Hometown: Seattle, WA
NFBers, meet Zoe Rain. I’m just going to get right to the point and tell you this girl is straight up gold. I’m lucky enough to have Zoe in my inner circle and think pretty much everyone else on the planet should get to know her as well as I do.
Zoe is a beautiful, talented, humble and genuine human being whose experience speaks entirely for itself. I can’t wait to watch this girl grow higher and higher.
NFB: Tell me a little bit of your story – who you are as a person.
ZR: I might need a beer for this. (laughs)
NFB: Okay, how’d you get started in photography?
ZR: I was taking a photography class in high school and a photographer came in and was talking about how it’s a possible career and how you can actually make a living doing it. He started mentoring me and I started working with him and I had access to different cameras and equipment.
NFB: And how did him mentoring you come about?
ZR: He was actually mentoring my boyfriend at the time and he realized that I might have the potential of taking photos for a living and I kind of just hung around him as much as I could.
NFB: Did you think back then that you could be where you are now?
ZR: I guess I was confident because I had that cushion of support to fall back on. I didn’t realize I could be making this much money in this short of time though.
NFB: How old were you then, at that point?
ZR: I was 17.
NFB: You were only 17 when you started taking pictures? That was only five years ago.
ZR: That’s how old I was when I actually started learning and trying.
ZR: There’s a photo that I took where, when I looked at it, I knew photography was what I was going to do. It was actually a shot of his wife. I was just playing around with strobes and trying to replicate a shot.
NFB: Do you think if he hadn’t come into your class that day, that you’d still be where you are now?
ZR: No. I was failing my photography class when I met him. (laughs) I literally had the worst grade in the class.
NFB: So you give him a lot of credit for where you are now?
ZR: Oh yeah, definitely.
NFB: If someone would have told 13 year old Zoe that this is what you’d be doing, would you have believed them?
ZR: Thirteen year old me wanted to go to Stanford and study marine biology – I wanted to work with Sea World dolphins and that’s obviously a dying field. I’m really glad I didn’t choose that. (laughs)
NFB: Talk to me a little about what it’s like in your head during a shoot.
ZR: It’s super tunnel vision. I don’t notice anything besides what’s in my viewfinder. It’s the only time I’m ever not thinking about how I look. I don’t notice myself as even a thing. I’m just focusing all my brain power into correctly composing, and exposing and evoking and framing that particular shot.
NFB: What’s been your best experience, to date, as a photographer?
ZR: Definitely shooting on tour with Macklemore was incredible. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked and it’s something that I know I’m good at so it’s a really rewarding feeling to just be in your zone.
NFB: What’s your favorite type of shoot to do?
ZR: Edgy portraiture of either models or artists. Gritty and kind of grungy and rock and roll – that kind of style is my style. Definitely humans though. I actually started off not shooting any people then I just started shooting all people.
NFB: Why people?
ZR: Because they’re unique. I like capturing the essence of a person.
NFB: What about your least favorite? And why?
ZR: Boring, tight knit corporate headshots. Whenever I’m not allowed to give a creative say, or feel like I need to sensor who I am at all on a shoot, I don’t like it.
NFB: Where do you go or what do you do for inspiration?
ZR: I like Pinterest a lot. I have a pretty large bank of images. It’s not like I go for a walk out in the world and it inspires me. Other photography inspires me.
NFB: What’s your dream project?
ZR: Shooting Miley Cyrus. But like, large animals, like an elephant with a pop star on it in Time Square. Annie Leibovitz style stuff. Grandiose and beautiful.
NFB: Okay, going back to touring with Macklemore, can you tell me a little bit about what it was like?
ZR: It was almost like I was able to master a skill. Every single show was lit the exact same way and choreographed the exact same way, so it was almost like a groundhog shoot in that way – that I got to practice over and over again. The first show to the last you can really see the progress of shooting that specific lifestyle. Whereas, most shoots it’s one and you’re done.
NFB: What are some of the biggest things you’ve taken away on a personal level from that project?
ZR: It definitely gave me a lot of self-confidence in how I present myself and value my work. I don’t think the name Zoe Rain had life until it got recognition from that tour. It has a lot of power. Once I started going by that name, it was a certain persona and a quality of image – like a brand identity. Photography is very solo enterprise but having a team of guys that I was working with day in and day out was really enriching. Building those relationships, living on a bus with someone for three months, just being in Europe and on my own – there was a lot of stimulation happening.
