- Tati Bruening, 19, has built a business around taking portraits of TikTok stars like Chase Hudson (26 million followers) and his friends.
- She has become the choice fashion and portrait photographer for many of these Gen-Z influencers.
- Bruening told Business Insider that she first got in touch with TikTok creators by direct messaging them on Instagram.
- She shared how she got started and how she became an influencer herself with nearly 1 million followers on TikTok.
- Subscribe to Business Insider’s influencer newsletter: Insider Influencers.
TikTok star Chase Hudson – better known as Lil Huddy with 26 million followers – is obsessed with fashion, and when he wants to shoot a look, he’ll often contact 19-year-old photographer Tati Bruening.
Bruening has become the choice fashion and portrait photographer for many TikTok influencers like Hudson and his internet famous friends. Her business started last fall when TikTok began to surge in popularity and breakout stars like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio were starting to make headlines.
“I was addicted to TikTok and I would sit and scroll for hours and hours,” Bruening told Business Insider. “I saw the potential in the talent and the e-boy scene. These are good looking boys that could have a career in modeling, why aren’t we taking advantage of this?”
Chase Keith (4 million followers) and Ellie Zeiler (7.7 million followers) were among some of the first big TikTok creators who gave Bruening chance, she said.
But how did she manage to catch the attention of TikTok’s most prominent creators?
She sent a simple direct message, like “Let’s shoot!” to dozens of creators through Instagram. Unlike LinkedIn or Twitter, on Instagram users can direct message anyone – no matter how famous they are.
Online, Bruening goes by the name “Illumitati,” and she has 154,000 followers on Instagram and 903,000 followers on TikTok. She’s working on expanding her business and she signed with the talent management firm Outshine Talent this month (the firm also manages creators like Charli D’Amelio).
Bruening isn’t the first photographer to also become an influencer. Others — like Bryant Eslava who’s known for his photos of David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad, The Hype House, and Emma Chamberlain — have created businesses around taking photos of influencers for brand deals and other commercial photography.
“I’ve only been doing studio photography for a few months now,” Bruening said. “I was able to connect with bigger and bigger clients because I built my TikTok following and Instagram following so rapidly. It was like if you can’t beat them join them sort of thing. If I can’t get through to them on this level, then I just need to become an influencer.”
In the studio with TikTok stars
Bruening’s photography career first started to take off in 2019 during her senior year of high school when she became a concert photographer and started taking press photos at shows for artists like T-Pain, Zara Larsson, and Oliver Tree.
At the beginning of 2020, she attended Playlist Live Orlando, an annual convention for YouTube and TikTok creators. Bruening said while she was there, she snuck into the TikTok Creator Lounge (which she didn’t have access to) and networked with the creators.
“I convinced security I was somebody, when I was nobody,” she said. “I went around and asked all these creators if I could take a five-minute photoshoot with them, and I wound up getting all their numbers and texting them the photos. I really needed those photos to be decent enough to get their number and connect with them for later stuff.”
Her concert photography business ended after the coronavirus pandemic hit the US in March, and that’s when she decided to focus full-time on TikTok portraits.
“I sat in my room and I studied light, I studied retouching, and how a studio functions,” she said. “Just researching and doing everything that I could to figure out how fashion photography works.”
By the end of May, Bruening had her first studio session with TikTok star Zieler, who had under 100,000 followers at the time.
“Eventually, I got to this point where Lil Huddy DM’d me and said, ‘Hey, when are we shooting?'” she said. “A bunch of these really, really awesome people started having interest in me, and I think that was after I had done a shoot with luvanthony and became connected with TalentX.”
She makes money by charging her clients a fee per shoot (she declined to disclose her exact rates) and she plans to release Adobe Lightroom presets (or custom photo filters) soon, which has become one popular way influencers make money from their followers.
Clients will hire her to take fun photos of them for Instagram, shoot promotional images of their merchandise, or photos an influencer needs for a specific brand deal, she said.
Recently, Bruening has collaborated with 23-year-old fashion stylist Tabitha Sanchez, and together they have worked on shoots for TikTok creators like Sienna Mae Gomez (7.9 million followers), Larray (17.9 million followers), and Willy Wonka TikTok (16 million followers). Sanchez got her start styling TikTok influencers during quarantine, and she first connected with influencers by emailing their agents, she told Vogue.
If Bruening has one rule she hopes every creator follows it’s to always tag the person’s Instagram handle when you post an image they took or styled.
It’s a “frustration in the community not to be properly credited,” she said. Her Instagram bio even reads: “Tag me or die.”
This can seem like a small gesture, but Bruening believes her exposure to new creators and success with building a following online is linked to her properly being tagged in the photos she’s taken.
Read more about the influencer industry, according to top creators on Business Insider: