional perception in India has been one of extremes — someone who either shoots weddings or is lucky enough to click skimpily-clad girls. But over the past few years, this idea has changed. A lot of our students are people who have either quit their jobs or plan to quit as they land work.

Do you feel the need for more government support?
Definitely. I am amazed that a university like DU has no exclusive course in photography. The College of Art has course papers in photography, but that does not do it justice.

Do you see fashion photographs becoming collectibles in future?
The best of fashion imagery transcends the genre to become art. Look at the work of Richard Avedon, or Prabuddha Dasgupta’s oeuvre. I think, fashion photography as collectible art is already a reality in India.

Interviewed by Sanchita Guha