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Inside Product Photography: An Interview With Photo Stylist Caeli Figueroa


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Caeli Figueroa is a product stylist with twenty years of experience based out of San Diego, California. I first met her five years ago through my wife, a photography manager at the time, who calls her the best off-figure stylist she’s ever met.

Caeli was kind enough to spare an hour for this interview on March 16th, 2016. You can learn more about Caeli at her website, photo-stylist.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Company names have been redacted and replaced with Disney Palace Pets' names to protect confidentiality and amuse me.

Without further ado, let’s hear from Caeli Figueroa herself!

How long have you been styling?

I think that I started in ‘97, so almost twenty years. I was assisting for a few years and then I slowly merged into junior styling, so I've probably been full styling for... seventeen years. Those were film days: that’s when it was polaroids instead of taking a digital shot, and each polaroid cost two bucks, so if you weren't ready you were wasting the company's money - but we'd also spend a lot of time on shots.

Was there a flow you went through? A corporate ladder, so to speak?

It was old school, traditional. Nowadays you don't know who's the art director, who's the stylist, it's all kind of blurred and people have absorbed a lot of different responsibilities. The traditional way is you assist, apprentice for that trade, and then you slowly learn things.

When I first started I did everything from cleaning up the stylist sets and picking up the pinheads to re-straightening out the tissue paper, cleaning out the kits, taking down all their shots and disassembling them.

You've got to do your time, you know? And then, slowly, the art directors will notice that you've started pre-setting up the stylist's shots. Say there's a stack of sweaters, you pre-fold them, then they take it under camera and finish styling it. And then you try to make that leap into real styling.

I was lucky, because I worked in majority catalogs. I was seeing those same people over and over again - it's not editorial, where they don't know you and they don't know your talent - so they're seeing you evolve, and they'll let you take that jump, let you fail a few times and then slowly you learn. It was probably about a four year process for me.

Styled laydown photo of True Measure branded blue shirt and jacket.

Photo styling is an art form, as seen in this shot styled for True Measure.

Who are those people noticing?

The art director and creative director. In the structure - obviously you have the president or whoever - there’s the creative director who you rarely see, who kind of comes up with the umbrella of the picture, then they have an art director underneath them who puts things into action, makes concepts happen, and is actually on set. Then you have the photographer, who works hand in hand with the stylist and the art director, and then they take that idea and make it come to fruition.

So for me it was an art director in particular - I remember the phone call - who wanted to book me. She was like, "I'm gonna book you for a styling position," and I was like, "Oh my god," all excited, but it was stressful. I remember practicing in my house. This particular one was off-figure full ghost form hangups.

You know all the different kinds of styling, right? In the off-figure world there's laydowns, full ghost figures, pinning, propping... Then of course there's food styling, there's home, and there's soft goods in home and hard goods as well.

Behind the scenes of an apparel photoshoot on a dock in a boat filled harbor.

Just another day at the office.

When you start styling they usually start you out on stacks and shoes and accessories, and then they'll build you up in responsibility level. The only thing I really don't do is food. I've tried it just as a favor to people, but it's really messy and there's a lot of factors that come into play. So that's not my thing.

Would you say you have a specialty or a favorite?

I really enjoy doing props or environments or location, off-figure. Because I love all the different things that come into play: the lighting, the environment, the wind that blows the skirt up just a little bit, enough to get that perfect shot.

And I love doing the off-figure full-body hangups with a form inside. I'd say I'm really good at difficult fabrics. A lot of sports companies tend to hire me, because they have really weird seams and mesh on the sides and very thin fabrics, like coat type clothing. That's not necessarily my favorite, but I definitely think that's one of my specialties.

Because I love all the different things that come into play: the lighting, the environment, the wind that blows the skirt up just a little bit, enough to get that perfect shot.

What makes thin fabrics more difficult than a more common fabric?

If you have something like a sweater or a sweatshirt, it’s thick, it has body, it holds its own if you fold it in a stack or if you hang it up a wall; whereas a thin, nylony, baseball jersey type of thing is just so unforgiving. If there's even a little prick of tissue on that sheer shiny flat material, it's going to look terrible. They also have all kinds of weird seams that pull you in different directions and cause issues.

Five color options of a button down shirt in an off-figure photo.

Presenting different color options is a common styling challenge.

Is creating shape the main challenge, or is it the artistic direction? I guess those kind of come together.

Yeah, that's the thing about styling. You never know what you're going to get, and there's no formula because you're constantly troubleshooting.

