PPD Master Series: Courtney Dailey on Beauty Photography, Taking Risks and Life in LA

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday September 28, 2016

Courtney Dailey  has two powerful personal qualities that have helped her build a very successful career as a beauty photographer: She is not only a very talented and innovative photographer but she is also a willing (some might say eager) risk taker. Very early in her career, for example, she moved from her home in Detroit to Los Angeles without knowing a soul in the city to start her own photography business. Just 10 years later she is one of the most in-demand beauty shooters in the city—and, she says, she doesn’t miss Michigan winters one bit.

Dailey’s clients include a long list of both commercial and editor clients in the cosmetics and makeup world, among them: Schwarzkopf, Beauty Blender, Jordana Cosmetics, SKINN, Elle, Cosmo (Vietnam/Mexico), Allure, Tatler, Marie Claire, Women's Health, Vanidades, Temptu cosmetics, DeMarco Diamonds, University Medical, Chrome Girl, FHI Haircare, Knesko Skin, Scratch Magazine, ESPN and GMAC. She’s also an in-demand photo and business mentor.

Interestingly, she actually never started out to be a photographer—that was also based on a somewhat risky decision. Photography was a lifelong passion but it was a hobby, being a makeup artist was her career. Her primary goal at the time was just building a reputation in the makeup world and hopefully getting some editorial exposure in magazines—she had never thought of merging the two interests. Then one night she was having dinner with friends and she told them that she didn’t know how to get through that next hurdle of how she could give her makeup work a more editorial look and start to build tear sheets. “One of my girlfriends said, ‘Why don’t you just grab your camera and shoot your own work?’ I thought that sounds really easy, but how?  And she said, ‘You’ll figure it out, you always figure things out.’”

Dailey says that she started shooting photos of her makeup work the very next day and within three months she was working for all the agencies in Detroit. “It was out of necessity that two of my loves came together but I don’t know why I never saw how clearly they were meant to be together until that moment,” she says. “It was destiny, honestly, it was kismet.”

She had to confront the fact, however, that Detroit wasn’t exactly a hotbed of beauty photography and wasn’t going to support her blossoming photo career. “It was pre-recession but I could see that things were about to change in the city, so I thought that I had to get to a bigger market to prosper and grow.” Dailey weighed her options: one was going to New York (“with all of that snow”) where she could hustle in the center of the photo world, the other was to go to sunny southern California and enter a very different market which was not necessarily a beauty market. She chose LA. “I thought that maybe I could corner the beauty market and really dominate it,” she says. “So I packed my bags and moved to LA.” And she managed to convince her boyfriend of just a few months (now her husband—and a filmmaker, so Hollywood was a natural) to move with her.

Dailey says that they are both really happy they took that risk. “I’m constantly taking risks and trying to invent myself in a different way, to stay relevant. The last thing I want to do is become really stagnant and be complacent with how things are going,” she says. “If that risk doesn’t work then at least I tried.”

Today Dailey blends her time between beauty shots, product photography and mentoring. She is also a Tamron Image Master. I recently had the chance to chat with Dailey—who thinks and speaks at the speed of light—about her work, her dramatic style of lighting and running a beauty studio in the heart of tinsel town.

PPD: You describe yourself as a “beauty” photographer, for someone not familiar with that area of the industry, what does that entail doing?

CD: My primary work is commercial beauty, so I shoot campaigns for cosmetic companies, skin care companies and pharmaceutical companies. I take care of their campaigns if they need a beautiful face promoting their product or service. I also work a lot on beauty editorial layouts for magazines providing beauty content for their copy. Primarily all of my clients are commercial or editorial clients, I don’t have private clients who call and say they have a beautiful daughter and they want me to photograph them, that’s not my not my business at all.

PPD: Do you have a studio in LA?  

CD: Yes. I’ve always had a studio because I need a space to use. I get a lot of calls from people that need things last minute. It’s also nice to have a separate space to run my business, a place that I can leave at the end of the day—or at least try to leave.

PPD: How big a space is it?

CD: I just downsized to a smaller space. I was in Burbank and I had a 2,000 square foot studio that was cavernous and insane. I found that my business right now is having a metamorphosis where I am transitioning to a heavy workload of product photography for beauty companies. Because of that I can deal with a smaller space.

