View From The Top

When trying to put together a portfolio for her makeup work while living in Detroit, Michigan, Courtney Dailey couldn’t find anyone doing the New York-style beauty shots she had in mind so, since she had a camera and experience photographing friends in college, she decided to shoot them herself.

"Really quickly, my photography business began to grow uncontrollably," she recalls. "I was offering something that no one else was really doing in that city. It grew so fast that, within a year and a half, I had to look to a bigger market."

The perfect SoCal weather led Dailey to Los Angeles 10 years ago. "Things blew up," she says, looking back. "I’m really glad I took that risk."

Taking risks has served this makeup artist turned beauty photographer and mentor well, and she’s a perfect example of how personality and professionalism (or lack thereof) can make or break a business. With some of the top publications and brands as clients, and plenty of experience navigating this competitive industry, we turned to Dailey for her pro tips on how to stay on top.

Pursue New Skills That Fit Your Business

Dailey recently had an eye-opening experience when she lost a bid on what could have been a life-changing job. "The reason I didn’t get the bid was because I don’t have a director’s reel," she says. "Even though I’m a photographer, because things are changing so fast, now they want someone with multimedia experience."

While Dailey regularly directs photo shoots, this was the first time she had ever been asked for a reel. She has already put the wheels in motion, however, and emailed her contact at the company, letting her know that "I’ve scheduled six projects that I’ll be directing to build my reel," notes Dailey, "so next time you approach me, I’ll have this beautiful presentation for you."

Dailey understands that the industry is changing quickly and that she has to be tuned in to what’s being done in different markets. "Video is growing very fast, so I know that’s something I need to do, and now I’ve seen the evidence that I have to do it. You have to feel out what’s best for your business and what will help you grow. I don’t think you should do anything that’s not right for you. If you have no interest in directing, then say, screw it, I don’t want to do it. But if you feel that it can help you grow and you’re interested in it, embrace it."

1. Know Your Clients And Their Markets

On a shoot for a skincare line for teenagers, Dailey faced a client who wanted flashy, futuristic imagery, which she felt didn’t fit the audience. "I immediately said, listen, I think we need to take a step back and realize who you’re marketing to," says Dailey. "I explained to the client that I was happy to shoot exactly what they wanted, but I would also like to do a few shots that felt a little bit younger, fresher and more airy."

The client was still adamant about what they wanted. "I said, that’s fantastic, but just for me, let’s take an extra 10 minutes and put her in a different top and utilize this beautiful background and see if you like it," adds Dailey. "They loved it and said it was much more approachable."

A similar situation occurred on a shoot for a hair care product, where Dailey convinced the client to refine the idea and narrow their focus to just the hair.

"I had the hairstylist comb the model’s hair out into this beautiful S curve and I took two or three of these shots, and the client loved it," she recalls. "You have to take what the clients want with an open ear, but you have to give them options. Sometimes clients will look at competition and feel that’s what they need to do. I’ve been down this road so many times. Sometimes they’ll think too big and you have to show them that simplicity is stronger."

2. Be Creative And Give Clients Options

On a shoot for Cosmopolitan, Dailey stuck to a clean, simple look against gray paper that she had seen used in other layouts in similar issues. But she had another concept that she was really excited about and decided to go for it.

"I wanted to go with something more exciting and colorful," recounts Dailey. "I kept thinking about a tropical rain forest with jewel tones. I had my wardrobe stylist pull colorful gemstone jewelry. I bought some very tropical leaves at a greenery florist here in L.A. So I placed the leaves up in my backyard and shot in bright, midday sunlight. It was a risk, but I really had this vision. I then presented both stories to the magazine, and said here’s the story that feels very similar to what your content normally is, but here’s a variation that I think is really strong, and they went completely nuts over it. I thought, what’s the harm in doing both? If they choose the gray background, I can still take the green background idea and sell it to a different magazine with a totally different story."

When it came to shooting a jar of cream, Dailey went through about 15 different versions with the client. "This image is version number 10," she says. "Everyone wanted microscopic changes made. It was painstaking. Faces are so organic, but products are so structured and symmetrical. When you’re dealing with symmetry, it’s so much more difficult to make things perfect."

Not to mention working with the cream itself. Dailey used a pastry bag to pipe the cream on top of the jar. But getting the perfect swirl wasn’t as easy as you might think.

"I think I did 10 different swirls," Dailey recalls. "Finally, they went back to this one, the one I thought they would hate; the one I just did on a whim. After going through this, I learned to be much more careful with the way I move forward with my clients. I’m going to make sure that they understand they can’t make 18,000 changes to an image. There needs to be guidelines. I did what I felt would work, and they ended up loving it in the end. Sometimes clients don’t know exactly what they want, so you just have to give them different options."

3. Be True To Your Work

When a cosmetics company told Dailey that their campaign was called "Summer in Hi-Def," she realized she had recently shot a story that was a perfect fit for that title, but was for a different client. "They loved the images and wanted to buy them," Dailey recalls. She had to turn the offer down, but not without first presenting a solution. "First of all, I believe in truth in advertising. This wasn’t their product on the model. It was something very different. I told them that I thought it was best that we reshoot this so it was all true to their line. So I persuaded them to do another campaign with the same story, lighting and model as the campaign they loved, but with their own products, and the campaign did really, really well."

4. Don’t Doubt Yourself

As most professional photographers know, you’re not always going to agree with, or have the same vision as, your client. But some gentle nudging can help move you in the direction that ultimately will make both you and the client happy. Dailey put these skills to use when working with a cosmetics company on a shoot for their spring/summer line, where they envisioned everything clean and white.

"I saw it being more free and feminine, so I really had to package this idea," says Dailey. "I put together a mood board of how I saw this image shot, and I really had to persuade them that this was the way to go. And, once we did get to that point, they were comfortable moving in that direction. One thing I’ve learned is to not doubt your gut. This is your work; this is your career. If you feel that the client is going in the wrong direction, it’s best to let them know ahead of time and then lead them down the right path."

Having the confidence to take risks and showcase your diversity can lead to repeat business—whether that’s in the future or on the same set.

"I was working on a really large U.S.-Canada campaign for this company that I had never worked with before," says Dailey. "The client had actual storyboards of what they needed; it was so literal. So, luckily, one of the hairstylists on the team was a real risk-taker. Once we knew we had what the client wanted, it was time to have fun: We messed up the model’s hair and put a fan on her, and the client loved it. I was then able to negotiate those images for their international campaign. So I got a national campaign and an international campaign from the same client.

"I think it’s worth it to take that chance," concludes Dailey. "If the client doesn’t like it, then you have extra images you can put aside that may work for a different campaign down the road."

See more of Courtney Dailey’s work at and learn about her mentoring and workshops at

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