You don’t have to go out in search of your style, it is something that already exists within you
With her first book just out and an armful of blue chip clients, Dixie Dixon is a fast-rising star of American fashion photography. Keith Wilson finds out why she likes Wes Anderson movies, dislikes zoom lenses and never leaves home without her hat on…
With her big, bright smile, blonde hair and ever-present hat, Dixie Dixon is one of Nikon’s most recognizable brand ambassadors. Her name is catchy too, though she was actually born Lyndsay and given the nickname Dixie in sixth grade while playing soccer, as there was more than one Lyndsay on the team. Naturally, the name stuck and, soon after, Dixie took hold of her first Nikon camera. That stuck too. Nikon and Dixie have been together ever since… You were just 12 when you were given your first Nikon, an FG. How significant a moment was this? That’s kind of what started it all. Because my dad shot Nikon he passed down that Nikon camera. It was an all-manual camera. I picked it up and it just felt right. I had always been looking at picture books, I always loved pictures, so it felt kind of natural after picking up that camera to start shooting. The rest is kind of history. Did you study photography at college, then? I actually studied entrepreneurship, so a business major. I would have loved to have studied just photography but I knew that I would have to know the business side in order to go make a living from doing it. So, I kind of got more expertize in the field by assisting a lot of photographers while doing the business degree in school. That sounds very smart. So did you start your own photography business while still in college? I did, absolutely. I started out shooting and assisting a wedding photographer, then, in my senior year, I was at a photography class and I Googled ‘fashion photography study abroad’ and there was one that came up, in London. So I applied for the programme, got accepted and ended up studying with a world-renowned fashion photographer, which was when I fell in love with fashion. So that’s how I got into the fashion side, but everything started over in the UK. I loved it! How long were you in London and who were you working with? I was in London for about three months. I worked with Jeff Licata. He’s a New York photographer but he goes over to Europe, including London, every year to do shoots and I was part of a programme that takes 12 students a year over to London, so it was a pretty surreal and amazing experience. I got to shoot my first model in London and then we went to Prague for a few days. I just loved it and that whole trip was when I really decided that niche of photography was my passion. Have you stuck with Nikon ever since you started with the FG? Yeah, I have. It’s so funny because I work with Nikon and I’m a Nikon ambassador and everyone is like, ‘Did you really always shoot with Nikon?’ I’m one of those rare birds that has literally stuck with the brand my entire career. I’ve always loved their lenses, the Nikkor glass, and it’s nice when you learn a system and it’s just second nature when they upgrade the cameras and you switch from one body to the next.
I applied for the programme and ended up studying with a world-renowned fashion photographer
Of course, things have changed a lot since the FG, so what would I find in your kit bag today for a typical shoot?
I have the Nikon D810 and the D5, those are my two workhorse cameras. I only shoot prime lenses. I like to do my own walking zoom, I feel like it’s more creative. I have a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, the 180mm, which is an old film lens that I love, the 200mm and the 300mm.
Do you have a desert island lens?
That’s so hard. It changes but currently it’s the new Nikkor 105mm f/1.4. It’s so crazy sharp, it’s a beautiful portrait lens.
Do you have a particular lighting setup to distinguish your style of fashion photography?
Yes, I think so. I love to do backlight a lot. It makes everyone look really beautiful. Everyone looks great in backlighting usually, so you get a nice hair light and then I might bounce some light back into their faces with a reflector. I always use my fill light from the sun side, as opposed to filling from the opposite side, so it makes everything look more natural. Even the shots that are actually lit with strobe lighting tend to look more like they’ve been lit with natural light. I don’t like an overly lit look.
What is your preference – to shoot in a studio or out on location?
Oh, location for sure. Studio is great if you need a really controlled environment. What I love about location is that there are always serendipitous moments that happen with the lighting and the location and the model, the mix of the three. There’s always a variable there. Sometimes you get things that were unexpected and I think that’s what makes photography so much fun sometimes, getting something that was beautifully unexpected, the happy accident shot. You end up with that more on location because everything is not quite as controlled.
I always use my fill light from the sun side, as opposed to filling from the opposite side, so it makes everything look more natural
Perfect Fashion & Lifestyle
Photography. How did the idea come about and why did you decide that now was the right time?
That’s a good question. I was speaking at the Nikon booth at PhotoPlus Expo about three years ago and Octopus Publishing saw me speak and we grabbed a coffee afterwards and they said, ‘You should do a book on all your content,’ so we kept in touch for a couple of years and my schedule is always so busy, and then this past year they say, ‘Are we going to do this book?’ and now is a good time.
It literally is the book I wished I had when I was first starting because I really had to learn everything as I went. It’s about how to break into the fashion and commercial world if you’re just starting from scratch, or maybe transferring over from portrait or wedding photography. It also talks a lot about my story and how I got started. There’s also a lot about the industry, my lighting, basically everything I know is in that book. I put everything out there and didn’t hold anything back. It was a good experience to get to write that.
How do you manage your workflow?
I have it down to a system, and basically when I’m on set I’m shooting tethered to a computer and a lot of the clients like to see the images come up and say if they want to tweak things. Usually, I’ll have a digital guy on set and he’s backing up to three G-Tech portable drives. So, we’ll have three different backups on set, and then I’ll usually take a drive home, the client will take one home as back up and then my digi tech guy will take one home, so they’re all in different locations. Then, when I get back to the studio I have an archive drive and a live work drive and they’re two G-Tech Studios and they’re 16 terabytes apiece, so they’re pretty massive. I’ll copy all the images we shot onto each of those drives and then one off-site. I usually don’t touch the archive drive, I just edit from the live work.
