Rachel Owen Podcast Episode 14

Weddings, Composites & Competitions with Rachel Owen

Rachel Owen
Rachel Owen

World-renowned portrait photographer Rachel Owen joins Joe to share her experiences and the learning curve that led to her becoming a highly respected wedding photographer and international-award-winning composite artist. Rachel describes how she discovered her goals, aimed high and worked hard until she achieved her incredible success. She now helps other photographers along the journey, teaching and critiquing their work.

Over the years Rachel has professionally shot several different genres of portraits, including her latest main offering – bridal boudoir. Having experienced burnout, frustration at not reaching the standard she aspired to and then pivoting to keep herself sane, her story is one of perseverance, diversification and committed hard work that can inspire photographers going through hard times. She also speaks about some of her influences as an artist and how she came to work on projects with a message, such as her “Response” art book, inspired by the turmoil of the Covid pandemic. 

Reminding herself of the privileged position she is in, being chosen to photograph key moments in people’s lives, Rachel has a client-centred business focused on delivering the best she can. As an artist she isn’t afraid to break the rules and she thrives on the joy of creativity. Her playful side not only uses a range of items to convey metaphorical meaning, but she even hides elements in her images for the viewer to discover.

Rachel Owen is a photographer at the top of her game. Join us as she unveils her unique process for creating captivating photographic compositions, including how she turned a lack of space to her advantage – pushing her to hone her compositing skills which now allow her to create unique narrative images with depth of meaning.

Don’t miss the chance to learn from her experiences and insights in this episode!

All images © Rachel Owen (used here with permission)

Visit Rachel Owen’s website

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Transcription of Rachel Owen Interview

Joe Lenton: Welcome to the Focused Professional podcast. Today we have a guest who’s known for wedding photography with her husband, Jeff, also on their own, but also is very well known around the world now for winning awards with the WPPI, ICON, Portrait Masters, the Societies, and probably several others that I’ve forgotten as well. I’d like to introduce you to Rachel Owen. Hello, Rachel!

Rachel Owen: Hello, Joe! Thank you for having me.

Joe Lenton: It’s a pleasure to be able to have you on the podcast and talk a little bit about your your work. I’ve really enjoyed being able to be introduced to it as a as a judge, particularly your composite work. How much of your sort of work is balanced towards that now cause I know you do the weddings as well. What’s the sort of spread for you when you do your work?

Rachel Owen: Yeah. So I have a mix like I try to do at least a personal project a month, because that just keeps me refreshed and going for other things. But a lot of people don’t know – well, up until Covid, my husband and I shot about 65 weddings a year. Post-Covid we’ve kind of pivoted from that, and just cause that was so scary like in 2020, when we had to reschedule 65 weddings. It was just the most stressful thing in the world. So we still do weddings. But when we stopped our advertising because of Covid we never started it up again. So, what I moved into now, which was kind of a natural transition, I had a lot of women coming in during Covid asking for bridal boudoir which was always a service that I offered. But now well, last year I shot a hundred, just under 100 sessions of bridal boudoir just boudoir in general, and this year we’re aiming for 150. So that’s kind of the thing that I can guarantee makes us money. So I have only been a professional photographer like since I graduated high school and my husband as well. So this is the only source of income for our family, and I really like to keep things stable. Especially with having a kid. And you know everything else. I – you know the artwork is great, and I love doing that, and if I were younger I would probably start with that again. But it’s a completely different kind of selling mindset. If you wanted to sell more of the artwork, it would be more like working with galleries and trying to sell limited edition prints, and that is just a little bit too scary for me at this point in my life. If I were in my twenties we could go that route, but I really like the stability of having boudoir booked out a few months, and the weddings and other things we do. Babies – before I did weddings I’d done children and portrait sessions. When I got out of high school I worked at a Picture People, which is a huge place here in the Mall like they could do 100 sessions in a day easily. And so it was just kind of a natural like – we mostly advertise boudoir now, but if somebody asks for a children, or newborn or family session, I’m not going to turn down that money just because I have that under my belt. It’s another skill set.

Joe Lenton: Has has that enabled you to have repeat clients then? So when you’ve had clients for weddings, have you then been able to bring them in again, for the children, for the portraits, for the boudoir?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, absolutely. So, my husband and I got our studio location together in 2010, and I have, there’s 2 or 3 of those clients who we did their engagement shoot and their wedding, and they’re still coming back to us with their kids. A couple of them are like 8, 9 years old now, and it’s really cool to see that whole evolution.

Joe Lenton: Hmm. Yeah, you’ve got that sort of trust from them as a client that they can then come straight back to you and carry on throughout with these other services. So yeah, that that’s a that makes sense, I mean, the boudoir is a new thing. Is that something you said like bridal boudoir. So is that something that you kind of bundle up together with a wedding package? Is it something that’s totally separate, normally?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I haven’t bundled it with a wedding package, but, oddly enough, the bridal boudoir is starting the cycle again, cause they’ll come in for bridal boudoir, and be like, Oh, you do weddings, too! And then here we go with the whole family. However, I’m a little bit careful, because in bridle boudoir we spend 2 to 3 hours to get 30 like perfect photos, and I pre-retouch all of those, and when I first did a bridal boudoir several years ago, the bride thought that every one of her wedding pictures was going to be perfection retouched. And we had a little bit of a problem! So now I explain to them, if they’ve done bridal boudoir, I’ll say something like, “hey, we took almost 3 hours to get 30 perfect photos. On your wedding day you are, gonna have hundreds of photos, and these are not all going to be perfect. Your album photos will be perfect, but not all of them. So I kind of have to control expectations that way.

Joe Lenton: Quite. Yeah, I can imagine. Otherwise it would be probably on their fifth wedding anniversary you could say, “I’ve finished! Here it is. I’ve done the retouching.” They go, “I don’t look like that anymore.”

Rachel Owen: Right!

