How to Work with World-Class Makeup Artists

This is the second (and last) post in the series on Building a Makeup Artist Database. We've already learned how to find great makeup artists, and (I hope!) booked several test shoots. Now let's talk about how much to pay your artists, how to work well together, and how to keep the keepers. 

To make things clear: I will use "makeup artist" or the acronym "MUA", even though I am usually referring to hairstylist-makeup artists. While makeup artists don't all do hair, and hairstylists don't all do makeup, I generally work with two-in-one 'H/MUAs'. For simplicity's sake, I'll skip reference to the "Hair-stylist" qualifier throughout the post.

How Much Does a Good MUA Cost?

Much like photographers, Makeup Artists can be found at several price points, skill levels, and aesthetic tastes. The more makeup artists you work with, the better idea you'll have of price vs. quality, and where on the scale you're comfortable working with. 

When I first began building up my makeup artist database, I asked each artist to tell me how much she would charge for a typical shoot (around four hours, in my studio, including hair and makeup on two clients) - assuming I bring them fairly regular work and provide a beautiful image of each client for their portfolio. No matter what price they asked for, I would book a test-shoot before ruling them out. 

I had MUAs charge as high as $400, and as low as $25. Some stylists were willing to trade their time for prints only (read: free), and even some who paid me to photograph images for their portfolios. 

How to work with incredible makeup artists in your photography studio by Emily London Portraits in Utah B&A Spread for the Makeup Artist

Determine Your Minimum Requirements

I myself am a makeup artist, and, while I'm not incredibly fast, I am pretty damn good. I always follow my demands and am pretty cost-effective (free). So that is about where I start my minimum requirements for hiring another makeup artist. They have to be as good as I am, or better, and/or faster. Personally, I value aesthetics and skill level more than free. If an artist who wasn't as good as I am offered to work for free, I would likely pass. (See, I'm free. So even at free, I really need a certain level of quality.) Possibly the only exception would be if my other preferred artists were unavailable, and I had to shoot more than one client. Most of my shoots are booked about a month ahead, so this is not a common problem, but it's a good idea to have one or two backup artists on your list.

Once you know your minimum requirements, the lowest price you pay will be affected by factors such as your location (NYC vs Rural Kansas, for example) and your own skill level as a photographer. More makeup artists will be excited to work with an incredible photographer than a mediocre one, and the value of the portfolio images you can create for them will depend on the quality of your work. If you're just starting out, don't expect the portfolio shots you provide to be a big draw, unless the makeup artist is brand new herself.

How to work with incredible makeup artists in your photography studio by Emily London Portraits in Utah Price-Speed-Quality Triangle You Can Pick Two

Find Your Cheapest Makeup Artist

Once you know your minimum requirements, you can then hire the lowest-charging MUA who meets them. If she's willing to go as cheap as 'free,' then your minimum amount is zero. Remember that, just like a photographer, a makeup artist can't live off of 'free' for very long (and why would you want her to?). Free is not sustainable in the long-term, but might be your only option when first starting out, or when doing free portfolio building shoots and test shoots. Just keep in mind that if free is your top requirement, you can't be quite as choosy when it comes to speed and quality/experience.

An excellent artist who is willing to work for free will outgrow free very quickly, while an artist who is not quite excellent will either get better (and start needing to get paid), or will get burned out on working for nothing and quit. As your own value shifts toward quality over price, you can be very selective of which MUAs you work with, and therefore create stronger work and have a more pleasant environment.

Free but Fair: If you have somehow found a makeup artist who is willing to work for free, don't be stingy with her. Offer to photograph her in a fully styled shoot typical to what you do for your clients. Take photos of her during the styling process that she can use on her business website or facebook page. If she has kids and needs to pay a baby sitter, offer to cover the cost of the sitter. Maybe, if you both have kids, you can pay your sitter to watch all of them together. When you do start selling images, give her a portion of the profits. When you start getting hired by clients, be sure to charge enough to cover any MUA costs, and start paying your MUAs.

Find Your Most Expensive Makeup Artist

As far as a maximum price goes - one of my favorite artists to work with charges $250 for four hours. During that time she can style up to four clients, or provide several looks for one, two, or even three clients. For a full day (eight hours) she charges $400. Since her skill level is excellent, that is my maximum price. I have stopped hiring MUAs who charge more, as I don't see any discernible improvement in quality. She's also a joy to have in my studio and 100% drama-free when I (or my clients) ask her to change anything.