How much editing and retouching do you do? Is that something you do yourself or do you have a helping hand as well?
Yeah, absolutely. I used to do all of it myself but I’ve gotten to the point that if the client has a budget I love to have a professional retoucher edit the images. I have a couple of favourite retouchers that I send my work to and they do an even better job than I can do, especially with beauty photography, like getting out the small little hairs and tweaking the pores, that kind of stuff. So, usually I’ll send it to a retoucher and they’ll send it back and then I’ll do the final tweaks and the colour. I like to control that last step.
Fashion and lifestyle is a big industry, with lots of players and photographers, and changing trends and influences. Who or what are the biggest influences on the pictures you try to make?
I always go back to the fashion photography masters like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Paolo Roversi. I always look to their work because I think it has a timeless feel. Even the stuff they shot way back still looks current. It doesn’t have that super trendy fashion look, it’s more cinematic and more classic. That’s always what I’ve been drawn to, that beautiful cinematic kind of look. There
I feel more artistic wearing my hat. It’s kind of like my photography costume, I get into my photography character and shoot
are so many amazing photographers out there. I find them every day on Instagram. There’s just so much inspiration out there, the hard part is honing in and figuring out which things to be inspired by, and start including it in your work. One thing that’s impossible to ignore about you is that you have a very fine collection of hats. How did this start? [Laughs] You know, it started, oh gosh, I saw pictures of me when I was little wearing hats. When I was five years old I was wearing hats in my school pictures. Ultimately, my mom has been a really big inspiration and she said, ‘You know, you really need to brand yourself.’ She’s really good at fashion and branding: ‘You really need to do something over and over again because you don’t just want to be a normal blonde girl photographer. You love hats, why don’t you start wearing hats at all of your shoots?’ So, I started wearing hats and now it’s funny because I can’t shoot without a hat on. It’s just become such a huge part of me. I think it makes me more creative in a weird way. I feel more artistic wearing my hat. It’s kind of like my photography costume, I get into my photography character and go shoot! Do you have a favourite? I do, but I have so many, it changes. For a while there I was wearing those driving caps but now I’m into… They’re kind of like Fedoras, with a feather on the side. It evolves. If I find a new hat style that works I then end up buying way too many of them. I probably have over 50 hats and they’re all in my house on a shelf in a row. When I’m not shooting, I won’t wear them. Sometimes I do, but I’ve got to give my hair a break! What has been your proudest moment so far? Oh man! There’s a couple. When I got to be a Nikon USA Ambassador, that was a really exciting moment, and working with the brand that I have always loved. The other moment, right after school, I got to meet a producer for a TV show and he ended up signing me on to be the stills photographer for this docu-reality travel show. I did that for four years after college and basically I shot swimsuit models for this TV show. That was a really huge moment because I got to discover my style as a photographer, and this was after I studied abroad in London. It was called Get Out. It was on for seven seasons and I was the stills photographer for it and we’d do shoots on the beach, so getting to work on that show was definitely a huge moment. It was so much fun. Okay, what’s been the most embarrassing moment? I think it was probably on my first campaign. It was for a shoe company and I had just upgraded my camera and I showed up on set and for some reason my camera was on Auto ISO and it was setting everything to 1600. At the time, digital cameras weren’t as evolved, so it was going to be super grainy and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how to get it off that setting. So, 20 people are on set, it’s my first big job and I’m freaking out! I grab my bag with the camera manual without the client seeing and I run into the restroom and I’m literally sitting in the stall going through the camera manual trying to get it off the setting right
before the shoot! I couldn’t figure it out. Both my assistants are Canon shooters, they didn’t know how to work Nikon. I think I even called my mom from the restroom: ‘What am I going to do?’ I was so stressed out I literally couldn’t think straight. Eventually, when I got out there, my two assistants had miraculously figured out how to get my camera to the right setting. The rest of the day went great, but it was scary moment and I felt like an idiot.
The subtitle of your book is Secrets of Perfect Fashion & Lifestyle
Photography, so what’s your number one secret that you’d pass on to someone wanting to succeed in the world of fashion and lifestyle photography?
That’s tricky. There are so many little things that you call secrets, but I would say that a lot of people think they have to go out and find their style in fashion, or find their style in photography, and really you don’t have to go out in search of your style. Your style is something that already exists within you. The more that you get to know yourself and the more you shoot, your style will show itself organically. I mean, you’ll start seeing things come up that you do over and over again that end up being your style. So, the secret to finding your style in photography is really just to shoot all the time, shoot things that you love and your style will evolve naturally – it’s not something that you have to force.
Lifestyle shoot Well-cast models can bring energy to the set; Nikon D3X, 135mm f/2
Deliberate haze A window gives an ethereal look; Nikon D810, 180mm f/2.8
Wide-angle Dixie used a wide-angle lens to fit both the model’s hands in the frame; Nikon D200, 17-35mm f/2.8 Next page Cinematic style Dixie’s work often exhibits a filmic quality; Nikon D810, 85mm f/2.8
Light setup A beauty dish creates strong shadows; Nikon D3X, 105mm f/2.8 Portfolio shoot A fast shutter speed freezes movement; Nikon D5, 58mm f/1.4 Black and white A mono conversion had more impact than the colour image; Nikon D3X, 50mm f/1.4