An Interview with NYC Beauty Photographer Jason Setiawan

This morning I had a chance to sit down with Jason Setiawan here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at one of my favorite coffee houses, Sugarburg. Read on about his career as a beauty photographer and how passion and not money keeps him in the game.

Jason Setiawan was born in Indonesia and came to NYC in 1997 to study business. After graduating, he took jobs in the finance and banking industries here in New York. Photography had always been a hobby of his since he was 9 years old but he never thought of making a career of it. He liked shooting landscapes and flowers, things that were pretty. One morning he woke up and his roommate said, “Man, you look like shit! You need to quit your job and do photography!” Jason admits he wasn’t very happy in his chosen profession and even though friends and family had also seen him unhappy and frustrated in his work, it was his roommate saying something that made him snap out of it and realize that he needed to make a change. He admits it was a scary realization, that he was leaving a steady paycheck in an industry that pays fairly well. But he had to do it! He quit his job 3 months later and worked as an assistant for a Senior’s portrait photographer. After some time, his own boss told him he needed to quit that job and open up his own studio. Since that day, 9 years ago, he has been a freelancing fashion and now, more beauty, photographer. Even though he loves shooting fashion, he does believe that he excels in shooting beauty and more and more people are telling him he should focus on beauty. I asked him some questions that specifically pertain to being a beauty photographer.

How important is your working relationship with your make up artist when shooting beauty?
“It is very, very important. I usually meet with a make up artist before we shoot together to see if our energy is aligned. I need to know I can get along with them first, we have to bond, you know, in order to know if we can work well together.”

Do you recommend photographers to find makeup artists at a similar skill set level to collaborate with when you are first starting to shoot beauty?
“Actually, I believe it was better for me to work with someone with a stronger skill set because it challenged me to bring up my own set of skills. I will say, though, that now, where I am in my career, I will take a chance with a makeup artist who’s book might not be that strong but I love her energy. It’s all about connection with me. “

What are some of the main differences between shooting fashion and shooting beauty: in pre-production, production and post-production?
“More work goes into to pre-production with fashion but more work goes into post-production with beauty because of the retouching. I feel retouching is way more important when it comes to beauty.”

What are the main differences between the fashion market and the beauty market?
“There is less competition in the beauty market. There is also more opportunity for work, which means more money. For myself, I have to work with the business side when I shoot fashion because there are so many people who aren’t creatives that will be involved on a fashion shoot. But with beauty, it seems even the production managers are creative. There aren’t as many “suits” in the beauty market. Beauty comes more “naturally” to me”

What do you look for in a model when you are casting for a beauty shoot?
“Skin, obviously, is most important. I like big eyes because they’re more captivating. Noses, too, they need to fit with the face. Lips are important and so is hair. The hair needs to be healthy!”

How closely do you work with your retoucher? Or do you retouch your own photos?
“I retouch most of my photos with the exception if there is a tight deadline and I don’t feel I can do the job properly within the time limit or if there is a budget. The reason I do my own retouching is that when I was starting out, I couldn’t find a retoucher that shared my aesthetic so I taught myself how to retouch. It has taken about 5 to 7 years to perfect my retouching! It hasn’t been easy!” 

Is your relationship with your retoucher just as important as the relationship you have with your make up artist?
“Absolutely just as important! Listen, I really admire the top retouchers and I am no way near as good as they are. They have a special gift just as photographers have a special gift. Where there is time and a budget I will definitely work with a high-end retoucher.”

What advice would you give to a young photographer or a photographer that’s just starting out that would love to move to NYC and shoot beauty?
“Make sure you really love this!!! If I was doing this for the money, I would’ve stayed in banking!” 

Do you plan to stay in NYC indefinitely?
“I would love to stay in NYC but honestly, I’ll go wherever the Universe takes me. I like to stay open to any and all opportunities in life!”

Melissa Rodwell