Now I've established that my price range is free-$400, with various factors affecting what is appropriate within that scale, (example: number of clients, hours working, if I'm portfolio-building for free, or being hired by a client). Keep in mind that the more MUAs you try out, the more likely you are to find ones who are a great value for their skill levels, and who are a great fit for your studio.

Clearly Communicate Pricing

These days, I already know my minimum and maximum MUA rates, and I have a list of makeup artists who all fit somewhere on that spectrum. Whenever I want to try out a new MUA, instead of asking her rates, I tell her what I'm willing to pay - she can decide if it will be a good fit for her before booking a test shoot. I usually say or write something like this:

My budget is between $100 [half-day (4 hours) shoot for one client] and $400 [for full-day shoots (up to 8 hours) with several clients]. I will also provide a beautiful before & after photo of each client for your portfolio, and can supply all the products you need for hair and makeup. If that sounds reasonable, let me know, and we can schedule a test-run.

(I also occasionally do free portfolio building shoots, and keep costs down by doing the hair and makeup myself. However, I would certainly prefer to work with a separate MUA for these shoots. If you’d like to be contacted when I’ve got a non-paying shoot in the works, let me know.)

Once the test-run is over, if I've decided she's a keeper, I usually ask her which shoots she'd like to hear about. "Would you be interested in doing free/test/trade shoots occasionally?" refers to portfolio building shoots where nobody is getting paid. Some artists are open to shooting for free on occasion, some are too busy, and some just aren't interested. I'll add her to the appropriate contact list (paid only vs. paid + free). Please don't take advantage of an MUA by only offering her the unpaid jobs if you never plan to hire her for paid work. 

How to work with incredible makeup artists in your photography studio by Emily London Portraits in Utah Before and Afters for My Makeup Artist

Using the Database: How to Offer Paid Shoots to Your Makeup Artists

There are two ways of deciding on what to pay your makeup artists. You can simply ask each one what they would charge for various shoot scenarios, and call whenever that price works for you. Or, you can call when you've got a shoot booked in, say "I'm paying $100 (or whatever), for a shoot like X-Y-Z, are you interested?" and if she is, she'll do it, and if not, you can call the next MUA on your list. If you're getting a lot of "No, thank you" answers here, you might need to up the rate you're offering, or find some cheaper MUAs.

I never pin my MUAs against each other. Saying, "Hey, Kristy will do it for $100, if you do it for $75 I'll hire you instead..." would be a huge mistake. I want to have a strong, long-term relationship with these artists, whom I love and respect. These are the creme-de-la-creme of the industry, and I'm lucky to have found them. The last thing I would do is act like I don't value their work.

What Do I Pay My Artists?

Right now, for shoots where I'm hired to photograph one client only, it's worth about $100 to me to not have to do the styling myself. Any more than that, and I can't justify the extra expense for something I can do on my own. For $100, I ask the MUA to stay for the entire shoot. If she had to leave right after styling, I would be more comfortable paying $50, but I would only take that option in a pinch. 

When I'm hired to shoot two or more clients for a shoot, I pay $200-$250 for a half-day (4 hours). I keep in mind how fast the stylist is, the length/thickness of the clients' hair, and if the MUA will need more than four hours to style the number of clients booked. If so, I will either style one client myself, book the MUA for a full day (8 hours at $400), or hire a second MUA. If two MUAs are booked, and they will both be staying for the same amount of time (4 hours), I will offer them the same amount: somewhere between $100-$200, again, depending on the number of clients and how complicated the styling needs are.

How to work with incredible makeup artists in your photography studio by Emily London Portraits in Utah B&A spread for makeup artists

You've Found the Keepers - How to Keep Them

Feed Them

Providing drinks and snacks in your studio for your clients, makeup artists, assistants, and models will keep everybody feeling energized and happy. Break for meals at appropriate times and buy lunch for everybody on set if they didn't bring their own. (Don't forget to feed yourself. No, cookie dough doesn't count.)

Be Respectful

Show your clients that they are in good hands and that you trust your artists by speaking respectfully to and about them. Complement their work in front of the client. Saying "your eyes look fantastic" makes both of them feel great, and helps the MUA to know when she's done something that works for you. You will sometimes have different ideas on how the makeup should look, but your MUA will get discouraged if the only comments you give are negative - so be sure to point out the positive as often as possible.

Behind-the-scenes, work out a plan with your artists to help make sure your clients are happy: Have the artist leave the room to wash her hands when styling is done. Ask your client directly if she loves her makeup, and if she wants any thing changed. Make sure she knows that her happiness is the only thing that matters, (you want her to LOVE her pictures) and that the MUA won't mind a bit if any tweaking is necessary. When your MUA returns, be very clear but polite when you point out anything you (or you client) would like to be changed. Since you planned this ahead of time, there should never be friction.