Also, most of my clients want to be downtown right now because LA is having a renaissance, so it’s getting more exciting and I really want to be there. So I took a studio downtown in July that is about a thousand square feet and has beautiful natural light. It’s a really fun space in the fashion district downtown and it’s perfect for product work and it’s not gigantic and that helps me not buy too much stuff. With 2,000 square feet you can accumulate a lot of stuff and you wonder after a while why did I keep that stuff? This space is fantastic.

PPD: When you’re doing beauty shoots do you have a lot of stylists on the set or are you doing things like makeup yourself?

CD: I have full teams now. Bringing other people who are creative into your space allows you to grow and your work can get a lot of different different voices behind it, which is nice. If you are doing everything under your own roof, you develop a very strong voice and a very strong style but in the meantime things can get really redundant.

So I have full teams that work for me for different reasons. If a client calls me and they want to book me for a campaign, we’ll do preproduction talks and I’ll get a feel for what they want, the look they want their campaign to have and then I’ll book teams based on their desires.

PPD: What does a team typically consist of?

CD: It depends. If I’m doing a skin-care campaign I’ll bring in a facialist to make sure the skin looks perfect, I’ll have a makeup artist and her assistant and a hair stylist and, of course, I’ll schedule the models. Plus I have my assistant on set and sometimes I’ll have a digital tech on the set to help when I’m shooting tethered so the clients can watch the shoot. I try to keep my crews smaller, but I have shot hair campaigns that have been insane, I’ve had as many as 35 people on set before. You don’t even know what anyone’s role is and you find yourself asking, “What are you doing? Who are you?” I prefer a smaller staff, it’s more comfortable and everyone knows one another, it usually leads to a better result. But you never know, I’ve even had clients that want a full bar with a bartender on set.

PPD: A lot of your portraits have a very intense daylight look. How are you lighting your shots?

CD: I use a variety of lighting. The main light that you see on my site though is natural light. For instance, the opening image that you see on my site was shot in my backyard in hard direct sunlight. I love hard light so I’ll go out on the worst times of day and shoot in straight-up daylight. I’m not afraid of the sun at all, I run towards bad light. I love it. I love hard lines and I love dark shadows.

In the studio I’m a single-light-source shooter. Again, I like hard light, so I’ll use a lot of grids in my work, I’m not a soft box shooter at all. I use all strobes. I rarely use hot lights because in smaller spaces they are literally too hot and the last thing I want to do is melt things. Usually when you’re shooting cosmetics you need to keep things to a certain temperature to keep things looking gooey vs greasy.

I shoot a little different than a lot of photographers. Often I’ll watch friends of mine that shoot and they’ll use these beautiful Octoboxes and I’ll think, “Oh, that looks so amazing!” And then I’ll go into my studio and I’ll think, I’m going to try that, I’m going to change up my whole style of lighting, but the minute I shoot with a softbox I just feel that it’s not me at all.

PPD: Isn’t it hard to keep makeup looking smooth and pretty when you’re using such hard lights?

CD: I love the way hard light makes makeup look. I want to see every detail. One reason I’m booked often is that my skin looks like skin because you’re seeing pores; in my skin work you see every little hair and every little detail in their face. We cast our models with great skin, but I want to show details and that’s why I don’t use softboxes because you’re taking away so many of those details. I’d rather go in with a little retouching and clean that up. I think a lot of the beauty industry is moving in that direction where you see a lot of those details. I think it’s a good time to have the style that I’m working with because more companies want to see every little detail, they love it.

PPD: Speaking of seeing every detail, you work with Tamron lenses, what is it that you like about using Tamron?

CD: I’m a Canon shooter and originally I always used Canon L glass. But at one point I had one of my lenses stolen and I didn’t have a lot of money so I ran up to Samy’s in LA asked them what I could buy that was equivalent but was in my budget. They suggested a Tamron lens and said, “You’re going to love it.” They were right, I fell in love with the lens. I compared it to my other lenses and the quality was completely equivalent and it was a lighter and more affordable lens. That’s what started my love story with Tamron. Every time a new lens comes out I try it and I love them all. As a photographer you invest a lot of money in glass and when you can get more for your money, why not?

