Photography / Features

Behind the Scenes with Fashion Photographer/Photo Editor Erin Yamagata


Many people dream about a fashion photography career as a life in the fast lane with gilded perks. In reality, it takes a discerning eye, fierce determination, and a penchant for risk. These very qualities were the driving force behind Erin Yamagata’s decision to trade the beaches of Southern California for the crowded avenues of midtown Manhattan. By her graduation from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in 2015, she had assembled a solid fashion and beauty book, and was on her way to establishing herself as a fashion industry photo editor.

Finding Photography

Yamagata first discovered photography in high school. “From the second I started shooting, it was pretty serious,” she says. “I think I always knew I wanted to be a photographer, or to go down that path.”

Photographs © Erin Yamagata

But when college beckoned, she opted for the communications program at Cal State Fullerton instead, explaining, “Just in case the photography plan changed or wasn’t working out, I’d have some sort of fall-back plan. But I was there for a year and just wasn’t happy,” she admits. “I wasn’t shooting or doing anything photography related. By that time, I knew I wanted to take the photography route.”

In nearby Costa Mesa, Orange Coast College (OCC) had recently upgraded its photo program, and offered credits that would be transferable to other California art schools. Yamagata made the switch, immersing herself in photography there for the next two years.

A Fashion Internship

Like many young photographers, her early efforts mostly involved photographing friends, playing with different lighting techniques, and trying to use strobes. As a sophomore at OCC, she applied for an internship with a local fashion magazine called FOAM (Fashion, Ocean, Art, Music). “It had a cool beachy, fashion, surf vibe, and the photography was really incredible,” she explains. “I was just starting to get into fashion photography, and I wanted that internship so I could learn more about it.”

The magazine soon became a formative influence. “I got to assist on a few shoots, and to be on set to see what the real world was like. That’s where I first got a sense of editorial fashion,” she says.

One of Yamagata’s responsibilities involved blog research, since fashion blogging was getting to be a hot trend. She recalls, “I was looking at street style blogs and things, and I started to notice that a lot of the fashion and the things I admired so much in the industry were all coming out of New York.”

From the California Surf to East Coast Hustle

While the Big Apple had hardly entered her mind before then, and she had never even set foot on the East coast, it suddenly dawned on her, “If I want to really pursue my career in photography, I think I need to be in New York.”

The two FOAM editors Yamagata was interning with—both New York natives—offered their advice, encouraging her to apply to photography programs in Manhattan, “So I could get my degree, and take advantage of school for networking and photo resources, especially since I didn’t really have any ties there,” she says.

While she already had three years of schooling under her belt, Yamagata entered New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology as a freshman, in the fall of 2011. She quickly adjusted to big city life and, in January 2012, she applied for an internship with the digital fashion publisher, Refinery29. She says, “I already had a developed portfolio and knew a lot of lighting and photo techniques, so I went for it because it was there, and I felt ready.”

Shooting Fashion Week

Founded in 2005, Refinery29 was still a small operation with about 50 employees when Yamagata started her two-month internship. She recalls, “I spent the majority of my internship shooting, and after it ended, they would hire me for various freelance assignments. So, I never totally stopped shooting for them all through college.”

One of her most memorable early jobs as an intern was to accompany one of Refinery29’s senior editors to Japan for Fashion Week. “I had only been in New York for about six months, so to be asked to do that was so crazy,” says Yamagata. “It was this once in a lifetime experience. I basically got to document the whole trip, and make a little visual diary.”

She recalls the scene in Tokyo as being much less frenetic than New York’s Fashion Week. “New York has so many different venues, and they’re so mobbed by street-style photographers, and Tokyo wasn’t really like that at all,” she points out. “I went in thinking it was going to be like New York, where you can get all these really interesting street style moments, but it was kind of difficult. There was no one out on the streets shooting street style of people entering the shows, and most of the shows took place in one or two areas.”

Street Style

Yamagata’s real challenge shooting Tokyo street style was the language barrier, since she did not speak Japanese. She explains, “You have to walk around the streets and ask random people who don’t speak any English if you can take their photo, and try to get information like their name, age, and what job they do.”She has since photographed this genre near and far, including a local assignment for street style representing each neighborhood in New York City. Her strategy involves approaching people in a friendly way. “I also get straight to my point, instead of doing a whole little spiel on their look. I just straight up say, ‘Oh, can I take your photo for this company, I think your outfit is really cool,’” she says.

“Street style can be very difficult if you’re just randomly shooting on the streets, because people can get weirded out or aren’t really comfortable with it,” she adds. “But I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky and successful with my approach.”

Shooting Backstage and on the Runway

Since first shooting Fashion Week as an intern, Yamagata has covered six or seven seasons of the shows in New York, always capturing a little bit of everything.

