An interview with fashion photographer Jay McLaughlin

Fashion pro Jay McLaughlin talks passion, people skills & the importance of your shooting height… 

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You specialise in fashion and portraits – what is it that you find so fascinating about people?
The underlying thing that drives my work is a combination of story and feeling. Having worked in various genres during my career, it has always been working with people that enables me to capture feelings, and fashion allows me to create stories and narratives within my work.

What are the key ingredients to successful portrait photography?
I would say that the key ingredient to any kind of photography is a passion for your subject. There are many things I don’t shoot, purely because I have no real interest in them. When photographing people, it’s important to understand that 95% of your results will come from your skills as a person, rather than as a photographer. It’s your ability to relate and build rapport with your subject that matters.

What’s the best way to get started with portrait photography?
There’s no real secret here – it’s all about learning by doing. Shoot lots and use what and who you have available. It takes time, but it’s really the only route to success.

How important is location and background?
This depends. If I’m shooting celebrity portraits, I prefer a studio so that I can focus entirely on the subject and who they are. When shooting fashion stories, I prefer shooting on location because it can contextualise the clothes and add to the narrative. That being said, a location only needs to give context, and shouldn’t come before the subject of the image.

Talk us through your compositional process – where do you start?
My composition is very simple and fairly organic. It also changes and evolves. I hate being stuck in a conscious ‘style’ mindset. At the moment, I’m favouring wide lenses (see panel to the right), as they allow me to get more context into my images. I think it’s important to spend time learning about various compositional rules, but to not be bound by them. Ultimately, I just compose in a way that feels right.

What’s the best piece of portrait advice you’ve ever been given?
Not so much specifically about portrait photography, but when I first started out, I was watching a YouTube video and the photographer said ‘the best way to get ahead is to help those around you to get ahead’. This has stuck with me and is something I live by.

Are there are any rookie mistakes or common misconceptions to avoid?
Stop looking at the back of the camera! Shooting people is all about energy and flow. Every time you stop, you not only disrupt the flow, but there’s also a chance you could create negative emotions in your subject, which usually isn’t what you want to be doing. Once you know your exposure is good, just focus on their energy levels. You have to be skilled at reading people, but this comes with time and experience.

Are there any technique ‘secrets’ you’ve learned over the years?
Think about your height in relation to your subject. We all know phrases like ‘I look up to them’ or ‘down on them’ in relation to how strong or weak a person is; the same is true photographically. You always see a superhero from below, never from above, because it makes them look strong. I mainly photograph women’s fashion and as such I want women to look good, so I always shoot from their eye level or below in order to make them look strong and empowered.

Jay McLaughlin is a fashion and portrait photographer who secured his first magazine cover within six months of turning pro. He now works for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He also runs workshops and has sat on judging panels for the Scottish Fashion Awards. See more of his work here.