PPD: What are your favorite Tamron lenses when you’re doing face shots and makeup shots?

CD: I use the Tamron SP 70-200MM F/2.8 DI VC USD a lot because I’m not really a prime shooter. I love the idea of a prime lens, I love the sharpness, but on set I need the convenience of being able to move and to compose my shots fast. So I like having a telephoto lens where I can zoom it in and pull it out. I love that lens for that reason.

Also, with beauty the closer your are to your subject and the more wide-angle the lens you’re using, the wider the face is going to be. In this kind of work that can lead to distortion in features. The more I can zoom in with a longer lens the better the face is going to look, the better the skin is going to look and the more the cheek bones are going to pop. Typically my comfort zone is between 70-90mm.

PPD: What lenses do you use for your product and still life work?

CD: I keep the Tamron SP 24-70mm Di VC USD on my camera at all times for my product work. I shoot a lot of my beauty with that as well, so I would say that the 70-200 and the 24-70mm are my two workhorses. With those two lenses I can cover a full range of situations. When I travel those are the two lenses I always have with me because again, with those two lenses I can cover the full range of anything I might possibly shoot. I also like the Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di VC USD macro because that’s just a great lens.

PPD: Your head shots seem to have a lot of depth of field. Most portrait shooters are comfortable working with shallow depth of field, but in your particular work it’s important to keep the face and the hair in sharp focus, so do you tend to work at smaller aperture?

CD:  I shoot f/ll to f/13 most of the time for that very reason. When I’m in the studio and I’m shooting strobe, I always shoot stopped down so that I get every detail and every little piece of hair is sharp. It’s just the way that beauty has to be.

PPD: How much post goes into these shots or are the shot pretty much the way you want when they come out of the camera?

CD: It depends, some are a little more work than others. Overall I don’t want to be heavy handed. I don’t use any plug-ins, it’s all dodge and burn. Sometimes I get lucky and it might take an hour, sometimes it might take three to four hours for an image. If it’s a skin-care shot you usually have a little less work, with cosmetics there’s more work involved because you’re working with colors and textures vs just beautiful skin.

I’ve been shooting professionally for twelve years and over time you get into a pattern and you know what works best for you. I know the way that I light and the way I like skin to look and I have makeup artists who have the same style as me. So when I get all of those things to work together, it’s a lot less work in post production. If I bring in someone with a different style, that’s why it’s more work.

PPD: You also do mentoring work, how did that get started?

CD: I got involved in that mentoring back in 2012 by Sandy Puc, the photographer. She was putting together a photography tour and she invited me, so I did it and it was amazing. It really brought two parts of my world together, it brought my background in communications and my love of photography together. It was kismet for me to do these speaking engagements because it allowed me to show people what I’ve done, how I do it and how to avoid the things that make your life difficult. Since then I’ve been working on my own personal mentoring business and I have my own online site  and that’s where I do my mentoring.

PPD: How does the mentoring work, is it all online?

CD: I do it in a few different ways. I do a lot of one-on-one workshops where I travel to them and visit their studio and help them set up their studio and get comfortable with things. I find that most photographers today go into forums and read how other photographers set up their lighting and see how it’s done, but they really don’t know what the other person’s studio is actually like, they might have other things there that you don’t have. It’s really a matter of helping them see what works  for them and what is their personal style. My role is to help them narrow down their work to a branded look, a style, so that they can build more and make more money.

PPD: Do you have any advice for photographers that want to go into similar types of work?

CD: The number one thing that I preach to people is that when I first got started, and this is especially true if you’re in a small market, I learned that people can be quite venomous. If you allow that noise to modify the way that you want to do things or the way that you see your business, then you need to step aside and try and quiet that noise and tell yourself that their opinion of your work does not matter.

You have to learn how to have a thick skin because how you run your business is not up to other people. In any market, stay true to who you are. If you like your stuff to be overexposed and bright and colorful, then that’s your style and so be it, don’t let other people influence you by telling you that they don’t like it. Not everyone is going to love your work, not everyone is going to like what you do. Be comfortable with your artistic voice and stick with it.


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