Los Angeles-based fashion and beauty photographer Sarah Shen discovered her interest in the profession at an early age despite not following the usual path her family had previously taken. The photographer discovered her passion when she saw how powerfully it conveyed not just her own but also other people’s emotions and ideas.
The photographer has amassed a formidable roster of clients and projects over the years, including collaborations with one of entertainment’s most renowned publications. In June, Sarah lensed personality and multifaceted creative Mond Gutierrez for L’Officiel Hommes Summer 2022 print edition. Speaking on the opportunity, she shares, “That was like a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to shoot a magazine cover and I’m really grateful for that because that shoot came from a word-of-mouth referral.” Elsewhere, Shen has also worked with an array of rising models including Kimberly Nieves, Sevahna de Leon, and Carmen Lee Solomons among others.
Ahead, we got to know the photographer and chat about some of her favorite photographs, advice for aspiring creatives, what elements make a good photo, and more. Continue scrolling to read our conversation with Sarah Shen.
For those who are unfamiliar with you and your work, what’s your elevator pitch when introducing yourself to new creatives and people who come across your photos?
Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m a photographer based in Los Angeles and I primarily do like fashion, beauty, and product photography. I’m a former business student turned creative professional. I’d describe my work as editorial, effortless, yet elegant.
Let’s briefly go back to when you first started. What initially gravitated you towards picking up a camera and at what point did you recognize it as something you could make a career out of?
I’d say deep down, yes. My entire family works in medicine, so me deciding partway through college that I wanted to officially pursue photography was kind of a big, weird step in the family. I began working as a part-time assistant in-house for another beauty photographer while I was still in college and then transitioned into gaining my own clients and gradually supporting myself. Since graduating from USC in 2019, I’ve been working as a freelance photographer.
I think I’ve always loved the social component of photography, being able to interact with and learn about the people that I’m shooting. Whenever I do beauty or fashion photography, I’ll always assemble a huge team of people, so I’m always leading these people and bringing them together. I think the connection is always my biggest thing with feeling the moment. So I’ve always wanted to do photography from the start, but the moment where I decided I was able to financially support myself was when I was actually getting clients which took a long time to get to.
Walk me through your experience living and working in Los Angeles—what do you love most about the city and how do you navigate the area considering how vast the number of opportunities are?
I don’t like competition. I just like vibing with everyone. The most important thing about working in LA is collaboration – working with other people and recommending those around me for things that I can’t necessarily pick up because they’ll always recommend me back. So I think that building a community in LA is major for creatives. I feel like I’m finally getting a few different groups of people that I gravitate toward the most to regularly create with. That took a while to get to. Basically, everybody I know is from the internet, which is wild. I was born in 1997 and growing up, we’re always warned about random people on the internet, so it’s funny how much things have changed over the years.
Tell me a bit about your style and the look you try to achieve with your images.
I feel like a lot of my subjects end up being women. My biggest thing is empowering the people that I shoot with, but if I were to describe a style that I like, I really like casual movement, but doing it in an editorial way. Recently, I’ve been trying to achieve more rawness and moments in-between poses while also retouching my images less. I also shoot primarily on digital, but I’ve been loving shooting more on film in the past few years because of how easily it achieves these components stylistically.
What made you gravitate toward lensing more women?
I feel like there aren’t a lot of female photographers out there and I like making a safe shoot environment. I think that’s the biggest thing. I feel like I bond most easily with other women because anytime I’m on a photoshoot with an all-girl team, everybody’s always so happy about it. Especially since we never get teams like this where it’s just all women supporting each other.
Having worked on several different editorial and commercial projects, what are the elements of good fashion and beauty photography?
Like I mentioned, I always like a bit of candidness in the movement. So I think that having a sense of effortlessness makes it a good photo even though we will realistically spend hours prepping for editorial and commercial projects. . Most shoots, my team and I will have a shot list or mood board that’s referenced for overall creative direction. It tends to start off structured and thought out. It’s the moments between the structure that I love where the team is in our creative flow and adding our own flavor to the concept. The moments where things all kind of come together perfectly. I think that’s kind of what makes the shot.
One of the big achievements for you this year was lensing the L’Officiel Hommes Summer 2022 cover. What did that mean to you?