NFB: So, I know you do both photography and videography. Can you talk to me about the differences and the similarities the two have? Both creatively and as a business.
ZR: Knowing how to frame and create an image… If you can do that, you can shoot a beautiful video. A photo, you take it and that’s all it is. It evokes the emotion that is within that one frame. But video relies a lot on timing and on the music and, even just the motion aspect of it and how it is presented. I think it’s more difficult in a way but it allows you to tell a better story. You have more context to the content that you’re seeing.
NFB: Which do you prefer?
ZR: I prefer photos because I’m better at them. (laughs) And videography is a lot more work post-production than photography. Ultimately, I would love to do a lot more video work, but it’s easier to stay in the comfort zone of photos.
NFB: Talk to me a little bit about the business side of freelance photography.
ZR: It hasn’t been until this year that I actually realized that I am a brand. What you expect, how I act, what my logo looks like, how my website is displayed – it’s all one entity, and even just how my invoices are designed reflects my business type. How a customer comes to me and how they feel when they leave is my brand identity. To respect those details has an impact and is important.
I’m just a photographer though, I’m not a business person, but I have to be. I have to be an entrepreneur.
I think the idea of it, when you’re laying it all out on paper, it’s daunting. But once you get in the rhythem of it, it comes more natural. I got a business license this year, I paid my taxes, once I got in the groove of it, I enjoyed that kind of work. But it’s also the stuff that it would be cool if I could pay someone else to do for me. (laughs)
NFB: I was just going to ask if there was anything you have to do that you’d rather be paying someone else to do for you.
ZR: Definitely taxes. (laughs)
NFB: In the short year that I’ve known you, I’ve noticed that your humility is what many people truly admire about you. What would you say helps keep you so grounded?
ZR: I think there are two things. One, I’m an extreme perfectionist. I’m very hard on myself and I have some pretty big dreams. Comparing my work is always a humbling experience. I look at other photographers that have been doing this for 40 some years and I just think, you’re not there yet.
ZR: And the second reason is that there’s a hidden side that people don’t see. There are so many images that are shot that people don’t see or shoots that don’t go as well and that’s a part of my brand too, but you censor that stuff to help create and maintain your brand. No one’s as perfect as their best images.
NFB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
ZR: The one that comes to mind is, “be so good they can’t ignore you”. I like that one a lot. I think having your work speak for itself and not having to do anything more than be a good person and make good art – the work and the life will come to you. Also my bosses advice that he always taught me was, “make women look beautiful.”
NFB: Oh yeah. That’s great advice.
ZR: Yeah. Everyone likes a beautiful image of themselves. Basically, make people look good.
NFB: Professionally, what’s your end goal?
ZR: If we’re going to dream big, I want to be a household name that has the ability to approach any subject I want and have them want an image by me. Annie Leibovitz has, as a brand, done a really great job. Personally, she’s not my favorite but she’s done a great job at climbing the ladder. And that’s not to say that I want to be famous but, I’m seeing how far I can push my potential for sure.
NFB: Now that you mentioned Leibovitz not being your favorite, who are your favorite photographers?
ZR: Someone whose style I really like is Steven Taylor (steventaylorphoto.com), Adam Elmakias (adamelmakias.com), there are so many.
NFB: What is that you notice about their work? What draws you to it?
ZR: I mean, the lighting and the editing and the consistancy of their image. They are usually just images I aspire to take for myself and maybe don’t have the ability to take. Or maybe I do have the ability and I just like that we have a consistent eye.
ZR: I usually know it’s a good photographer because they make me feel like shit. (laughs) I just see their photos and humble myself again.
NFB: There are people somewhere saying the very same thing about you, you know?
ZR: Yeah, that’s the weird thing.
There’s always going to be someone younger and better than you in anything and everything you ever do.
If you haven’t seen her stuff already, and even if you have, do yourself a favor and go check it out again. It really is unbelievable. Take a peek at zoerainphoto.com or on her Tumblr, and peep her on Facebook and Instagram as well.
If you had the chance to sit down with Zoe Rain, what would you say? Comment below!