Expect Respect

You are hired by clients to photograph them, and you treat them with respect and kindness, with the goal of creating images they love. Similarly, you are your makeup artist's client, and, by extension, so are your clients. She should be gracious and respectful to you, to your clients, and to the rest of your team. If you are trading free shoots, it is still standard practice that the photographer is the director of a shoot. 

She should never speak ill of you, other makeup artists, or any past clients in front of a client. If I've ever felt a conversation needed to be redirected, I usually pipe in a kind comment about the current subject (example: "Oh, really? I thought she was just lovely.") then ask a question about something else ("How are you liking your makeup so far?" or "Could I get you anything to drink?"). If the MUA persists with the bad behavior, I'll talk to her about it later, not in front of the client.

If a makeup artist ever causes you to feel disrespected as an artist, business owner, or person, don't hire her again. Ditto if she's defensive about her work to the point of making your client feel uncomfortable for asking to change something.

This is your studio, and should be a calming, peaceful place for everybody involved. You have control of who is allowed into it - even down to the clients you work with.

Have Reasonable Expectations

A makeup artists job is to style hair, apply beautiful makeup, keep the client comfortable and happy during both, touch up styling as needed throughout the shoot, assist with tasks related to hair and makeup (blowing the hair with a fan, for example), clean up the makeup brushes and return the makeup counter to rights when the shoot is over. If you're lucky, she'll probably be willing to help with various tasks such as holding a reflector, tossing fabric behind the client, and helping you reach tall things because you're short. (Well, okay. I'm short. You might be tall.)

If you need more assistance than that, you're veering into "assistant" territory. Cleaning up the studio (before or after your shoot) is not the job of a makeup artist. Moving heavy set pieces is not her job, preparing food is not her job, picking up coffee is not her job. Respect the fact that great makeup artists are valuable as makeup artists, and just because you're paying one to be there, does not mean she should be at your beck and call. If she is feeling generous enough to offer to help with any of the above tasks, consider yourself very lucky, be very grateful (verbally and otherwise), and don't expect it to become a regular occurrence.

Deliver What You Promise

I pay my artists with a check at the end of each shoot. I try to have it ready beforehand, so the client doesn't have to be aware of the transaction.

As soon as the images are fully edited (usually within two weeks of a photoshoot), I send a beautiful B&A spread of each client for her portfolio, showcasing the different looks she created. Be sensitive that the portfolio needs of a makeup artist are different than yours. Choose images with fantastic hair and makeup, that show off the range of styles made during the shoot, and that are close-up enough to see details in the features.

How to work with incredible makeup artists in your photography studio by Emily London Portraits in Utah B&A for the Makeup Artist

Evolve and Improve as a Team

For the makeup artists I've worked with who were very talented, but too slow, I've suggested doing timed practice runs. I offer to be the model, make it very clear that speed is a significant factor in whether I can hire her for future shoots, set a timer for one hour, and try to be very encouraging for her to be quick (as in, no chatting, and offering time updates, "You've got 45 minutes left."). 

If they still can't get fast enough, I (gently) explain that I'm working with non-model clients who just don't have the patience or energy for the photoshoot if they've been in the makeup chair for 2 hours. Since client experience and the quality of images are the most important qualities of my shoots, I can't hire her even though I think her work is brilliant. I suggest that if she can ever get her speed to the one hour mark, to get back in touch with me, and I would be happy to work with her in the future.

For my regular artists, each time the MUA comes in for a shoot, I'll show her the SOOC and final edits of a few images from our last shoot together. I point out what I edited for the makeup and hair. Seeing exactly what changed and why is a very powerful way to understand my specific needs. Then she can apply my requests for the day's shoot while it's still fresh. 

Sometimes, when I learn a new Photoshop or makeup technique that changes how I do makeup, I will let her know to try the new technique, and why. I know that the drama-free artists I work with will be happy to try out something new, since they're also constantly aiming toward growth and improvement in their craft. 

Over time, I plan to add several posts and videos that illustrate my own very specific makeup techniques. The posts will include both how to describe them to MUAs, and how to fix them with Photoshop. Subscribe below to see these posts as soon as they're released, so you and your makeup artists can improve together as a team.

Emily London

Emily London is a portrait photographer for women. She's also a wife (of 10 years!), mother of two, graphic designer, ukulele enthusiast, cookie dough connoisseur, and photography mentor.