As a professional photographer, Kathryn Hollinrake’s client list has many notable names, including several stars of Dragon’s Den, Hurricane Hazel McCallion, and multi-talented Canadian entertainment icon Bruce McCulloch, among others. She began her career after moving from Vancouver, graduating from Ryerson’s Film and Photography program with a Bachelor of Technology degree, and taking a slight detour to work as a Technical Sales Rep for Kodak’s Professional Photography division in Edmonton. Back in Toronto and back to the plan, she launched her own business specializing in commercial photography. Faced with changes in technology and within the industry, she expanded her skill set, and eventually established her current niche as a corporate and portrait photographer known for her compelling profile portraits.
photo by Kathryn Hollinrake
My first job ever was… working in a department store in New Zealand where we lived briefly during my teenage years. During a particularly slow period, a customer once mistook me for a mannequin. I’m sure people who know me now would never believe I could stand that still.
I became a photographer because… I couldn’t draw fast enough. I wanted to do something artistic, and when my graphics teacher in high school said you had to be really fast, I thought, “Well, graphic design is out.” The same year I had my first experience in a darkroom and I thought I could see doing that kind of work for a long time. When I told a friend of my father that if there was a degree program in photography that’s what I’d choose to do, he said, “There is, at a school called Ryerson in Toronto.” I applied and got in and never looked back.
My proudest accomplishment is… staying in business for 25 years so far, when many of my contemporaries chose to leave the field, and when I, at times, have thought I may not be able to continue. Thankfully, I have been able to pivot when needed and build a business that looks nothing like what I would have imagined it would when I started. When I launched I was focused on commercial photography, working with ad agencies and art directors. As much of that work started to disappear, I shot stock, I shot weddings, I exhibited as an artist, I did pet photography, and ultimately I focused in on corporate photography and portraiture, working with clients and organizations directly, as well as with their design firms, to produce everything from headshots to book covers to environmental portraits and business-related imagery for websites and other marketing initiatives.
My boldest move to date was… embracing that I needed to think and act like an entrepreneur. For years I held on to the idea that I was a photographer, not an entrepreneur. It’s been an ongoing challenge as I am really an artist at heart.
I surprise people when I tell them… I am a divemaster level scuba diver.
My best advice to people starting out in photography is… Success will be more about running the business than about your skill as a photographic artist. And whatever you do, make sure you have confidence in your product (which in this case is both you and your photographs). It is very hard to sell a product you don’t believe in.
The best part of my job is… surprising reluctant subjects with photographs of themselves that they didn’t expect to love, but do. And I find it fascinating and inspiring getting to know new people in all kinds of roles and businesses, and getting the chance to see diverse businesses from the inside. I never know who I am going to get to meet in the next month or year.
My best advice about headshots is… that the skill and experience of your photographer will make a big difference to your own experience and to the final product. If you find the right photographer you don’t have to know anything going into a headshot session. It’s their job to make it happen. Trust them, be open-minded, and follow what they say. If they send you wardrobe instructions, read and follow them. And don’t tie your hair back, unless that really is the way you wear it all the time.
I stay inspired by being on a never-ending quest to up my game, and keep the work fresh and new, and uniquely mine. I experiment.
I would tell my 25-year old self… Don’t subjugate yourself to horrible people to gain experience, even if they are stars in your field. The benefits won’t outweigh the potential damage. Put self-doubt aside, specialize in one area of photography, become really good at just that, and make a lot of noise about it. Be out in the world, meet a lot of people, and build relationships. It really is going to be about marketing and connections.
My biggest setback was… probably also the biggest boon to my career. The introduction of digital photography and subsequent availability of cheap, high-quality commercial imagery wiped out a huge part of my market. Photographers were no longer being hired to shoot jobs for which stock photography could be used. The barriers to entry began to evaporate as digital cameras became cheaper and cheaper, and the ability to fix mistakes in Photoshop meant photographers did not have to be trained the way we used to be. So more and more people started hanging out their shingles as “photographers”.
I overcame it by… joining the stock industry by shooting stock myself (that didn’t last long!), and at the same time concentrating on where original photography was still going to be needed, and how to provide more for less, without totally succumbing to the “race to the bottom.” This ultimately required pivoting from a commercial specialization to more portraits and corporate work. Fortunately, the creative tools that became available to photographers with digital imaging expanded my ability to create compelling original imagery — and differentiate myself from my competitors. One way I do this now, for example, is by designing and producing my own photographic backdrops for corporate headshots. I basically simulate a corporate environment so I can shoot in any place at any time of day and get a consistent and appealing result that’s more interesting than a headshot on a gray background.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… pick up the ukulele I started learning to play a couple of years ago (but stopped) and start again.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I have acted in probably a dozen commercials.
I stay inspired by… being on a never-ending quest to up my game, and keep the work fresh and new, and uniquely mine. I experiment. I collect portraits I like and study the lighting. I constantly observe what works and doesn’t in my photos and others’, and I am always thinking about what will serve clients best. There is always room for improvement. People call me a perfectionist and since perfection is pretty much impossible there’s an ongoing impetus to keep striving for it.
The future excites me because… I am on a bit of a mission to see all the bad photos online (and in print) in business-related places replaced with good ones. I see a lot of opportunity there. There is a bit of a pendulum swing happening with some clients who have had bad experiences with less than professional photographers and are coming back to understanding the value of hiring a true professional.
My next step is… Finishing my newest corporate portrait backdrop. I plan to continue to create a small set of them so clients have a choice. As far as I know, nobody else is doing this. And I am going to be looking into video portraiture, starting with one for my website!