That was a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to shoot a magazine cover and I’m really grateful for that because that shoot came from a referral from a close friend of mine I used to attend school with. It was a beauty shoot that we captured during pride month, so I was honored Mond entrusted me to capture him for such a meaningful project. The photoshoot came together really suddenly, and it was a small team, but I’m really, really happy with what we created and am really proud of that moment.
Beyond that, what are some of your favorite projects that you’ve had the pleasure of working on this year?
I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t feel like my work was where I wanted it to be until this year. I invested a lot more time into doing my own creative work and rented out studio spaces a lot more. I was able to carve out my style a little bit better. I’d say I was really proud of this one beach photoshoot that I did. I’m really proud of this shoot because first off, it was really, really cold that evening at the beach.
My friends and I, we’d been talking about doing this nighttime photo shoot concept with different kinds of lighting. We’d been talking about it for at least a year and finally, we were able to creatively direct, produce, and execute it together. . So it was just like really cool to bring together people that I care about who also were active in this world and just kind of make our own thing after nearly a year of us talking about this idea
How has the influx of digital media influenced your work? I know you’ve spent a lot of time on TikTok in addition to spreading your work across Instagram and Twitter.
I feel like I’m on TikTok constantly —I don’t know what my screen time is—but it’s probably really, really high. I think it’s eight hours a day, but yeah, social media does influence me. I just like using it to admire people’s work. I try not to compare myself when it comes to social media because there are so many beautiful people and minds out there. Everybody’s going on their own path towards their own successes. So I’m just gonna hope that whatever is meant for me will be for me at some point, but I’ll just stay in my own lane and admire everybody’s respective journeys on social media. Thumbs up for everybody.
For the most part, I use TikTok to document short snippets that I enjoy of my life as a creative in Los Angeles. A lot of my content was made up of weekly vlogs. Back in May, I created a video that blew up a little bit showcasing the nighttime beach photoshoot, and I was really excited about that because I had been creating for over a year without gaining any sort of traction. It was encouraging to see appreciation for my creative projects.
Apart from online, you also work with tons of different stylists and models. I’m curious to know how frequently your inner circle and network inform the way you shoot and approach photography.
Yeah, I feel like whenever I work with stylists and whoever I work with, I try to make it so that everybody feels like they have their say in the creative direction. So they’re able to contribute and feel proud about the work that they did on a photoshoot. We’ll trade inspiration or moodboards in order to build concepts together, or we’ll combine ideas that are complementary. The people who are directly involved in a creative project with me are all considered and have their ideas prioritized when I work with them.
For any of the aspiring photographers that are reading this, what are your absolute do’s and don’ts of being a photographer?
Talk to anyone and everyone, I’d say. You never know who wants to work with you, help you, or how you can help them. I feel like that’s one of the biggest things and has always been the most important one for me. Do be persistent and keep doing it. Even if you’re not feeling it. I feel like that’s another big thing for freelancers, you have to be able to pick yourself up even if you’re tired of what you’re doing. Doing like the daily grind and doing all the small tasks to keep pushing forward and stuff. So those are my do’s.
As for my don’ts – don’t stop. It took me a few years of shooting models and producing my own projects before I was able to begin working with brands because it took a long time to develop my portfolio into one that commercial clients would be interested in. Admittedly I felt pretty discouraged about that in the beginning, but I kept learning and it took time to develop my skillset to the point where it needed to be. Photography is a craft that requires a lot of technical knowledge so you always have to keep training yourself in addition to challenging yourself creatively. There’s always more to do for your business and more to do to develop your style.
Looking forward, do you have any projects or ideas that you’re excited about in the future?
So something I wanted to do this year that I’m probably going to do in a future year is going back to New York Fashion Week. I wanted to but last-minute things kind of came up where I can’t do this season. I want to be able to do the whole fashion month at some point where it’s New York, London, Milan, and Paris. . That’s one of my dreams.
I feel like I don’t have anything concrete that I’m allowed to share coming up. Some goals I’d like to achieve someday are to travel for work and shoot some big campaigns. Hopefully a billboard someday, I don’t know. It’s just kind of a lot of loose things that I’m putting out there slowly in the universe.