What it’s really like to be an influencer photographer
Ever wondered who’s taking the pictures behind your favourite influencer’s feed? A friend? Partner? Photographer? Well, in reality, it’s probably a little bit from column A, a lot from column B, and for the bigger ones – a large amount from column C.
After meeting photographer Wesley Tan at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week earlier this year and discovering he was the lens behind amazing influencer talent such as Jessie Khoo and Miss Gunner, we became fascinated by how the job works and how he fell into the gig. Tracking him down, we spoke to Wes about all the stories behind being an influencer photographer…
First off, how did you get started into photography?
I paid my way through my undergraduate degree as a wedding photographer. I use to do 15-20 weddings a season as an 18 year old with a Canon 400 DLSR and a 50mm f/1.8 lens just trying to make things work! There was a lot of learning on the fly and discovering what did and didn’t work – trying to find a style and aesthetic. I think one of the things I really loved about that season is that you really had to be super versatile as a wedding photographer as you’ve got a 14 hour period in all sorts of lighting conditions to master. That’s how I got started and then I did a bit of fashion stuff off the back of that – some model testing and working for a couple of brands, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it and had a couple of bad experiences so I put that aside. But then my friend Jessie Khoo started her blog and her Instagram and I came on board and started working with her.
So you were friends originally?
Yes! We’ve been friends for a really long time. We went to a youth ministry of church and grew up together. She’s one of my best friends.
How did that conversation go when Jessie first asked you to be her photographer?!
I think it was really a mutual interest at the time. I started seeing what she was doing and we had a chat about why she was doing it – she was a fashion designer and wanted it to showcase her own personal style. This was at a time that I was starting to look at people like Nicole Warne and Sara Donaldson and see what they were created and being really interested in their dynamic. A lot of what I didn’t like about working with brands was that I had very little creative control. A lot of people think that working as a fashion photographer you have all sorts of different opportunities and you can be really creative – but a lot of times you’re just the last piece of the puzzle to come in with a certain budget and somebody already creating the concept. They just want someone to execute it. So that was the part I didn’t really enjoy – that you have no creative control. If they could have replaced me with a monkey and got the shot then they would have! With bloggers and influencers showcasing their own personal style and developing their own aesthetic, I saw a lot of opportunity so was very excited to get into that.
Who are some of the girls you work with now?
I still work with Jessie, Jo Hombsch, the twins from When Words Fail, I use to shoot a lot with Ashley [Schuberg] from Miss Gunner – but now she’s left me and gone to London… not bitter about that at all!! Sometimes I work with Ally Hayward, Twice Blessed when they’re up from Melbourne, and sometimes I shoot with Jasmin [Howell] from Friend in Fashion when she’s up as well.
How did all those girls find out about you?
Through Jessie, basically. I owe her a huge amount for the career I have now. I started hanging out with her and people started seeing our work. I go to a lot of events with her as well because I love meeting new people and networking. It’s been very organic because I’m not big on promoting my own work. I have an Instagram account, but I’m not on it all the time – it’s just there so people can see my work. I’m quite specific on who I work with as well. I turn down more work than I pick up because I want that control and I want that ability to create content that I’m really proud of. I don’t want to turn up, shoot, and then leave – I like developing a relationship and being strategic.
What timing in an influencer’s career do you find they start seeking you out?
A lot of the girls who I work with have been in the industry for a few years and have been shot by their partners for a while. When they’ve grown to a stage where they’re established and doing well in the industry and have had their partners doing their shooting for a very long time – I find they’re happy to move over to me to free up their “partner time”. This way it can be their own personal time and not feel as though they always have to chase them down to do this sort of stuff. I get to take on their established aesthetic but also add a new creative input and direction to it.
Who is the mastermind behind your shoots – you or the influencer?
