Photo Assistants & Careers

How Fashion & Beauty Photographer Maria Del Rio Got Her Start

March 18, 2019

By David Walker

Oakland, California photographer Maria del Rio struggled to launch her career after nine years as a photo assistant. “I was too nervous to say I’m a photographer,” she says. “It felt like bragging or showing off. Mentally I was holding myself back for a really long time.”

Four years ago, she finally gained the confidence she needed through an internship at Refinery29 when she was 30. She saw one of their ads for photo interns, and jumped on it. “They said, ‘We usually hire people who are still in school.’” But Del Rio had always dreamed of shooting for the online women’s magazine, so she talked her way in.

Working for $10 per hour along with far younger and less experienced interns, Del Rio realized Refinery29 might not take her seriously. But her confidence as a photographer grew as she met people in the fashion industry and impressed editors with her work. When del Rio’s six-month internship ended, Refinery29’s West Coast editor Katie Hintz-Zambrano started giving del Rio freelance editorial assignments, and “that really helped launch my career,” del Rio says. Retailers and designers she photographed for Refinery29 soon started calling with advertising jobs. Now 34, Del Rio looks back on her decision to “go a little backwards” from assisting to an internship and says, “I’m so grateful I did it. If I hadn’t, I would be in a very different place.”

© Maria Del Rio

An image for Nika Tang’s Spring 2019 look book. © Maria Del Rio

Born in Mexico and raised in Santa Fe, del Rio decided in high school to become a photographer. But she didn’t know any photographers and says, “I didn’t even now what a photography career looked like.” She majored in Latin American studies at UC Santa Cruz, and during her senior year, she posted a notice on a photo lab bulletin board in search of an internship. Surf photographer Patrick Trefz took her on, first as an unpaid office assistant. Del Rio ended up working for Trefz for six years. “I learned about the business, about organization, and shooting personal projects,” del Rio says.

In her free time, she says, “I was shooting a ton of portfolio work,” and she started attending portfolio reviews. “I’m really good at asking for discounts, so I would write any portfolio review I could find and say, hey, I can’t afford [the fee], but here’s my work. And a lot of places would let me [in] discounted or for free,” she explains.

Reviewers told her she needed to improve her production values to get assignments. “I needed to put more money into test shoots,” del Rio says. She couldn’t afford to rent the lights and studio space to practice, so she accessed them by signing up for lighting and Photoshop courses at City College of San Francisco.

Photographer Erika Gentry, one of del Rio’s instructors, suggested she find a mentor. “She said, ‘Find someone who’s going to take you under their wing and teach you things.’”

Del Rio made a list of ten Bay Area photographers that she wanted to work with. She reached out by email. A few responded, and she hit it off with photographer Alex Farnum. “I said, ‘I’m looking to learn everything I can learn, I want to help in the office and I want to help on set. I want to absorb everything like sponge.’”

Farnum told del Rio that he didn’t usually take on interns. But he was impressed by her drive, and offered her an unpaid internship to start. It eventually segued into paid office work. “Then he brought me on set,” del Rio says.

She credits Farnum with teaching her most of what she knows about lighting. “On small shoots, he allowed me to ask a lot of questions: Why did you put that there? Why did you use that gel? He explained things. I still call him to ask questions. I called him two days ago to ask about payroll. I said, ‘I don’t get it!’ So he’s been a major mentor to me on multiple levels.”

Del Rio assisted Farnum for about two years, while occasionally taking assisting jobs with other photographers to make ends meet. The jobs got bigger, and the stress level got higher. “I ended up working with photographers who are not very kind,” del Rio says. “And I was making $150 for a ten-hour shoot. It was physically exhausting.”

© Maria Del Rio

Del Rio shot freelance assignments for Refinery29 after completing a six-month internship with the online publication. © Maria Del Rio

People also started asking her when she might go out on her own, but she resisted. “I talked myself down,” she says. “Alex said, ‘I think you are ready. You should try to get jobs on your own.’ It was a confidence thing, and he helped me with that.” (See related Q&A: “Maria del Rio on Undervaluing Yourself—and Other Challenges for Women Photographers“)

Del Rio finally started to pull away from assisting by turning down jobs for photographers “who made me feel awful at the end of the day. I was going to say no to things that were not fulfilling.” Then she started looking for small jobs advertised on Craigslist, responding to “anything that seemed creative and cool,” she says. The listings were “usually for people starting a small brand, like a T-shirt company or dress company. They didn’t know how to find a photographer, so they ended up on Craigslist.”

Craigslist led del Rio to a handful of small jobs before the internship at Refinery29 changed everything for her. She remembers her first Refinery29 internship assignment: photographing cool dressing rooms in San Francisco. “I prepped gear way too early, went to [scout] beforehand. I was very nervous,” del Rio says. But Refinery29 published the images right away, and started sending del Rio out to shoot portraits of local artists and designers.

The Refinery29 assignments eventually led to small advertising assignments. Del Rio recently signed with rep Katie Patterson at Lola Creative, and has since shot for clients including Benefit Cosmetics, eBay and skin care brand Murad.

Del Rio says she tells other photographers who contact her for advice to avoid doing what she did. “If you’ve taken time, put in the work and feel ready, then you are! Don’t talk yourself out of it,” she says. “The other thing I say and stand behind is working as hard as you can, whether the job is a small shoot or a large shoot [and] no matter how much you’re being paid. It’s about doing your best. Also, it’s about being nice.”

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Related Articles:
Q&A: Maria del Rio on Undervaluing Yourself (and Other Challenges for Women Photographers)

Give and Take: The Power of Mentorship in Photography

The Lessons and Influence of Great Photography Teachers

Face to Face Meetings Helped NY Newcomer Aundre Larrow Launch His Career

Moving from Assistant to Photographer

How to Land Work with Refinery29

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