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PPD Master Series: Dixie Dixon's Passion for Fashion

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday June 14, 2017


Like a lot of talented and successful photographers, Dallas, Texas-based commercial fashion shooter Dixie Dixon  knew from a very early age that photography was going to be her life’s passion. In Dixon’s case though, she says she knew it even before she had begun taking pictures. “I always knew that I wanted to be a photographer. When I was little, before I had a camera, I would look through magazines and I didn’t even read them,” she says. “I just looked at the pictures and tore out the cool ads that I liked. I think it was always in my soul to do photography.”

When she was just 12 her dad gave Dixon her first camera, a Nikon FG, and by the time she was in high school she had landed a job shooting the local little league teams and from then on photography was a constant part of her life. During college, she was assisting at weddings and doing event photography and ended up starting her own business while she was still in college. “I started out by shooting friends and family, and photographing for anyone who would pay me, that was really the beginning,” she says.

It was during a junior year abroad in college, however, that she was exposed to fashion photography. “I spent that summer in London and Prague and I studied with world-renowned fashion photographer Jeff Licata,” says Dixon. “Jeff shot for brands like Calvin Klein and Valentino and that’s when I really decided on the niche of photography that I loved. I got to see how a team of people come together and I think that’s what I really fell in love with, working with a group of people. I’m very much an introvert and I think that fashion photography and working with a team got me to be more extroverted and that was a kind of cool, fun growing experience.”

It was a decision that she made after graduating college, however, that really sealed her business and creative fate. “I applied for an investment job right out of college and I ended up getting the job and then turning it down. One of my mentors said to me, ‘If you’re going to pursue photography, now is the time to do it, before you get locked in a certain lifestyle.’ So I ended up going after a career in photography and I’ve been shooting ever since.”

Today Dixon spends her days shooting both commercial fashion and editorial fashion assignments for clients including Virgin Pulse, Florsheim, Disney, James Avery Jewelry, Magpul, Nikon, Profoto and G-Technology®. Her assignments have taken her to places as far flung as Cannes, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Ibiza, and Barcelona. I recently had the chance to talk with Dixon about her style of shooting, her love of shooting on location with big crews and the challenges of managing a rapidly growing international reputation. We also talked about the practical and logistical aspects of such high-intensity assignments and her use of G-Technology  gear in safeguarding that work.

PPD: You’ve had tremendous success at a very early age, how did you grow your business so quickly?

DD: My first real big break in the industry was when I got hired a few years out of college to shoot for a TV show called Get Out, a docu-reality travel show where I would go all over the world and shoot models for the show. I was actually in the show as well as shooting all the stills and advertising for that show. I wasn’t one of the hosts, but I was the photographer in the show, so they actually showed me at work in a lot of the photo shoots. You got to see the back of my head a lot! The show ran about 17 seasons and I was on about eight seasons of it.

PPD: Did working on the TV show expose you to a lot of the potential of what lifestyle and fashion shooting could be like?

DD:  Yes, absolutely. That was my first experience working with a large crew and we had a motorhome on the beach and all of these people working together, so if definitely opened up my world in that way. It also led me to book other clients and I ended up getting an agent pretty soon after that who booked me for my first ad campaign for a shoe company in Los Angeles. That was my first real advertising campaign after the TV show.

PPD: How did you land the job on the show?

DD: One of my good friends is a very talented wedding cinematographer and I met her when I was in college. She started editing for the show and she knew they were looking for a still photographer and she ended up referring me to the show’s producer. I met with him and he liked my work and ended up hiring me to shoot for a different TV show called Doheny Models. I thought it was a really fun job and I told him if he had any other TV shows to call me and I’d be there. The next week he ended up flying me out to Miami to work on “Get Out.”


PPD:  There is a quote on your site where you refer to your work in fashion and beauty photography as a “beautiful illusion.” Why do you describe it that way?

DD:  I think of it as an illusion because in fashion and commercial photography everything is so well planned out before the shoot. The hair, the make up, the wardrobe, the lighting, the location, all of these things are incredibly orchestrated before the shoot in order for natural moments to happen on the set. It’s almost like creating a dream world and then letting things happen. It’s all a big illusion that you’re bringing to life. In real life, you normally don’t have the ideal lighting and an ideal person and an ideal situation waiting for you. I really enjoy creating that dreamworld.

PPD: You have a very sophisticated grasp of lighting in both technical and creative terms, where did you learn so much about how to light?

