Starting a business would be challenging enough in an ordinary year. And then there was 2020.
For Kansas' Olivia Danielle, it would provide a crash-course unlike any other. Born in New York and raised in Tennessee, she'd switched careers from the equine industry to pursue photography. For other photographers, the year's constant bucks and twists might have proved insurmountable — but leave it to a horseback rider to take the reins and find direction. Through it all, she's developed a reputation for stunning horse-and-rider sessions and emerged with a better outlook on dealing with the unexpected.
We spoke with Olivia Danielle about finding her niche as a photographer, landing her first clients, and why getting things wrong helps in getting things right.
This interview has been condensed.
OD: Both my parents were photographers. My dad was president of a photo club; he photographed over 400 weddings. He was really into photography, and I used to go with them to photo club when I was four years old and run around. My mom went to the photo club as well; that’s how they met. She really enjoyed doing landscapes and nature and stuff like that. She has some really beautiful photographs, and my dad would always get on her for the sun being directly centred in the photo [laughs].
So it was definitely in my history; in my blood. [As I grew] up, we had cameras laying around, and I’d pull them out and take pictures and edit them on the computer. It just kind of started with that. And then, my parents, of course, always used me as their own personal photo prop. When you have a child, you just take pictures of them all the time.
OD: I think I was pretty good. I’m sure I was a little challenging sometimes [laughs].
OD: New York was home until I turned eight years old, and then we moved to Tennessee to take care of my [grandfather]. Tennessee was definitely home, and it still is. The landscape and the people [are just so special]. The hospitality there, the mountains and the trees… it’s just a beautiful place, and growing up there, knowing so many people, it’s just very familiar.
OD: I loved animals growing up, so I considered the veterinary industry. I feel like a lot of kids do. I started riding [horses] at the age of seven. After we moved [to Tennessee], I didn’t ride for a couple years, and then started back up around [age] eleven. I rode a lot. I was a volunteer for twelve years at a therapeutic riding academy, and I was on the equine committee there, so I helped train the horses. I loved working [with animals], but I did not want to be a veterinarian. I don’t know if I ever really had a big plan. I think I always thought that I’d work around horses and move up [the ranks].
OD: I would say [it happened] kind of by accident. I started working in the equine industry as a barn manager and just really enjoyed capturing things around the barn with my phone. I bought my first DSLR [camera] when I was about twenty; it was a little Canon Rebel T6i. When I got my first camera, I was really just playing around with friends, going to the mountains and taking pictures. That’s where it started, and then it stopped for a little while, because I was working a lot [at the barn]; I didn’t have much time for anything else.
I got a concussion three years ago. That made my life really hard. When you work around horses, you can definitely get [overconfident]. I put myself in a situation with a horse that I should have been more cautious with, and my head hit the wall. That passion of being around [horses] and taking pictures of them really [disappeared]; I struggled with a lot of anxiety and depression. That kind of switched up my plan: like, ‘Okay, maybe I don’t want to get hurt all the time.’
In 2020, I moved away from Tennessee, moved away from the comfort of having a 9-5 job, and decided [to pursue photography]. So I started learning a lot more, doing model calls and everything, and I started photographing horses again. Now, capturing horses, [and] capturing people with their horses has really brought that love back. That’s been a really big blessing, because that’s a huge part of my life.
Just remembering that connection and remembering how much time I spent at the barn… I just really love to capture that friendship and that partnership. I really miss that, and I want to capture that for people. There have been a lot of horses in my life that I’ve spent time with and really enjoyed training or working with, and there are a few special ones that I just wish I had more pictures with. That made me realize what I want to capture: I want to see that connection that people have, and all the little moments that make equestrians and their horses so special.
OD: It was [March 2020]. I had done some model calls [and was ready to start charging]. I had a girl reach out to me about doing senior photos; she was graduating from college. It was a very overcast, very grey day, but I was excited, because overcast [skies are] really good for lighting. They turned out really good, and I was like, ‘Wow, these portraits are actually half-not bad. That’s great.’
OD: It just got to the point where I couldn’t afford to do it for free anymore. I had done a lot of nature photography; that’s really how I started, so spending time driving around, finding places to take pictures of, learning composition… and then posting them on a Facebook page for people to see. I think that helped it somersault into [people interested in booking me]: ‘Oh, wow, can you take my picture?’ [I ended up] connecting with a photographer here, and I assist her sometimes, or we refer work [back and forth]. It just kind of took off fairly quickly.
OD: I learned to just be willing to go with the flow sometimes — especially when you’re learning. You’re going to take pictures of all sorts of people; you’re going to learn all sorts of lighting [approaches]. Really, to just be gentle with yourself, because for me, that is so hard. And when you’re in those learning stages, I mean, sometimes [the photos] are just going to look bad. But you’re going to learn so much from doing the wrong things so that next time you can do the right thing. And that’s really important. And also, learning to charge profitably after you’ve had that learning stage. It’s important to charge appropriately for your expertise once you’ve learned it.
OD: When I go into a photoshoot, I want to capture that connection and those special moments. I like to have a connection with my clients, and [also] see them connect with each other. I want my photos to be intimate and evoke emotion, but also be really fun. I always include bloopers in a session — you’re going to get all those [goofy shots].
OD: Usually, I start out with something fun to break the ice — either a silly prompt or just joking around. I’ll pull out the ‘YASSS QUEEN’ sometimes, and that just breaks the ice [laughs]. I try to tell people, ‘I do have this time-frame, but I’m also not opposed to taking extra time if that’s what gives us the best pictures.’ I’ve noticed a trend of people in my reviews saying, ‘I had so much fun,’ and that makes me happy.
OD: I’m hoping to upgrade soon, but I have my Canon 77D, I have a little 50mm that I really like to use for family shoots and portraits. And then I have a 24mm, usually for landscapes. A lot of times in my couples’ shoots, I like to incorporate the background, so some good dramatic nature shots in there. And then I have a 70-200mm, which I usually use for a lot of my black background equine shoots.
OD: Don’t give up. It can be discouraging when you’re watching everything going on. I would say, in Kansas, I was so far [removed] from a lot of the hot spots. I was thinking to myself, ‘Of course it would be the year that I actually figure out what I want to do that we get hit with a worldwide pandemic.’ But it’s just taught me to trust the process and to keep pursuing it. Take the precautions you need to and work with it.
Find out why Olivia Danielle is part of a growing contingent of photographers who trust Focal for their business.