Frances McLaughlin-Gill was born in New York City. She decided on a career in photography at the age of eighteen, but before pursuing it, she studied painting at the New School for Social Research and at the Art Students League. She graduated with a BFA in art and design from Pratt Institute in 1941. That same year, one of her photographs won Vogue's Prix de Paris contest, and she went to work for the magazine in 1943. During her eleven years there, she photographed theater and film personalities, beauty still lifes, and fashion features; at the same time, she produced covers and editorial pages for Glamour and House & Garden. Alexander Liberman, Vogue's art director, encouraged her toward photographic reportage, and she became particularly skilled at using the small-format camera and fast film. From 1964 to 1973, after the death of her husband and fellow photographer Leslie Gill, in 1958, she worked as an independent film producer and director, and made television commercials for major corporate clients. In 1969 she won a gold medal at the International Film and Television Festival for her film Cover Girl: New Face in Focus. Since the late 1970s, she has taught photography seminars at the School of Visual Arts.
Continuing the tradition of outdoor location shooting and action photography for fashion work pioneered by Martin Munkacsi and Toni Frissell in the late 1930s, McLaughlin-Gill was often considered the ideal interpreter of junior fashions. Her ability to communicate the appearance and sensibility of a passing moment or a glimpsed smile in her pictures led Liberman to liken her work to "improvisational theater." It was this quality, among others, that made her photographs subtle but provocative contributions to the development of realistic fashion photography.