It’s a really collaborative process. It’s partly geography – like the When Words Fail girls live down in Cronulla so I’ll go down there sometimes, or sometimes we’ll meet in the city or in between – but also it will depend on the aesthetic of the person I’m shooting. With Jessie, we love doing beach shoots – so that’s often where we are, but if I’m shooting something luxe – then we’ll be in Paddington or a different environment. It can also change per outfit – sometimes we need something really urban and streety so we’ll be in Surry Hills. There’s a lot of factors.
What equipment are you using to shoot?
I’m a Canon boy. I’ve always been a Canon boy – my first camera was a Canon. I’ve found Canons to be really user friendly but I’m also not a brand nazi. I like Canons because for me, the skin tones are the best and makes the job easier when it comes to editing.
Are you a 5D Mark III lover?
Yep, you called it! 5D Mark III.
I use a variety of them. Sometimes I’ll be on a 35mm at f/4.4, 50mm at f/1.2, 24-70mm or 70-200 at f/2.8. I’ve got that gear acquisition syndrome! When I was younger I would just try and buy everything thinking it would make me better, but I think I’ve learnt over time to really push my limits of the gear that I’ve got to a point where I do actually need to upgrade. I shot on a Mark II for ages before upgrading last year to the Mark III – after realising the camera was actually preventing me from getting the shot I wanted.
Are you shooting a different girl every day or do you have some days off? How does it work?
It all really depends. A lot of the girls are on different shoot schedules depending on how much content they require. And then of course, some of them create their own content as well. My schedule is really flexible. There will be some weeks where I’ll have five shoot days and some where I’ll only have one or two. I do like the ebbs and flows.
Someone like Jessie, would you shoot every week?
We spend a lot of time together because we’re also friends! And we love food as well – so we’ll be out eating if we’re not shooting. You can’t really have an eat day and a shoot day – so sometimes we’ll have an “eat day” but we’ll shoot some looks depending on where we are. It’s a very flexible schedule. I’m quite ADD [attention deficit disorder], so don’t like a regimented structure. I love the fact that every day is going to be very different.
Is photography your full-time job?
I also teach and do research at Macquarie University. My background is in psychology so I’m involved in a lot of different projects in that department. I also work a lot in the NGO space. It’s a really fun shift to go in and out of those different spaces.
Where do you want to take your photography?
The growth of street style has been a very interesting one. I think a lot of companies now are starting to see the value of adding a street style element to the content they create. I’m getting a lot of enquiries from different brands that I didn’t ordinarily use to work with to create specific street style content for them, which performs better on their social media than traditional editorial campaigns. So that’s been quite fun. I’d love to have a couple of different brands who I work with on a regular basis for stability.
In terms of influencers, I want the content that I create for them to be the best in the market. I don’t want to oversaturate things, ideally 6-8 girls would be the maximum that I would shoot. I’ve been taking on some new influencers now because I have space in my schedule for that – but I want to be quite strategic about it.
Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?
I don’t know to be honest with you. I wish I had an answer to that. I think the influencer space is really in transition at the moment. I think the Instagram algorithm has clearly impacted a lot of people. We’ve had endless conversations about it because it’s really disheartening for a lot of people who have spent years of their life in a platform that has just turned around and slapped them in the face.
I think there is a time coming where the influencers who continue to be successful are the ones who are able to pivot in some way. I’m excited to be part of the brainstorming process for the ones that I work with as to how we do that. Whether that’s leveraging different platforms like YouTube – going into video content, for some it might be starting their own labels or their own brands, or are we going to see a shift back to a more traditional blog format? Will we be seeing influencers move in other directions? I’m not sure. So it’s really hard for me to say exactly where I’ll be because a lot of it will be dependent on where the industry goes – which is scary but exciting.
That being said, I think there will always be a market for people who create great images. A lot of people have complained about the influencer market being oversaturated, but I love that. It excites me about the fact that people stop caring about the numbers so much and care about the quality of the content. And because I want the influencers that I work with to have the best quality content, then that’s a really exciting space to be in because you’ll see the people that really deserve it flourish.
Main image: Wesley Tan