I'm been a believer in the lasting photographer's adage that, "A photographer is only as good as his weakest crew member." True that it is paramount to have the right team when constructing complex images for top-quality fashion and beauty work in an industry where a photographer is only as good as their last photo. To survive is one thing, to succeed is another. Success is a very illusive endeavor that requires both high quality and lots of luck. But if the quality isn't in one's work, one better hope they have a large supply of luck.
I bring attention to one of the key members of any good fashion photography team: the Makeup Artist. I emphasize "artist" because a true "MUA" is so much more than a makeup applicator- the MUA is arguably the most critical team member a photographer should hire for a shoot with possible room for exception for a good first assistant and a great model.
I've been fortunate enough to work with and around some top-level MUA's including my roommate in New York who is the Creative Director for Kevyn Aucoin Cosmetics, Kevin Hees. I've also had the pleasure of working on numerous shoots with Conrad Sanchez who spent nine years with Chanel and I quickly learned the difference between a true makeup artist and someone who just applies the makeup. A true makeup artist can interpret a mood board, understand the creative direction that the photographer and CD or AD wish to achieve and correlate that to the model's particular facial structure and features. A talented MUA can cover all the bases; from light, beautifully clean makeup to complex, powerful, hard-edge and near-theatrical editorial looks. A great MUA will contribute a refined, professional statement with the makeup in the photograph rather than an obtrusive, amateur design and tacky application. A photographer needs to know they can rely on their makeup artist to deliver the makeup design that best fits the creative direction. For me, it's such a great feeling when the model comes out of hair and makeup looking better than what I had in mind. Makeup artists with talent and vision are true artists and rightfully deserve their title.
There are sometimes elements on any given shoot that may not look right according to plan and the team can figure out ways to work around it. Stylists can strategically clip clothes that are too big for the model, assistants can adjust light to favor the scene, photographers can even trick an inexperienced model into getting a "lucky shot" when they can't model at all. But there's no workaround for bad makeup. Bad makeup will ruin the shoot, period. The only possible way to save the shoot is to fix the makeup in Photoshop- but that's an enormous hassle to retouch bad makeup in post. It's a far better action to hire the right MUA for the job in the first place.
TRAITS OF A VALUABLE COMMERCIAL & EDITORIAL MAKEUP ARTIST:
- Valid work experience. A professional MUA can show a work history of being booked for diverse print jobs with high-quality photographers. A good MUA will have a strong book, even if it's mostly test shoots. The level of photography a makeup artist displays in their book is a good indicator of who wants to work with them. When their work is displayed in great photos, it shows what level they are on in terms of their career as well as the level of creative professonals who hire them. It shows they can do the job and that high-quality professionals rely on them. A MUA who's experience is limited to only having done tons of weddings or only regularly work with amateur/hobbyist photographers isn't really up to par for the skilled nature of real fashion/editorial print work. They inadvertently show they don't have the drive to be successful.
- They bring all their own equipment. I love it when I'm shooting on location and the MUA arrives with their own makeup chair and whatever they need to do their job. There's been a few times when an MUA showed up with only a makeup bag and began asking me for tools such as a makeup chair, a mirror, a table, lights, extension cords, even a hair straightener. I felt like asking the MUA if they brought some strobe lights I could use. It's the same thing. Photographers bring photo gear, MUA's bring makeup gear, period. Really pro MUA's will have an assistant or intern to help them carry and setup their gear. This is very intuitive since it's imprudent to expect the photographer's assistants to lug the MUA's gear. The best makeup artists bring everything they may need and look after it themselves.
- They pay close attention on set. A real MUA knows that the most critical time to watch the makeup is during the shoot. Smudge fixes, hairs sticking to lips or minor touchups are always something needing to be addressed while the shoot is in progress. A makeup artist that applies the makeup then stands around playing with their phone during the shoot is one of the most obvious signs of an amateur. A good MUA is present on set to correct unwanted flaws or to make adjustments during shooting. This saves the photographer from shooting the next hundred frames only to find out later that those shots are unusable due to some problem that went unnoticed while shooting. Believe me, it happens all the time.
- Models (and everyone else) speak highly of them. Great MUA's take proper care of the models by being careful around their eyes, making sure the model's aren't allergic to the products and by generally being pleasant and fun to work with. Pro MUA's treat models and everyone as people, not as objects. They want to be an integral part of the team and do their best to have the shoot go well.
- They can approach anything asked of them with optimism and honest feedback. The best MUA's not only know how to do perfect work, they can change it if asked to without taking it personal or getting upset. They also can be a great creative asset by informing the photographer if a certain makeup look requested may not work with the model's facial features. A good MUA won't falsely assure a photographer that a look will work if it may not, which can result in wasted time and a lot of frustration. It's a team effort and the makeup artist is expected to be the expert advisor on the makeup while at the same time working toward the creative goal.
- They stick to the creative plan. This is possibly the most important factor in a makeup artist being invited back. A MUA who agrees to apply a certain makeup look according to the creative direction, then goes off-script and applies something different is a detriment to the entire shoot. There's nothing worse than setting up a shoot, agreeing to a mood board and then having the model come out of makeup looking nothing like what was expected and agreed upon. There's probably no worse of a way to waste everyone's time, other than being late to the shoot.
- They never, ever, show up late. It should go without saying, but the best of the best MUA's are absolute professionals and will be at the appointed location prior to call time. Many even arrive early so they can take their time to set up. Great MUA's do what they can to make the day go easier for everyone else, so they can ensure that they will be invited back again and earn a great reputation.
- They have awesome personalities. This is important for anyone, but everyone loves a makeup artist that had their own identity and is fun to spend all day on set with or even hours on the road with when driving to a location. For example, sometimes early morning call times can be a drag (especially for the models), but a makeup artist with a great personality can get the day started off right since they are often the first ones to start work. Personality + performance is always in high demand.
Makeup artists are mission-critical to a successful outcome; they can make or break your shoot. Don't be complacent when considering one- it matters. Great MUA's are not a dime a dozen, so when you find one, keep them happy and they'll do the same for you. They are worth every penny of their day rate.