DD:  In college I took some photography classes and I learned a lot about the basics of natural light and a little about studio lighting, but honestly, I was pretty intimidated by studio lighting. When I first got out of college I called myself a “natural light” shooter for a while because I was so afraid of using artificial light. Eventually I realized that I wanted to pursue fashion photography and a lot of fashion is done in the studio and so I really needed to learn master lighting. I ended up renting a studio in Dallas and luckily the studio manager, his name is Kauwuane Burton, was very helpful and is an exceptionally talented photographer. I would bring him fashion pictures from magazines and I would ask him how they were done. He would guide me in the direction of how a particular photo was lit and he was really helpful in teaching me the basics. I ended up sharing a studio space with him for a while and he was a really great teacher and helped me along. Lighting is one of my biggest passions in photography.

PPD:  Do you do all of the lighting set ups yourself or do you have lighting assistants?

DD:  Recently I’ve been doing a lot of commercial work with big crews so I do have a dedicated incredible lighting technician for all of my shoots. We work as a team which allows me to get the shots much quicker and that’s important because we’re always on a huge time crunch on the day of the shoots. My lighting tech is a guy named Eric and he’s a really amazing person. He’s been doing lighting for more than 20 or 25 years and is one of my best friends. I always think of that saying that if you hire people that are smarter than you that you’ll be even more successful.  Also, if you work around people you enjoy, and do work you love, you’ll never work a day in your life!

PPD:  How a big a crew are you working with?

DD: It changes with the job and it’s kind of a balancing act. Sometimes we have a small crew depending on what we’re shooting. If it’s just a basic shot or if it’s a test shoot it’s a fairly small crew, whereas if we’re shooting an advertising campaign or something that involves video and motion and commercials, we might have as many as 20 people on set or more. I really enjoy working with a big crew, it’s kind of an adrenaline rush for me.


PPD: Do you get nervous at all before a big shoot?

DD:  I get nervous before every shoot. I sometimes come back from shoots feeling that I’ve spent all of my creative energy. I call it creatively hung over. I’ve expended all of my creativity and put all of my effort and work into creating the shots and so afterward I almost have to crash. I put everything that I have into my work.

There are a lot of things that can add to the stress level. Before I was really well-versed about the lighting I would always overly stress about that. I always tried to pre-light the set the day before so I would feel more confident. Now I have a pretty good handle on that. You still stress over things like forgetting some sort of gear or not having something that I really need when I’m on the set. It’s the little things that can cause a lot of stress on the day of the shoot, so I always like to do a lot of pre-production planning and make sure that all of my gear is organized. I’m also always thinking about the weather, hoping the weather works out.

I think that the more you shoot, the more your confidence grows because you learn how to handle different situations and when you’re thrown into those situations you learn how to problem solve. One of your biggest assets that you have as a photographer is having that ability to problem solve without freaking out. There are always things that happen on set that you don’t expect and you just have to roll with them and keep your cool.

PPD: Speaking of unexpected things happening, let’s talk about your use of G-Technology on set. What gear are you using and how do you handle the backup workflow?

DD:  I’ve always backed up my images, but I never really realized the importance of using high-quality hard drives until about eight years ago when I had a cheap hard-drive from Walmart fail. I kind of learned that lesson the hard way. But backing up now is really the backbone of my business because when people are putting a lot of their money into your creations you want to be sure and have them all backed up effectively and safely because you never want to go back to your client and tell them that you lost their images.

Today I’m very passionate about backing up. They say that your data doesn’t exist unless you have three copies of it and I believe that. So I’ll bring three G-Technology G-DRIVE® ev RaW drives that are combined with ev All-Terrain Cases on set because they are portable and the casing is waterproof as well as drop and shock resistant. They’re very cool.

PPD: Do you have a digital tech on set that is doing this for you as you shoot or do you take breaks and do the work yourself?

DD: Yes, I have a digital tech on set and he is managing the backups as I shoot tethered to the computer. In between shots he will immediately back up each shot to three different G-Technology G-DRIVE ev RaW drives. We have three duplicate backups on set and those are all backing up as I shoot, so that we have everything backed up from one shot to the next. Then usually he’ll take home a hard drive and I’ll take home two of the hard drives so that they are in different locations.

When I get back to the studio I have a couple of the G-SPEED® Studio Hardware RAID, 4-Bay, Thunderbolt 2 drives. Each of those are 16 terabytes. I have an archive unit and a live work one, so I also back up all of my images to those two drives, plus another additional one that is kept off site. Sometimes my clients will want a copy too, not for them to use, but just so that they have everything backed up on their premises, as well. So a lot of times I’ll use one of the G-DRIVE Slim drives for that.


PPD: What is it about the G-Technology gear that gives you the confidence that your work is safe?

DD: I think that the biggest thing that G-Technology kind of instills in photographers and content makers is that it gives us peace of mind so that we can focus on the creative and we don’t have to worry so much about freaking out if things are missing or having hard drives fail. I think having that peace of mind frees up space in your imagination to be more creative. G-Technology definitely provides that peace of mind.

PPD: Tell me about the series of fashion shoots that you did with all of the weaponry. It seems like an odd combination of subjects.