There's a difference between a situation where you're assembly lining and busting out shot after shot after shot and you're just doing it flat against the wall, and it's a whole other thing if you're doing it more three dimensional. So it's hard to compare, and then of course if you have props that's another issue.

Stylist pinning folded shirts together for a photo on a wooden table.

Caeli was into pinning before Pinterest was cool. Just saying.

You never know what you're going to get, and there's no formula because you're constantly troubleshooting.

You said earlier that it's changed a lot over the last 20 years, and a lot of the art of styling has gone away with digital commerce?

Yeah. It definitely has. Like I said, it used to be film and polaroid and retouching was extremely expensive, so there was - so for instance - have you seen my website? Did you go to the section where it's off-figure and full body?

Every stylist builds their own form, and that's where being an artist or going to art school comes into play, because you're basically building a sculpture. You start out with a form, and then you use tissue paper thin padding to create that sculpture inside the clothes and create shape. And there's different levels as to which clients want what type of shape.

So you take, like Thistleblossom, who often doesn't have a lot of shape. It tends not to be very three dimensional and on the wall, versus doing something like Bibbidy where you're coming off the wall and you're actually hanging up forms from string. You're building that whole body with malleable tools and supplies.

Product photo of fringed poncho ghost mannequin.

“Ghost” shots are a popular alternative to models and mannequins.

Every stylist builds their own form, and that's where being an artist or going to art school comes into play, because you're basically building a sculpture.

It's fun, but in those days we did seven shots a day. Thankfully, a lot of the older crowd still tends to like that; a lot of the younger stuff is more laydowns or flatter. For me, it’s a lot more fun when you’re not rushing through shots.

You can spend an hour and just noodle and noodle and noodle. Fabric has a personality, so if you have linen that's stiff versus a flowy skirt, you can use whatever monofilament to pull that skirt up so it looks like it's blowing in the wind, and it becomes really fun. That's where it's creative.

And then if you add environment and you add lighting and you add other elements then it just creates an image. Basically you created something. It's not putting a stamp and then passing it on.

The stylists have timers on the set and they have rows of stylists lined up. They get 15 minutes, and when that timer goes off the photographer moves down the line of stylists, makes a few adjustments, shoots it, done, moving on. And it's done.

Nowadays, I was just talking to somebody, and they were saying that at Ms. Featherbon, whom I've never worked for, the stylists have timers on the set and they have rows of stylists lined up. They get 15 minutes, and when that timer goes off the photographer moves down the line of stylists, makes a few adjustments, shoots it, done, moving on. And it's done.

Behind the scenes photoshoot in the desert with a rolling cart, crew, and equipment.

Rolling through the desert, looking for the perfect shot.

The photographer actually comes in there and starts messing with it, and I guess they deal with a lot in post. I can't even fathom working for a company like that. I mean, where there's a timer? But at the same time, I don't want to be one to diss technology either. There's something for everybody.

What do you think should be done under the camera versus in post-production? What is post-production's role?

It's hard to answer because we shop so differently nowadays. We shop on the computer, and we can do so much post. Why not be efficient? If I was the company owner, maybe i'd have a totally different perspective. But for me, knowing what I was able to do, what I like to do, I reach for those clients. What I'd like to do is create art and create something beautiful.

Your job is to make that thing sell. So if you're putting personality, you're adding shape, the photographer's working with the lighting, and the light's beautiful... This is why I don't shop from catalogs very much, because it's a lot of smoke and mirrors! It might sound terrible, but we are heightening that product to look as beautiful as possible.

You look on some websites and you go, "Oh my gosh, that looks terrible." Maybe that's because they were trying to do 60 shots a day. I hear horror stories, and you can see it. I think that photo is the one thing that's going to sell your product - make it look as beautiful as it can.

That photo is the one thing that's going to sell your product - make it look as beautiful as it can.

That's the chance you get to show the customer you are quality. That's what's going to sell it: that image. So when people get cheap on things, they have bad lighting, or they just don't take the time to finesse - you're not going to get the price point. I guess it depends on what clientele you're looking for.

I work with a client that we did from home, and that's the other hard thing as a stylist. You have to never get married to one style, or idea, or look, or price point, because there's something for everybody and it's very subjective.

You have to never get married to one style, or idea, or look, or price point, because there's something for everybody and it's very subjective.

Some clients, like Nuzzles, I have to style super puffy because down jackets are their look. It's very technical. That kind of styling is actually very hard, because it's so stiff. And then you have other companies who want it super loose, and you think, "Oh my god, that's thrown down and it's laundry!"