Joe Lenton: Yeah, managing people’s expectations is such an important thing, whatever area of business you’re in. Whether it’s the commercial photography or weddings and portraits so that you can avoid those kind of potentially awkward moments later down the line. If you, if you set out in advance, look, this is what it’s going to be. Then there’s that avoids there being any awkward surprises, I think. So, it’s a very sensible approach.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, that’s key. I always say, if you can learn to talk to a bride on her wedding day and calm her down, you can handle any customer service situation!

Joe Lenton: Yeah, I can imagine. Yes, yeah. That’s pretty intense, I should think, if that kicks off there. So you went into photography from college, you said from school?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I started out college as music major. And when I got the job in the picture people it was the first time, like I was debilitatingly shy as I was growing up, and not that like, I wanted to interact with people. I was just very shy to even say things to people, and when I got the camera in my hand it was the first time that, like all my shyness, went away. It was really quite like weird, and I just felt like I was really supposed to pursue this. So I changed my major within a couple of weeks, and I never finished that degree. I ended up having my son and there was like this whole college debacle. They didn’t think I was gonna be able to finish cause I was having a baby, and I ended up getting an internship at one of the local wedding studios out here, and that’s actually where I met my husband, and it’s been fantastic, cause I’ve learned that photography is so much like – the gear the F stop the shutter speeds, none of those things have changed since photography was invented. So once, you know that, especially in portrait and weddings and all the things that make us money, everything except for commercial. It’s learning how to work with people, and I don’t think that you can learn that the same way in a classroom, so.

Joe Lenton: No, there’s a certain amount of just getting out there and getting on with it. You can’t really do theoretical exercises for talking to a person, because people are all different, aren’t they?

Rachel Owen: Hmm, yeah.

Joe Lenton: You’ve got to find what helps you to connect with that client, and that might not be the same as another client. So it’s that experience that helps you to read people. I think, yeah.

Rachel Owen: Yeah. Yeah. And when newer photographers ask me, like, “oh, I’m getting a degree in photography,” I try to politely steer them into, I think a business degree would be better like, go out and learn the people, because so many photographers fail because they can’t market their business.

Joe Lenton: Sadly true. Yes. Now, for the way that I like to approach business is very much sort of thinking about having a set of values, having a core motivation or recognizing what that is. Some of us don’t necessarily know what it is, but when you sort of been in business a while, you reflect on these things, and it helps to drive you day to day. It helps to make those decisions in your business a little bit easier because you’ve got a structure to it. Would you say that you have sort of a values or a motivation at the heart of your business that you’re aware of?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, absolutely. I always feel like, people come before profits, and that’s gotta be everything. And I recently started a couple of years ago a little investment company with my parents, where we’re renting out houses. And we said at the beginning, like people come before profits. At the same time, we’re also not a charity. So you know, it’s not letting yourself get walked over, but just understanding that – I found in my life if I focus on profits, and if I focus on money, I just – that money does not come. It is not coming to me. But if I focus on how many people I can serve, how many heirlooms I can create for families that are going to be treasured for generations. When I focus on there’s a client in front of me, and rather than getting the biggest sale or prepping her for the sale, I want to focus on creating a legacy for her and making her feel empowered and giving her this great experience. Well, then, the money is just a by-product of that.

Joe Lenton: I think that sometimes, when business is a little bit tight, or perhaps when people are starting out you you start to inadvertently communicate with the way that your body language and everything is that you’re starting to get a bit desperate for the cash. You know how it is so some people you can kind of feel it. They’re desperate for the sale. They’re desperate for something, and that actually, that makes it worse.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: In a way, being able to relax into it, and for doing it for a different reason, can often open the door. And yeah, the money becomes a by-product.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah. And that’s that’s huge. I, in 2015 I started following the Sue Bryce education model. And I doubled my sales average in the portrait studio by changing nothing other than my mindset around it and my energy. And that really I couldn’t believe it. And when she was talking about, “oh, you have to change your mindset. It’s in your mind like you’re attracting this.” And I was like, “no!” And then she was right. And I’m like, okay, I guess I attracted that. So yeah, it’s really mindset is everything.

Joe Lenton: Hmm. It makes an enormous difference. Absolutely. So when you get up for for work each day, what sort of thing helps to get you going? What sort of thing motivates you? What do you have in mind? What kind of a mindset are you trying to create for yourself?  Because I mean, let’s face it, we all have days where we get up and think, “oh, I’d just like to roll over and pull the duvet back over for a bit longer,” or something like that or – So, especially on days when it’s more more difficult. How do you? What do you? What do you use to motivate yourself?How do you get your mind in the right place?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Cause I will have those days where it’s like, yeah, I don’t wanna do anything. And very often my clients wind up cancelling on those days. And you know that bitter feeling when a client cancels, you’re like, oh, I’m not gonna make money today. But at the same time, now I have the day off! So yeah, I just try to focus on – one of the phrases I say to myself often is, this person is giving me the opportunity to have my home, to have my cars to provide for my son, to put food on the table, and they deserve all of my love and attention, and I am so lucky to be able to do what I love for a job and have it support me. That to think that, you know, maybe I don’t want this client is just ungratefulness. So I try to check myself pretty quick. And just get into focusing on I am so privileged to be able to do this job.

Joe Lenton: So it’s it’s appreciating what you’ve got and having a service mentality. Then, I suppose, for you?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah, I’d say, that’s pretty spot on.

Joe Lenton: That’s interesting. So, you seem to get a lot of joy out of what you do. You seem to really enjoy serving people – except on those days when we’d like to be under the duvet for a bit longer, but you know…! What sort of thing, then makes it difficult for you within business? What sort of thing takes that joy away for you?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I would say, I mean, there’s not much that takes that joy away. I – so I’ll go back to past things when I used to feel like that when I would get stressed out about things like money or stressed out about us not being able to pay the bills, especially because it’s only one business for the whole income. It’s not like my husband has a different job that we could fall back on.

Joe Lenton: Yeah.

Rachel Owen: And also just having the burnout thing like the burnout thing is really, I mean, that’s real. And that’s what we definitely started experiencing with the weddings. So Covid was almost – in a lot of ways I see Covid as a blessing for us, and that it really made me slow down and say, “okay, I don’t need all of these weddings. Like, we can survive without it.” And it really showed me what I was sacrificing for the amount of things that we were doing. So really, to avoid things like burnout and those things that stress me out. I have this rule that we enacted about 5 years ago. If nobody is going to notice me doing something, if nobody is ever going to appreciate it, then I do not do that thing. So like when that comes to retouching like, if if this is going to be a 4 by 6, and it is not going to be large and nobody’s ever gonna notice this spot removal, or like, I’m removing these wrinkles out of the clothing. Then I am not going to do it. Now, if they’ve bought a 40 by 60, and that is gonna be noticed, then I will do those things. And just kind of really saying, okay, what, what do our clients need? And what are we doing that’s extra? That is beyond beyond what we need to do. And I – So we’re kind of at more of like a middle of the road business rather than being super high end. You know, having a 150 boudoir clients a year allows me to shoot like 3 times a week. So it’s just having a little bit more bulk in there where, you know we’re not averaging super high numbers. Last year we averaged just under $2,000. American. No, just over $2,000, American. And this year I’m going for 3,000. So it’s not like these super $10,000 clients, where I feel obligated to fix every little thing. So it allows me to kind of spend a little bit less effort and avoid that kind of burnout mentality, at least for me. That’s what it’s done.

Joe Lenton: Does that enable you to to keep everything in-house? Or do you find you need to outsource anything as a business?

Rachel Owen: We outsource very, very little. So I have a makeup artist. We have a few of them on staff. They’re not actually on staff. They’re 1099, which means they come in just for the makeup, and then they leave. So they’re not like full time employees.

Joe Lenton: Okay.

Rachel Owen: And we have a videographer that we have for the weddings, and we have a couple of photo booth people that we have for the weddings, but they just come in when they’re needed. The one thing that we did outsource this year was our marketing. We went with a company called Studio Digital from Australia, and that has been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, too, because they just I’d the greatest thing is, I don’t even know what they’re doing, and that’s the way that I like it! People ask me like, what are they doing? How are they marketing like? I don’t know, and I don’t care. The phone is ringing, that’s all I wanted. That’s yeah. So that’s been super helpful.

Joe Lenton: Yeah. As long as you’ve got that flow into the business of new leads, new clients, and that then how exactly they come in. Well, yeah, it’s nice when you don’t necessarily have to worry about this, that sort of thing, when you can find areas that you’re not so interested in the sort of things that can drain your energy potentially and get someone else to do it. Yeah, that can be that can be a real plus.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: So I said in the introduction that you’re known around the world for the various different awards you’ve won in various different competitions, and so on. What sort of role do competitions play for you? Other than just enjoying winning them, why, why do you enter competitions?

Rachel Owen: Yeah. So competition, I feel like, has been the single biggest thing that has improved my photography over the years. I remember going to some of these competitions and looking in the galleries specifically at WPPI. That was the first convention I’d ever gone to. And I just remember being like, wow! These images are incredible! And that was the year I told myself, like, I wanna take this craft to the highest level that I possibly can like, be the best that I can be. And I said, “okay, well, then, what does that look like?” If we’re gonna set a goal, it’s gotta be measurable. And I said, “you know I want to score the highest numbers that I can.” And after a few years of competing – cause, I’ve been competing since 2007, and I got really frustrated because I could not score above a 78 like I couldn’t get anything that would get into the gallery. And I said, “this is ridiculous! They probably know these people,” or some sort of like politicalness going on here or.

Joe Lenton: It’s a conspiracy! Yes, they only give the awards to their mates. Yeah.

Rachel Owen: Exactly. That’s exactly what I was thinking, and you know they favour a certain style. And then I went in the gallery, and I was looking around. And I saw one name specifically, and I knew he was from I believe he’s from Australia, Ryan Schembri, and I saw his name again and again and again. And then there were a few other names that I kept seeing again and again, and I was like, well, I really do think that this was all judged anonymously. So how are some people getting here again and again and again? There’s gotta be some sort of like method to this. And it took me a few years, but I was able to crack that, and I was able to like consistently score eighties, and just realizing that some of the things are in the technique. And then I said, Okay, I’m sick of scoring like 81. I want to get into the nineties now. So what is it that my work is missing? And that’s when I realized that storytelling is everything, especially in photo competition. And when you look at the things that like score 80, like you could write a little few sentences about them, and if they’re in the high eighties you might be able to write a paragraph about what’s going on, and if things are in the nineties and above, like, those are things where you could write like a novel about what is going on in the scene. So that was really the code. But in learning that I’ve been able to apply so much of that to my client work, because, like little things like, oh, that hand! The wrist is broken forward and not back. The judges would hate that, and then I don’t put it in my client work, you know, like the highlights and things. It’s all really transferred to everything, and really helped me grow as a photographer.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, they become, they become positive habits, then don’t they? Once you start looking for these things and seeing them, you can – it then seeps through to the rest of your work. So, did you manage to work all this out on your own? Did you have a mentor, or did you just talk to other photographers? How did you manage to crack the code, as you put it?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I sat through a lot of judging. Goodness, Jeff and I probably sat together through WPPI judging from like 2007 to 2015. Like, we did not leave the place, and we had this little game we would play where we would whisper to each other what we would think it would score, and we got pretty good at that. But then, wanting to move beyond that I took a composite workshop with Ben Shirk that really just lit a fire under me. And then I learned storytelling a lot from Luke and David Edmondson. And right now I have a little photographer Mastermind group. One of my friends said, “hey, can we start a little group just to critique each other on print competition?” And it’s for things that none of us are judges in, but it’s really great having other people at a high level be able to critique my work before it goes to competition. Because when you sit and look at for something for so long like you start missing things. When somebody with fresh eyes sees it. They see a whole world of things that you can’t see.

Joe Lenton: Totally. Yup, I get that you know, as a judge myself, you know, trained to look for these things, but yet, somehow, when it’s your own, you’ve seen it so many times you’re blind to it.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah, you can’t. You’re like jaded. And my favourite work is always my most recent work, which is not always the highest scoring. So I even ask people like what images they think I should enter into the competition. Because I’m not a good judge of my own work. I don’t think anybody is.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, it’s it’s difficult. Yeah, I think you’ve you’ve really put your finger on it there with saying how the images need to communicate somehow. There needs to be some kind of a story there, because there’s a certain level at which technical excellence becomes assumed, you know, within competitions. Once you can get to a certain standard, it’s assumed that technically, you’re gonna get it about right. That there are not going to be obvious errors in there anymore. And you just simply don’t progress to the next level unless you’ve got that extra something in there unless you’ve got that story. So, knowing that that’s the case, how do you then come up with that sort of story for your image? Is it something that the story comes first, and then you can build everything around it? Or is it – can you give us an idea of your sort of your thought process when you’re trying to create these things?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, for me, the story definitely comes first. I do mentorship and help with print competition and things. And a lot of people will ask me like, well, should I do this to the photograph, or should I do this? And I will say, “well, what message do you want to convey?” And then I’ll get that kind of blank stare. And I realize there, for the first time after the image has been created thinking about what they want the viewer to feel. And if you’re for the first time thinking about that after you have the image created, well, then, you’re like 10 steps behind. So having that story having that focus of where I want to go, what I want the viewer to feel when they look at the image. Well, then, all my choices are easy, because I can look and say, “well, which one gets my message across better?” So yeah, for me it’s definitely story first. And I don’t get my inspiration from photographers. I feel like that is what helps make my images unique and original. I look for like movies, sculpture, paintings, drawings. I like to go to the art show all the time. So just things like that. And then I often take pictures of things on my phone and I just have a little inspiration album on my phone that I will look at. It’s got hundreds of photos in it, but I feel like I have more ideas in my head that I could ever create in my lifetime.

Joe Lenton: Well, it’s good to have plenty of spares! When you’re creating a story or trying to get an image to communicate, for you is it about getting someone to enter into like a kind of a fantasy world? Or is it that something that you’re trying to communicate – a message? What are you normally trying to do with your images? Is it? Is it the the emotions that you’re trying to draw out?

Rachel Owen: Usually it’s the emotions I feel like. For the past 9 months I’ve been commissioned for a lot of things like I won the CG – the pro Prints Billboard campaign. So I had to make a campaign for that. And so then my goal was to make something that was gonna be really eye catching both for them to use in their advertising, but also for my billboard. And then I partnered with Baby Dream Backdrops on some things to advertise their backdrop. So it was creative work. But the goal was to make it eye catching, to get people to stop scrolling. Which is okay, like I enjoy doing it. But I’m really excited to get back to creating some things with some really deep meaning to me. And I lost my niece this past year, and I was doing this series. I started doing this series on – it was quite controversial, so I won’t go into all of it

Joe Lenton: Ok.

Rachel Owen: And now it’s become just about grief. And it’s become about telling a story of through a series of images, how the grief that specifically women go through after having lost a child. And so knowing that my intention is first, the story, like, I might enter a few of them into print competition. But I know that first, I want people to be able to connect with those emotions. And they’re kind of just unusual photographs. I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re going to be as pretty or well received in the photography community. I think they’ll probably do really well in art competitions. But that’s more just for me. So I can do anything that I want with them.

Joe Lenton: I think that sometimes there’s an idea that photography is always about beauty, about things that are pretty, about showing the nice things, a nice sunset. A nice looking man and woman. A nice looking house, a nice looking product. Don’t you think there’s a space in there for the for the nasty for the uncomfortable, though? Don’t you think we need to see that as well, and be challenged by it?

Rachel Owen: Yep, absolutely. And I think there’s a time to like even break the rules of photography, too. But at the same time I feel like having learned all these different skills like how to light like this, how to retouch like this. Like, just really keeping a versatility set of skills helps me do my images justice, cause I can pull out any one of those that’s gonna help me communicate this story at any time. But then, also, having known all the rules, having the freedom to break them with intentionality, that people can see that they were intentionally broken.

Joe Lenton: And the funny thing is, those sort of things can be very memorable. It’s like, if you think about like language, I tend to think of photos as being like a visual language, if you like, and you think of the the Star Trek motto, you know, “to boldly go…” That’s grammatically that’s wrong, you know it breaks the rules, but it’s one of those things that whether you’re into it or not, you’ve heard, and it kind of sticks and sometimes then going beyond the rules like that can actually help you to stand out. And it’s like knowing what the rules are and then thinking, “okay. But perhaps, actually, these rules are more sort of tools to help me be understood.” Rather than something that has to restrict you.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: I think that for me, that’s where I think some photographers go wrong is that by seeing them as rules it’s almost like these are chains I have to put on myself to make an image that’s acceptable. You think “No, see it as a tool!”

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah, I agree with that 100%. And even as you look at a lot of the modern day fashion, like, especially the Zara ads right now. That’s like the rules are completely broken. It’s not anything that would have been acceptable like 20 years ago, you know.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, we need to innovate. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it doesn’t. But you have to just be brave enough to try these things sometimes.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, I think it’s interesting looking at how some of your images you can see the influence from classical paintings. How you’ve taken on some of their use of colour, and also their use of sort of metaphor with items that are within an image. You know, when someone’s painting something, because nowadays, when we think with photography, we think about normally removing things, you know. Cloning something out. Healing brush to get rid of this. When someone was painting it, they would only put it in if it had meaning. 

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: So I guess in a way when we look at one of your images, we should look for meaning in everything that’s in there, would you say?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, there’s meaning in everything. And I hide a lot of things in the images, too. So yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of meaning.

Joe Lenton: Sort of where’s Wally? Kind of thing, is it?

Rachel Owen: Yup! Exactly. Yeah. My favourite painter, his name is Tim Cantor, he just has a new show like just 2 days ago in Amsterdam, and he will hide his wife’s name and his wife’s birthday throughout a lot of the paintings, and I’ve been working on hiding like numbers and different things like that in there, too. So that’s always fun when you can like hide it, and people barely see. But then, when they do, you see their eyes get real big, and they’re all excited. They notice something.

Joe Lenton: It’s one of the things that makes images like yours, on the one hand, a joy to judge. But, on the other hand, really difficult to judge, because in competitions, as you know, you don’t get 10 min to sit there and look at an image.

Rachel Owen: Yep.

Joe Lenton: You can’t spend a lot of time unpicking it all.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: You’ve got to be quite quick, but what it does to the to the judges is they can see there’s an intent here. There’s a story that’s starting to develop, and there’s that desire to stay with the image and want more from it, and that, I think, is a good way for people to think that they’re likely to score more if a judge can look at an image and think, yeah, seen that it’s pretty. It’s nice, but you know I’ve seen it. That’s it.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: It’s not likely to score on the really high end, you know, I think putting those that extra work in, even if it’s not all taken into consideration in the scoring initially. You’re providing things that are going to give lasting interest. Yeah, and especially for clients as well, you know, to have a picture up on the wall that they can keep seeing something new in.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah, that’s key. And I think, especially in judging, if you can, if you can give them something they’ve never seen before. And then there’s also a strategy to that and knowing are the judges judging together, or are they judging separately? So if it’s a traditional print competition, where the judges are all gonna be talking and discussing then I will enter images that have a little bit more of those hidden meanings, because I know that if I can just get one judge to get it and challenge it they’re gonna spend a ton of time on the image. And if they spend a lot of time, usually your score’s going up. Whereas if the competition, or even for client work if it’s just where they’re gonna be looking at it separately, then I’ll go more for impact rather than trying to put in specific things if it’s created specifically for that situation.

Joe Lenton: Hmm, yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah. I mean, when you’re actually creating the images there, clearly, a lot of it is composited in, it’s done adding bits in in Photoshop. So how much do you actually create the scene in real life, if you like? So is, is there, is there much that’s actually there at all, or is most of it added in afterwards?

Rachel Owen: No, most of it’s added in afterwards. I wish – so I started compositing because I didn’t have a lot of money to put towards photographs, and I don’t like to take the time to make sets and things, and then I am terrible, with always changing my mind. Like I definitely have the the clear purpose. But I’ll be like, I want the bird. I don’t want the bird. And I started making sets and things, and then realized compositionally like I did one with my son, the Copernicus one and I put all these items on the table, and I lined it all up. And I was like, this is my composition. It’s gonna be great. And then when I got into Photoshop I kept moving all the things different places to try and get your eye to move around the frame. And I was like I should have just shot these all separately, because it’s harder to now cut it out and move it. So, knowing that I’m like that, I would rather shoot all the things separately, because then I can tweak them just the tiniest little bit. Like 2 clicks moving an item can really change the whole dynamic of the composition.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, where things are placed and how it’s leading the eye – all of this all of this makes a difference. I think one of the reasons I asked is because you said you had some sort of influence from the Edmonsons. And of course they’re known for building incredible sets.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, they build incredible sets. And at their workshop they had like 3 different walls that they brought in. And they had – and so my studio, it was built 120 years ago, which is very old for something here in the United States. And like we just have one small door, and the ceilings are 8 foot. So I can’t like I can’t even bring in walls. So that’s where the compositing I started to photograph. I’ve always wanted to photograph the Thorn rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, and they keep telling me, “No.” But that was my thought – is like, I can’t travel to these great places or build these sets. If I start photographing things in miniature, then I can create them myself. But then I saw Ben Shirk’s work, and he doesn’t photograph miniature. He just takes photos of all his travels, and he puts it together, which is amazing.

Joe Lenton: So when you’re photographing things that you may use for a composite image like that how much notes and that are you taking? Because one of the things that can make or break a composite image, of course, is, does the focal length and the lighting match up everywhere? So when you’re shooting your kind of your own sort of stock library, if you want to call it that, how nerdy are you about making sure all the settings are the same? Or do you do you go twisting things around and distorting them in Photoshop?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I wish I could be nerdy where I didn’t have to twist and and do things in Photoshop. I end up having to do it a lot. But I do have a couple of rules when I’m out shooting stock photography. So, I have my spider holster, which is what allows me to be able to take my camera so many places, and I try to keep the lens millimeter 50 if I can. A lot of times the museums and places I’ve had to go like even wider but what I will prefer to do if there’s not too many people like on the sides of me is that I’ll take a shot and then move over and go all the way around like to stitch them together. So take a shot to the left, up, right down, and, you know, get a whole circle. So then I can stitch things together. But, I also try to just keep my camera at eye level. So then, when I’m photographing a subject, my first grab is 50mm at eye level. Unless it’s been very planned out specifically, but that helps most of my stock images actually be usable. And then I also, if I really like, like a background or a wall or room. I will shoot it at 3 different like focal planes. So like I’ll focus on the back wall, I’ll focus in the middle, and then I’ll focus something close to me. So I know that like, if I really love it now, I’ve got 3 different like bokehs that I could put the subject into.

Joe Lenton: That’s interesting. Yeah. So rather than having to worry about how high the tripod was, or something like that, it’s just being careful you don’t wear some extra high heels that day, otherwise your eye level’s different.

Rachel Owen: Exactly. Yeah.

Joe Lenton: You don’t have your photograph shoes where you put them on when you’re going out to take photos, and you know you’re at the right height?

Rachel Owen: Right? Yeah. No. Everything is pretty much my eye level.

Joe Lenton: And when you, when you photograph these elements, for your image, do you then have in mind what you want, and go and look for it? Or do you just collect images of things you think are interesting, and then gradually bring them into a composition?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, most of the time I’ll collect things that I think are interesting. It’s like there are a couple of things like I’ve been looking for a rock wall for like a couple of years, and I just found one in I was in Canada a couple of weeks ago, and there was like the perfect rock wall. And I was like, Oh, I’ve been looking for this. So I already know what I’m gonna composite that into. So rarely like I’ve got a few things like I’ve also been looking for like a tight mausoleum with glass on each side, which I don’t think I’m gonna find here in the States. I think I’m gonna have to go to Europe to get that the way that I want it to be 

Joe Lenton: At least you can put that on business expenses, then can’t you?!

Rachel Owen: Right, exactly.

Joe Lenton: Europe, research trip.

Rachel Owen: Right! But yeah, most of the time I will spend time going through the stock images kind of seeing what images follow the message or whatever I’m trying to purvey – portray.

Joe Lenton: So would you have a rough sort of timeframe that you would estimate it takes you to put one of these images together from start to finish? Or or is, does it vary so much that you know you can’t really say?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, it varies hugely. I like to record what I’m doing like, just put the screen on record and let it go. And then sometimes I’ll play those in fast motion, because people like to see all the work. But I also like to go back and see all the work that was done. Like, if it’s just a person like 3 quarter length, where I don’t have to worry about perspective, like a person in front of an interesting wall where I don’t see their feet. Those are usually just like a couple hours. If I’m adding in things, maybe like 4 hours at the most. But if it’s like a full like my son underwater, I wanna say that was like 40 hours or something ridiculous. But it’s a lot of putting something in and then sitting back and be like, “hmm! Do I like that? Do I not like that ?” Where I feel like I could repeat it like twice as fast as what it took me to originally make all my decisions.

Joe Lenton: You’ve got some on your website, I think, haven’t you? Where people can actually play a run through of some of your images.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, on my Instagram. There’s a bunch, too. There’s more in my Instagram. But rachelowen.com has a lot of the making of or behind the scenes.

Joe Lenton: Yeah. So then I’d like you to just tell us a little bit about the book project that you had on that came out of the lockdown.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: Could you say, say a little bit about that?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I did a series of images, and I called it “response.” And it is a response to the 2020 Covid pandemic. And it is basically like a visual metaphor of the social and political melee that went on during the 2020 Covid pandemic. And if I were to describe what each little symbolism means, it’s actually incredibly controversial. But I specifically tried to design that series in a way that whatever your political feelings or associations are, you could see your side glorified more than the other side. Which has actually been really successful. Yeah. And just asking people like, Well, how do you feel? And it’s so funny, cause like I think of it one way. But I’ve had people who think the opposite of me being like this is the greatest image ever, and they see the exact opposite of what I see.

Joe Lenton: Okay, that’s interesting. Yeah.

Rachel Owen: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s just kind of these weird – I went to Death Valley here in the United States, in California and it was just total isolation. We went there during lockdown and camped and there was just like nothing, and it had these just desert planes and this cracked earth. And I was like, this is exactly symbolic of what the world is going through. So I took all these stock images, and then did models in the studio and created these visual kind of weird composites. But they’re kind of fun.

Joe Lenton: Sounds sounds interesting, exploring, experience which is, of course, classically what artists, writers, sculptors, and so on do – take life’s experiences and try and make something out of them. It’s often the way, I suppose, of how a story having a stronger emotional and genuine storytelling context is that – content – is that it’s coming out of you. It’s coming through you. It’s something you have experienced. So therefore it’s not just an abstract idea.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Joe Lenton: So the the book is that is that available in print? Or is that something which people can see online at all?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, it’s available in print. You can go to my website, rachelowen.com Right now it’s only available there. We’ve talked about putting it on Amazon. But I still have several copies, so I can ship that all over the world if anyone’s interested in seeing it. And it has a lot of the – like it’ll show the whole image and then to kind of give people hints towards the Easter eggs that I was putting in there. It has zoomed in places on the book. Yeah, so you can also see a lot of the images on Instagram. But if you get the book, you’re gonna get the writing and more of the explanation, and like more keys into the story.

Joe Lenton: Sounds fascinating. Yeah. So how do you keep things fresh? And how do you keep learning and educating yourself as a photographer? Is, is that getting more difficult as you reach a higher standard?

Rachel Owen: Hmm! I don’t think so. I – for me every year I focus in on one thing that I really want to improve for the year. For the past 2 years it’s been working on my colour and having more of a cinematic colour palette. Like that one was so difficult for me, it actually took 2 years. So I feel like, I like, Okay, this is where I want to be. And before that it was compositing and just different things. But this year my focus has been really going back to creating images with significant meaning. I feel like I’ve been commissioned to do so many things that are eye-catching. I’m like, I wanna go back to creating things that have real – like the book that I made for Covid – real deep meeting. So that’s kind of my focus this year. But yeah, I feel like there’s always like – I remember being younger and thinking like, “oh, when I get this and this and this, I will have arrived.” And I’ve achieved most of those goals now, and I’m like, I don’t feel like I’ve arrived like I don’t feel like I’m this great photographer that I always wanted to be. Like, there’s so much further to go, so I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.

Joe Lenton: That’s that’s the funny thing, isn’t it? You never do arrive. I think it is – the danger is, if you think you have, then you stop learning and you stop doing new things.

Rachel Owen: Yes. That’s the moment you’re sliding back down is when you think you’ve arrived. Yeah.

Joe Lenton: Yeah. So that’s a warning to anybody out there who thinks they might be getting there! So with your images, with with meaning, creating stories around images. Is it something that you like to do? Do you like to do a body of work quite regularly? So you’ve done the the ones like for Covid. So what you’re doing now, are you again working on another body of work, or do you generally work on individual projects?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I – now I like to do a body of work. Because I took a adult continuing education class in 2019 at the Art Institute of Chicago and the art teacher looked at me and she goes, why don’t you try a series? And I was like, what’s a series? Like I had never even considered that as a concept and she challenged me to do that. And all of a sudden, when I took one concept and tried to see if I could evolve it 6 different ways. But all the pictures to say the same thing, and to have, like a like a flow to the images it really just like changed my world. And when some of these concepts are so deep, like one photo, just can’t do it justice. Like saying it 6 different ways, or 12 different ways, or whatever really resonates with people differently. But it also solidifies things in my mind, because sometimes I’m like, I can’t decide if I should do this, or maybe I should do this. And it’s like, Okay, well, do this this image, and then I’ll save that other idea for the next image. And if any any photographers out there haven’t worked in a series, especially for non client work, I would definitely recommend trying it and see how it just changes your brain around creating concepts.

Joe Lenton: And it gives you an opportunity to test ideas as well and see, well which way resonates with people more? How how could I get this person to connect with this topic a little bit better? And if you’ve got a series like that, yeah, you can try slightly different approaches along the way with that. Yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah. I mean, let’s just rewind in your career a little bit and go back to when you were doing mainly weddings with Jeff. A lot of photographers when they start out, start out thinking, “oh, I need to make some money. I’ll do weddings.” Very few of them end up where you guys did. You know, very few of them end up doing well and seeming to enjoy it. And and it’s all going great. There’s a lot of people that start out with that and then tail off, and or they do something different after a while. What do you think then it was about weddings that appealed to you and that made it work for you two?

Rachel Owen: Yeah. Oh, there’s multiple answers to that. So I feel like the weddings – it was easier for us to get into that, because when I met Jeff and we worked, we worked at one wedding studio, and then we moved to a different wedding studio, and we worked for other people, and the greatest part is that I got to like cut my teeth, so to speak, on somebody else’s company. So any complaints that I had like they would tell me, but lucky enough I didn’t have to deal with the customers complaining, because ultimately, like as you’re learning, you’re going to get complaints and some weddings are crazy. So just having somebody somebody else to book me and they would sometimes book us like Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and then we got to learn 3 weddings, and I also for a year before they would give me my own wedding I went out as an assistant photographer. So, having learned all of the different complaints, and Jeff was also the director of photography, so he was the one specifically who had to deal with complaints. So then, when we opened our own company we were able to already know how to do that, but also how to set expectations where we could avoid any potential complaints. So that made our life way easier, having had done that. But also there’s another thing to be said about like when when you put all your eggs in one basket like failure is not an option. So we didn’t –  it was really appealing to us to have like a year in advance, like, okay. Worst case scenario. Our business is at least going to make this much. Cause brides around here will book like one to 3 years in advance, and then we at least knew. But I find that the average wedding photographer stays in weddings for 11 years. It’s about 11 years where you start to get really like, it’s such a physical job where you’re like, okay, I’m tired. This is kind of over it. And I rarely see people stay longer than 11 years, but I really feel like, if you – the key to staying in that is again to have that gratitude and know, like this is somebody’s wedding day like this is the happiest they’re ever – well, maybe not ever – gonna be. But like this is such a special day for them, and to be invited as like part of the family, for a day and capture these moments is just really special that they chose me to do that.

Joe Lenton: So part of the skill set in a way is, is learning to deal with complaints if you get them. But and being able to develop a you know, a way of dealing with them in a in a positive way,  and also then being able to anticipate when things might go wrong then. So you say, that’d be part of a skill set. You need to develop to be a wedding photographer?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, a hundred percent. I wouldn’t at least with weddings. So weddings around here, if you’re in Chicago, it’s an average of $80,000 for the wedding is what they’re spending. And if you screw that up like you can get a lawsuit like it can be really really bad, and that’s when I find a lot of wedding photographers end it is cause they got a complaint, and they didn’t know how to handle it. And then that’s like they get a bad reputation. And then that’s the end. So yeah, I think if you can, I always advise people if you want to get into weddings you’ve gotta work for somebody else first. And maybe even travel or live somewhere else for just a year, a wedding season, so you can learn like outside of your competition. Cause a lot of photographers aren’t willing to train somebody local for just a year. Whereas if you go a few hours away you might find someone to train you for a year, and then you can go back.

Joe Lenton: Yeah. So would there be any types of people that you would say, maybe weddings wouldn’t be for you?

Rachel Owen: Well I – you have to also kind of have a thick skin for weddings, too, because you have to remember, like people are very stressed out. And you’re the only stranger in the room. Like, they’re with their closest family, and they’re gonna be exactly who they are, which I think is great being able to see people in that situation, but you know they can also be snappy, or you know they spend so much money on this, and it’s not what they want. So you have to have kind of a thick skin and understanding that. And you also have to let go of – if you’re a photographer who is really like this is my style, and I stay true to my style. You you’re not gonna survive that long in weddings, in my opinion. I find that, like, you have to have an attitude of this is the brides Day and whatever they want. I’ve been hired to give them a product that they are looking for and the more you can keep that a little bit versatile and make them feel special where it’s about the photos you’re creating for them as opposed to you, sticking to your style. But I also feel like if you can handle photography and the amount of people that that is, then you could probably also handle weddings.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, fair enough. Yeah. So you then went on to do more of the different portrait genres, and quite a few of those different ones, as you were saying, earlier sort of children, family portraits, and so on. How did you make the decision to do that? Was it a business decision first and foremost? Was it something you were interested in exploring? What made you sort of start to transition into doing some of these other genres as well?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, that was just purely you know, being in my early twenties and needing money. So before I got the job at the wedding studio. The first job I had was at the Picture People, and then another portrait studio in the Mall, where we did hundreds of weddings and – not weddings – portrait sessions. And there’s nothing like – so we started on film cameras, and we had the Mamiya 6 something, and it was you had 9 frames on a shot, and they wanted 5 sellable poses in 9 frames in a 7 min session, and that was the best education in the world, because, like you didn’t push that button unless you needed to, and if you had the lowest sales average like they were talking to you about, why, your photography wasn’t up to par. So that was a great education like within just a few years I’d done thousands of family portrait sessions, and then once I had my son, I moved into weddings, cause that was more financially stable. But then, naturally, people started asking for portraits, and I was like, well, I have that skill set, so there’s no reason that I wouldn’t that I would turn that money down. And then also, I find that like I get really like kind of bored and restless. So it seems like since we started our own studio every 3 years I’ve kind of added in a new genre but now, with the composite photography, I think I’m just adding more genres of that, because, yeah, we’ve added everything into the studio that we could do.

Joe Lenton: So the slightly restless spirit that makes you want to explore more. then? Yeah.

Rachel Owen: Yep.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think I can relate to that. I’ve photographed a variety of different genres since I first started out as a beginner, and I’ve ended up in the kind of products mainly, which is the very sort of nerdy introvert thing to do stuck in the studio on your own, and nobody has to talk to you, kind of thing. So yeah, it started out with landscapes and again, they don’t talk back. So there was, there was a – that, I suppose, is about the theme of most of my work has been most of what I photographed doesn’t tend to complain.

Rachel Owen: But oh, man, Joe, I have such respect for you because I cannot do product photography to save my life. Like, we’ve tried a couple of times like we had to do like wedding boutonnieres or something, and I was like, I, I can’t handle this like the amount of perfection and detail. And I have a lot of respect for what you do, especially those watches. They’re amazing.

Joe Lenton: I, for some reason I like it. Its that kind of being able to spend time crafting something, having time with it with people is a luxury, you know. If you’re trying to take head shots of business people they haven’t got all day. If you’re trying to take pictures of people at weddings, they’ve got drinks to go and have. They’ve got other things to go and do. They’re waiting for food, you know. You haven’t got that luxury of time. It’s quite sort of pressured in that respect. And I think you you’ve got to be able to work under pressure and work well with people to do those sort of genres I think.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely true. I think.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, so yeah, product photography is a totally different ball game, really.

Rachel Owen: Yeah. Different set of skill set different set of challenges, still very challenging, just in a different way.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, we we do, you know, compositing quite a bit. But a lot of it is just cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning.

Rachel Owen: Yeah. All those little specks of dust.

Joe Lenton: Everything has to look perfect, you know, and when you zoom in close on something you suddenly realize. Yeah, I did clean it. And I did spray it with some compressed air, to make sure there wasn’t anything on it. But still something there!

Rachel Owen: Yeah, absolutely.

Joe Lenton: Nothing is ever quite as clean as you as you thought it might be.

Rachel Owen: Nothing is ever as clean as Photoshop, right?

Joe Lenton: No, quite, no. But the weird thing is, when I started doing CGI, it’s naturally 100% clean.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: Which doesn’t actually look quite right, either.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: The weird thing is, you’re kind of getting rid of crud with the photos, but you’re kind of having to add it in with the CGI to make it look real and not fake.

Rachel Owen: Yeah.

Joe Lenton: So, you’ve got this strange process where you’re doing a composite where you’ve got a product with the CGI background, and you try to what make one bit look better, and the other bit look a bit less perfect, so that they sit together.

Rachel Owen: I never thought of that. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Joe Lenton: Well, you know, that could be an idea for you, along with your composite stuff, start creating things in CGI.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, that would be really cool. I’d love to learn that. Maybe that’ll be the next thing.

Joe Lenton: Start sculpting some dragons or something. Yeah.

Rachel Owen: Right.

Joe Lenton: do you do photography much outside of your business? Is there a lot that you do for fun? So I mean, some people often do something completely different. So some people might enjoy just photographing, you know, butterflies and birds and things like that for a bit of fun when they go out on a walk. Is photography something that very much stays in the business, or is it come out in other areas of life for you as well?

Rachel Owen: No, not like taking pretty photos, but you know, I feel like the composite photography and creating things that are just for me are really the hobby. So I do have cameras a lot when I travel, especially if I’m never going back to that place. But it’s never just to like, have a nice memory of this place. It’s always just for stock photos that I can use to create something really cool later. But no, not into birds, or anything like that.

Joe Lenton: So does that mean you have – don’t have many family photos either, then? Because a lot of people, when you see them on travelling, they take pictures of each other often in the way of the landmark that we’re trying to photograph.

Rachel Owen: Yes.

Joe Lenton: It can sometimes be the photographer’s curse, or you turn to your husband or your wife, and you say, get out the way I’m trying to take a nice photo of it.

Rachel Owen: You know, it’s funny, cause I am like – if I’m going to take a photo like a portrait of a person like I want the good light and the long lens, and I need the reflectors and all the stuff, and I’m either like a hundred percent, or I’m like, No, just take it with the iphone like the iphone is great. We could use that. So it is one extreme or the other. And usually when we’re traveling, it’s all – if I want to capture the memory, I usually end up doing that on my phone because it’s just more accessible. I can put it on social media right away. And yeah, that’s usually more my purpose.

Joe Lenton: well, it sounds like you’ve got quite a lot going on with your photography and your and your creativity so sounds like creativity just runs through your veins. Really.

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I love it.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, it’s fantastic. And where would you suggest people go if they want to see a little bit more of your imagery if they want to get into your style and find and find out a bit more? Where would be the best places to keep up with the latest work?

Rachel Owen: Yeah, I am most active on Instagram. That’s where I’m always posting the latest things. So I’m rachelowen613 on Instagram. I’m also on Facebook as well. My, I have my website, which is rachelowen.com Rachel Owen O-W-E-N without the S. A lot of people add on an S on there. But it’s just Owen. And on my website you can find more. That’s where the book is available for purchase. I have different things like image critique. If someone wants an image critique before a competition, I also have like private mentorship, where I can help guide people to create a whole image. And I’m doing my first workshop this coming August. It’s gonna be August eleventh through fourteenth here in the Chicago area. We’re just out in the suburbs, so it’s not nearly as expensive as actual Chicago but that is going to be all about how to tell a story through photography, and it’s not gonna have a ton of Photoshop or anything. More just like how you can use colour to convey a mood, expression, composition, just different ways to communicate specific messages.

Joe Lenton: That sounds great. Yeah, really interesting. And that’s – information about that is that available on your website as well?

Rachel Owen: That’s available on my website, rachelowen.com as well.

Joe Lenton: Well, it’s been really great talking to you, and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your story with us. Thanks, Rachel, for being willing to be on the podcast.

Rachel Owen: Thank you Joe. This was a joy. I really I really always love talking to you.

Joe Lenton: That’s great. Thank you very much. And thank you everybody for listening to the Focused Professional podcast.

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