“I had to be able to shoot backstage, and try to get first looks if I could, and still be able to run up to the risers to get the actual show,” she says. “It was kind of crazy to get all of what I needed backstage, and still make it in time to claim a spot on the risers before the show started. That was always very stressful.”

Yamagata notes that the most fun often occurs backstage. “It’s really loud, and it gets really hot and chaotic, and sometimes there’s not a ton of space to work in, but you can find some really interesting, and quiet, and cool moments amid the craziness,” she says.

In contrast, she describes the scene on the risers or front of house as being, “all about where you are and getting the right spot. Some photographers can get a little aggressive when it comes to claiming their spot, and making sure that no one gets in their way,” she points out. “Sometimes it gets a little intense up there.”

Her favorite spot on the risers is right up front, “where I can play and be a little bit more creative,” she says. “I like sitting on the floor to get really low moments, and trying to get runway shots that are as non-traditional as possible.”

In every venue and shoot situation, Yamagata stresses the importance of observation. “Almost all the shows can be a little bit different,” she says. “There’s a lot of movement, and a lot of chaos. You definitely learn to shoot fast, and to be very quick on your toes.”

Yamagata’s Gear List

Gear-wise, Yamagata suggests keeping things simple. She shoots with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR and packs two lenses, a telephoto zoom and a wider, portrait lens. “I usually use a 24 – 105, as my go-to standard lens,” she says. “But if I’m going to be shooting from the risers, I like having as much zoom as I can. I’ll try to use something like a 70 – 200, which allows a good range if the models are walking up or making their turn. You have a little less flexibility on your distance from the risers,” she adds, “so it’s always good to have a lens that can reach pretty far.”

Another staple in her camera bag is a Canon Speedlite. “I think flash is one of the most important things for backstage, just because some situations can get really dark,” she says.

To ensure the best possible color, she usually does a custom white balance. If she doesn’t have a card handy, she suggests using a Gary Fong Lightsphere flash attachment. “It has a little dome cap, and if you put it in front of your lens and shoot, the white plastic can do the trick to neutralize the scene if the lighting is really yellow or just off.”

Bottom line: “You should be prepared for any kind of lighting situation,” she says. “This means being able to quickly analyze any given situation, and know what you need to have in that moment.”

Transformation of Style

When she first started shooting for Refinery29, Yamagata notes that the brand was very lifestyle-based and focused on natural light. “Then things got more creative and produced, using models in the studio, and things like that,” she says.

“In the past five years, Refinery29 has gone through a whole redesign and a rebrand, and I feel like my work has transformed and grown a lot too,” Yamagata says. “Our current content is very inclusive of diversity. This has made me more aware of ethnic diversity and body diversity in my own work.”

She has also become more adept at thinking outside of the box, and not being so perfect. “Earlier, I was a bit of a perfectionist,” she admits. “Things always had to be straight, and really retouched. After shooting with Refinery29, I loosened up and let things move around and be a little freer.”

The Other Side of the Lens

During the last semester of Yamagata’s senior year, Refinery29 posted a job opening for a photo assistant. “I had always wanted to be a photo editor, so I went for it,” she says. “I got the job offer the day of my thesis opening, and was promoted to Associate Photo Editor six months later.”

Since assuming this role, she has helped to produce original beauty and entertainment content as part of Refinery29’s editorial team. “We’re allowed a little bit more creative freedom than the advertorial team that produces branded content. We work with our writers and editors, and talk about what kind of shoots we want to do,” says Yamagata.

Once a shoot idea is firmed up, it’s the photo department’s responsibility to come up with the creative and develop a strong team appropriate for the story. “We collaborate with a lot of photographers, stylists, and make-up artists to create stories aligned with our brand, which are fun and creative, and serviceable too,” she adds.

Embracing New Talent

While Refinery29 has a strong pool of long-time contributors, Yamagata points out, “We’re also really open to exploring new talent. Some of the younger photographers are doing incredible work, and we like to be supportive of creatives who are doing their own thing in their own style, and are a little bit more unique.”

Given her experience on both sides of the lens, Yamagata advises photographers to focus their work on true passions and inspirations. “People just need to be more original and unique, and stick to their true interests and style,” she says. “Shoot how you want things to look, and don’t be concerned by what’s trendy or what you think other people want to see.”

As a full-time photo editor, Yamagata now has limited time for her own photo projects, but she continues to be inspired by some formative advice she received as a student. “A lot of people go into different photo industry outlets, whether it’s photo editing or retouching or whatnot. And if you’re not working as a photographer, sometimes you get a little caught up in whatever job it is. But, no matter what you’re doing, you should never stop shooting,” she says. “Always continue making your own work, and doing it for yourself.”

To learn more about Erin Yamagata, visit her website and check out her author page on Refinery29’s website.