But my job is to do what that client wants. If they want a t-shirt to be flat as a board, I have to try and do that. If they want me to use specific props in a home set, I have to do it. It's bread and butter; you make the look that client wants and that customer tends to buy for.

Behind the scenes indoor photoshoot styling tee shirts on a table beneath lighting equipment.

Caeli styling tee shirts for an indoor laydown shot.

Is there anything that makes it easier for you to understand what the client wants?

It’s a little more challenging if you haven't worked for a client before, but at this point I have my set of clients so I pretty much know what they want and I can mentally prepare. The best thing is when the art director creates a layout beforehand, so we'll have printed out the entire catalog and it shows the spreads.

The best thing is when the art director creates a layout beforehand, so we'll have printed out the entire catalog and it shows the spreads.

You'll have the right side and the left side, and you'll see drawings, pictures, or tears from another photoshoot. You'll see, okay there's an on-figure fashion shot on location going in the right corner, and then we're showing the three color runs that sweater and skirt come in, and we're going to show it in a stack, and so they'll draw a picture of a stack.

Wirecutters and a shirt on a wooden table..

Wirecutters will take the heads off pins to lower visibility.

When I get my shot list I look at the layouts and I say, "Okay, I'm going to spread 42 and this is the shot number I'm doing." It's marked, and you do either the inspiration or the drawing pretty close to what they're expecting. If you have worked with a client for a long time they'll give you more creative freedom and you can discuss it and talk about it, like, "Oh I think that this color order would look really pretty because it would complement the red over here," or things like that.

That's when it gets fun and I really love it. It used to be a lot more collaborative; some clients are like that and some are not. Some, I go in and they hardly know my name.

Are there days where you go in and see warning signs of a poor shoot? Can you see a disaster coming?

Yeah, definitely. I would say the warning signs are not having a very good structure or chain of command, not being prepared, and not knowing what they want. If there's an art director that I'm working with, I need to channel and understand her vision or the company's vision, that trickle down from the creative director.

The warning signs are not having a very good structure or chain of command, not being prepared, and not knowing what they want.

When you're doing a shot, it's very important to work from the big picture to the details. A room set would be a great example. You'd rough out - you'd want to know your direction of lighting - then you'd rough out where the main pieces of furniture are going, and then you'd start bringing in the details slowly, slowly. You wouldn't start bringing in throw blankets and pillows when you haven't even confirmed the furniture looks good in that lighting.

"Work from the big picture to the details. A room set would be a great example..."

So the worst is when you have them throw it all in there, then you start noodling, moving the pillows and bringing in the flowers and the lamps, and then they say, "Oh... I don't know if that couch should go there."

That happens with clothing all the time. I've literally spent an hour on a shot, and they go, "Hmmm... I don't know if I like that color shirt underneath."

And you're like, "Are you kidding me? Oh my god. That should've been blocked out."

That just shows inexperience and lack of decision making skills. It's nice when they have a vision.

I do find that there's a lot of inexperience happening right now in the industry. Where employees have not been around the block enough, so all they know is the way that company does it. They think "Oh, this is the way," but they haven't seen much.

Rolling rack with pants and shirts hanging from it.

One clothing rack, many possibilities.

That's the great thing about the world of freelance; you can see all the different ways people do it.

"The great thing about the world of freelance: you can see all the different ways people do it."

Why do you think that's happening? Why is the industry trending towards less experience?

Close up photo of quilting pins for apparel photo styling.

Quilting pins are a stylist’s best friend.

Everything in life I think is getting cheaper, faster. I'll have people call and ask me about rates, and it's ridiculous. No, I'm not coming in for a half day for two hundred bucks! But obviously it's happening out there. I don't know what Windflower pays, it could even be by the hour, which I think a lot of them are.

But it could just be in life in general - the pins that I use used to come from England, those quilting pins. Now they're made in China, and they don't work as well. Everything in our world is sadly getting dumbed down, I think. We're becoming such huge consumers as well.

The pins that I use used to come from England, those quilting pins. Now they're made in China, and they don't work as well.

When we were talking about a bad shoot and disorganization, would you say a good day is the opposite of it? What are the signs that a shoot will go well? What makes you think, "We nailed that, everything went amazing!"

The opposite of that for sure. An organized, qualified, strong crew that's not insecure and can make decisive decisions. A crew that's worked together for a long time is really good - I have crews where I know exactly how the photographer is going to light, we work well together, and we make decisions as a group.