DD: Those shots were done for a company called Magpul. I’ve shot for them three times and that’s always been one of my favorite projects. Magpul is an accessory maker for the military and for firearms and they make all of the magazines that go in the guns and they do a calendar every year with girls and guns. It’s an adventure.  The first year they wanted a high-fashion calendar with their guns and they actually painted the guns to match whatever outfit we were shooting. It is always a large production.

We fly most of the models in from LA and New York and the crew is incredible. They let us do all of the casting and all of the production and also let us handle the art direction.  My good friend Kiley is always the art director so she and I get to work together—she always has a beautiful vision. It’s been a really fun and intense project. We have to get it done in three days and every shot has a different location and a different scenario. We would have four locations a day and we had six models for each calendar. It was hard logistically to fit everything in, especially with all of the accessories and the fashions. The shot of the woman with the white chiffon skirt blowing up was the cover shot and that was the last shot of the three-day shoot and just as we began shooting it started pouring down rain and that was the most important shot of the calendar. We shot it in downtown Dallas and we had hired cops to block off Main Street.

PPD: Didn’t having that kind of weaponry out on the streets in Dallas create some issues?

DD: You would think! But for some reason, being in Texas, I guess, it was all OK. It was funny, the cops would handle everything for us and they’d stop the traffic and then let it pass for a few minutes. Finally, the sun came out for like five minutes and we were able to get that shot. We had to set up really quickly because it was right in downtown Dallas, on Main Street on a busy day. It was crazy.


PPD: On your site you mention shooting more motion projects recently, is that a growing part of your business?

DD: Yes, absolutely. I love shooting motion. I’m more of a director, I don’t actually handle the video cameras, but I love directing and I’m getting into more and more of it. I directed my first TV commercial a couple of years ago and I did another one this year, so slowly and steadily I’m getting into more motion work. I really love it. In a way, it’s easier than being a photographer because you get to stand next to the camera operator and direct the shots and the lighting, it’s a very interesting experience. I’m trying to learn video editing, as well, and I’m trying to learn more about camera operating just so that I can direct the camera operators better.  

PPD: On your site, you have a really interesting behind-the-scenes video about making behind-the-scenes videos and their importance to you. Is this something you do a lot during shoots?

DD:  Yes, I have always loved doing BTS videos and I had the opportunity to work with Nikon to create that video for their educational site “Learn and Explore”.  I started doing those BTS videos a few years ago because I saw some of the bigger brands using them to drive traffic to their websites. So I was trying to create those on a smaller scale when I first started out. I didn’t have a big crew or a budget to hire videographers or anything, but I would bring just a point-and-shoot camera and have my make-up artist or someone filming while I was shooting and then I would cut it together on the iMovie Apple software.

It started out that simply, but now fast forward and we do BTS videos for just about every shoot that I do because it drives traffic to the images, the clients love them and most of the time clients request that I do one for the shoot because they know what a great marketing tool they are.  I think that the videos really let potential clients see how you work as a photographer and I think it gives them peace of mind when they hire you, they know that you can hire a big production.  

PPD: Where would you like to see your career head in the future and how do you guide your assignments in that direction?

DD: They always say that you’ve got to put out there what you want to get back to you, so if you put out there the work that you love to do, eventually you’ll start booking those kinds of jobs because people will associate your brand with that kind of work. Even when I was shooting weddings and things like that, I wasn’t really sharing a lot of that work because I didn’t want to be considered a wedding photographer. I’ve always tried to put out fashion work with the hope that kind of work would come to me. It takes a while to develop your specialty. I’m still shooting a lot of different types of work, a lot of lifestyle-driven commercial work, I’m not just shooting fashion, but it’s all stuff that I’m passionate about and all advertising related.

So I hope that for the next few years I’ll just keep trying to build my brand and start shooting for bigger and bigger clients. I have a list of dream clients that I really want to shoot for, so hopefully I’ll have that opportunity. I think that yearly you can put together a list of say 10 clients that you really want to shoot for and try to go after them that eventually you’ll be able to get them. I think sometimes photographers have too big a list of clients that they want to go after and I think that if you can focus on a more select list and really push yourself and try to get in-person meetings and portfolio reviews it will help a lot. You really have to get to know the right people, that’s a big part of it.

PPD: As someone who has gotten very successful very early on, what advice do you have for photographers who might want to head down a similar path?

DD:  Thank you so much!  I think one of the things that really brought my learning curve up was joining all of the trade organizations in my industry. I had a business mentor who said to me, “If you’re interested in working in an industry, join all of the trade organizations involved in that industry.” That’s what I did and I ended up winning two contests through WPPI and PPA and so I got to go to the WPPI convention in Las Vegas for free because I won a scholarship to go there and network with a lot of amazing photographers. I think that was a huge part of learning photography and getting into the industry.

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