An organized, qualified, strong crew that's not insecure and can make decisive decisions. A crew that's worked together for a long time is really good

Things ebb and flow and it's not some strict idea of what it has to be; it's more fluid, and so it evolves and we work off each other. It builds itself up and then you think "Oh my gosh, wow, that was amazing,” just as the sun goes down. That's when you know you've had a good day.

I'm trying to think if I’ve come into a shoot where I didn't know anybody where I've had that. It's hard when you work with corporations and they have all their drama going on, and I'm coming in freelance with my kit and my tools. It seems like there’s always some tug-of-war between merchants and creative for control.

Say the merchant that's buying a product wants it shot a certain way, but when you put it under the light the creative sees it doesn't work that way. If they argue, I’m in the middle because I'm trying to make everybody happy.

You really have to have an understanding of fabric, light, body, sheen; all those things come into play.

People do need to understand that if they're styling their own things, you really have to have an understanding of fabric, light, body, sheen; all those things come into play.Usually when I get a product and it's going to be a shot that's going to be with a quality company that's going to allow me the time to really let that product shine, I just let it take on a mind of its own.

If I keep trying to flip a collar and it doesn't want to go there, then that's not that product. It's not going to do that and it looks bad because it creates horrible shadow and whatever, x-y-z happens. So if I'm allowed to, I really like to feel it and see the way it looks best.

If it's harder light, sometimes that's better. If it's more filled and we need to deal with some wrinkles that are happening, then that's that. If you're working with a crew that really gets all that, great. I find that the most inexperienced people are the most defensive. I don't get offended. I try not to. If someone doesn't like that, there's something for everybody. If they've got their opinion about how something would look better, just go with it.

Foam core wall with pins and a partially constructed form for photographing a styled pink shirt.

Building a form on a wall is an essential styling skill.

Do you think there are common misconceptions about styling? I know some people think that having good style is styling. Like, if they can shop well they can style well.

Yeah. People look through a catalog, and who would think that all this stuff we're talking about was so thought about? It's such a weird niche market that we're in. Like when someone hears I'm a stylist, they ask me, "Oh, you're a hair stylist?" No.

People flip through catalogs and don't realize how much it costs to produce. That they hired a photographer, a stylist, production assistants, paid for lunch, did all these things.

Behind the scenes, if you turn the model around she's covered with pins and all kinds of crazy stuff

Six folded tee shirts styled on a rusted metal surface for product photography.

Light, location, surfaces, and styling all need to be on-brand.

When you're sending to the mass audience, it makes up for it in the long run - although somebody once told me that the catalog industry is the worst, because by the time you've paid for the paper and all that stuff it's not a very efficient system. I think the web has taken care of that.

I don't know about misconceptions, but definitely people don't realize all the tricks that are going on behind the scenes, that if you turn the model around she's covered with pins and all kinds of crazy stuff. That's ok.

What do you think about agencies, in terms of representation of stylists?

I've never worked with an agency, as far as representing me, because I built my own career. From what I hear, you have to give the traditional agencies a piece of all your clients; you kind of have to give over your clients to that agency. At this point in my life, I don't think I would do that.

I have noticed a lot of companies moving to the East Coast, and because of digital things are getting cheaper, people are getting cheaper, and I've lost a few clients that don't want to spend money. They'll say, "Oh you can come out here, but we'll have to pay you as a local." I'm not going to pay for airfare, hotel and all that for the day rate there. It doesn't make sense. So I think the good thing about an agency is if you want to stay local, they can find you stuff. They can pump up your day rate a bit to make up for the percentage they're taking off the top.

If you don't have clientele, they can create your clientele. I don't know how long they own you for, but - I just recently looked up an agency in New York and thought, “Hmmm,” because I heard that some agencies will let you keep your existing clientele and not touch that. That would be cool. But I don't see why I should give over a percentage of my work for clients that I've had for 20 years.

Literally, the job that I was telling you about earlier, they used to be based out of Carlsbad and it was called Gleam and they were owned by Nyle. They were bought and sold to a company, and then I contacted them, and worked with them in Tucson, Arizona. Then they were bought and sold, and I still work with them in New York. It's crazy. I've had that client for 20 years, so I'm not going to just give that over. I would never do that.

Behind the scenes photo of stylist cuffing sleeves of a shirt and jacket laydown.

Every single detail matters in product photography.

Do you have to travel often, like to clients on the East Coast?

Product photo of styled mannequin with scarf, shirt, and jacket.

You can present a complete outfit off-body using a mannequin.

I do right now, yeah. I have one client that is amazing and they tell me, “whenever you have a hole in your schedule let me know and we'll send you out here.” That's amazing, the best thing you could ask for, but I miss my family.

Of course I would love more here, and that's why I was thinking, "I wonder if an agency would work with me and I could get more local work," because you know the real estate is so expensive here (ed note: San Diego county). It's hard. Like, even Pounce and Seashell are in the middle of nowhere.

How has it worked out, balancing career and family? Is it a forgiving career for a family?

In some ways it is. I can't imagine how parents take their kids to their annual checkup if they're both working 9-5 every day of the week. There's freedom in that sense, where I can schedule appointments and do things, but I would say that it's a hard life for a family.

There's freedom in that sense, where I can schedule appointments and do things, but I would say that it's a hard life for a family.

I was lucky, knock on wood, that at different phases of my life it just worked out. I have two kids. When I was pregnant, and soon after they were born, I just happened to have a lot of local work.

I'm very lucky. I'm pretty tight with a local photographer here, and he has his own client list: we've done test shoots together, promoted together, and he's very loyal to me, so I always try to get that first. Get that in the calendar. And then other clients who are looking for holes in my calendar to fill.

This is a very slow time (ed note: interview took place on March 16th, 2016). It's post-Christmas. March, April, right before shooting fall, is dead. You always prepare for that financially.

When I was pregnant with my son, I'll never forget: I was on a hillside in Julian, or Cuyamaca, and I looked like was going to pop. It was like 100 degrees out, getting sunburnt, and a swarm of bees came out and we all went running, and my belly was jiggling - and running to the truck to hide inside from this swarm of bees and thinking, "What the heck am I doing?"

You just can't get sick and your kids can't get sick, but right now my husband is handling a lot of stuff at home so I am able to travel and handle it. So that's good, but hard.

I would say as far as anyone going into the styling world, you need to have a flexible situation. The key is that the old school clients will book you a year in advance, like I've got my schedule all the way until next December. Because it's catalog.

As far as anyone going into the styling world, you need to have a flexible situation.

They know their windows, they know when they need to print, they know when samples are coming in, they know when they need to shoot in-between, and they know when to schedule their reshoots for what didn't work out, or what sample changed. So that's a good, professional company. The worst is when you have somebody like, "Can you do next week?" But you're already working two of those days so you lose the entire account because they want all five and they want the same stylist.

You always stay loyal to your first confirmation. That's very important. I've always done that, and that's why I have clients for twenty years.

Behind the scenes photo of an apparel photoshoot, showing laptop, camera, stylist, and product.

A comfortable, experienced crew works well together.

You have to know you can never burn your bridge, and you always stay loyal to your first confirmation. That's very important. I've always done that, and that's why I have clients for twenty years.They know they have to hire me in advance, so they're good.

What are the big mistakes that a stylist could make, like cancelling a confirmation?

The worst things to do are are flake for another client or talk about competitors. There's definitely protocol. Within the styling industry, you don't talk about day rates and you don't talk about other clients.

Do you think any styling schools are useful? Are there credentials people look for?

I know there are styling classes at FIDM, which I think are probably a good thing. A lot of it comes from you trying to figure out solutions to things. I find solutions all the time, but I make them up and I think, "Oh, that worked out, I’ve got to remember that one." Sometimes I write them down, because I'm constantly - how are you going to make a sheer shirt look filled out? You know?

I don't know.

Behind the scenes photo of stylist preparing a white shirt on brick courtyard.

Styling is an any-environment all-surface challenge.

Well, I'm not going to tell you! It's just little things here and there that people can't teach you. You're going to be on set, like, "How am I going to do that?" Then you figure it out. Those are the things.

It takes a lot. Understanding materials, and choices, being flexible, and having worked with a multitude of companies that constantly question your choices and how you're going to do things, and the look that they want.

I'm experimenting right now. Next week we're doing a shoot with a green screen. And I think that's just phenomenal digital. It's amazing the things that can happen like that, to make things look like they're floating in the air.

How are we going to make this lingerie, that has no structure whatsoever, that's satin, look like it's blowing in the wind in front of a green screen that's going to be a whole other background?

How are we going to make this lingerie, that has no structure whatsoever, that's satin, look like it's blowing in the wind in front of a green screen that's going to be a whole other background?

That's really cool, I love that.

It's always changing, and I do love that I have different clients. Some days I listen to a creative director channelling his vision and talking about a scenario for 40 minutes for a t-shirt. And then other days, I go into work and I'm so happy to be on that white background and just pin on the assembly line and recharge my brain, and then go back and be creative on other things.

It's just constantly changing it up, so I don't get stuck in any rut, because I couldn't handle either side of the spectrum for more than a week!