Unfulfilled in her corporate career, Kate Whyte followed her passion and started a new chapter as a beauty and fashion photographer.
Kate Whyte was born into a creative family. Her mom is a professional artist; her dad, a ship’s captain, studied photography in the seventies and continued the craft as a hobby. “I was always encouraged to experiment with any creative endeavour,” she says. “Art class was always my happy place in high school.”
When it came time to consider post-secondary options, the safest commercial route for a creative was graphic design. Whyte spent a year at Emily Carr University, took a year off, then enrolled at Capilano University to study design and illustration.
After she graduated, her parents gifted her a DSLR. That Canon Rebel TXi was her first real exposure to photography. “I would take photos – really terrible photos – and just edit the heck out of them in Photoshop,” she says, laughing. “Gradually, my photos got better and I had to do less Photoshopping.”
As Whyte put her degree to practice as a graphic designer, she found side work as a photographer. She captured everything from the nightclub scene to corporate events to drag queens. “I did everything back then – real estate photography, newborns, someone even hired me to be like paparazzi at their birthday.”
A four-year hiatus from photography
When an opportunity at an agency arose, Whyte put down her camera and set aside her newfound passion. She spent four years designing presentations and doing graphic design, her hiatus from photography interrupted only by staff photo requests.
The all-consuming corporate job left Whyte feeling unfulfilled. “I felt like it was a dead end for me,” she says. “There was no way for me to be creative in a way that made my happy. It was a job where I was never going to be able to use my creative skills. I knew that I had those skills, and I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue.”
In 2015, she quit her agency job to return to photography full time. She leveraged her corporate contacts to get contracts with various name brands. She shot food photography and produced social media content.
She soon found she missed taking photos of people. Her first step was to join a Facebook group that connected local models, photographers and makeup artists in Vancouver. “I posted some of my much older work and asked to see if anyone was interested in collaborating with me,” she says. “From there, I met a few different creatives who I really loved, and I started experimenting by taking portraits again.”
Initially, she stuck to using natural light. “It took me about a year and a half to get the courage to start using artificial light and shooting actual beauty photography,” she says. “I loved the creativity of fashion and beauty photography. But I never felt confident enough to do it, or I just didn’t have the skills. Understanding lighting was instrumental. Once I started dabbling with artificial light, that’s when I was able to start shooting the kind of photography I always wanted to, which is beauty and fashion.”
Whyte has been a professional beauty and fashion photographer for more than five years now. She works with clients to showcase their skin-care products, cosmetics, jewelry and clothing. She does portrait shots for actors and models, and test shots for agencies as well.
“I like to show off unique beauty,” she says. “I hope that people see the subject and see their unique features highlighted. I like my subjects to look really powerful and confident. They should look like they’re having their best skin and makeup day as well.
“I like to think that my style is natural but elevated. It’s hyper realistic but a little bit more polished.”
The stories she tells are different from the ones she told shooting portraits. Her subjects need to assume personas other than their own. With portrait photography, she says, you want to convey the essence of the person as they are, the message they want put out in the world about themselves. Beauty and fashion photography is more theatrical. “You’re creating a story or creating a character,” she says. “That can be established with mood boards at the beginning of the shoot – is she going to be romantic, or bohemian, or a fully latex-wearing dominatrix. The models have to be able to take on that persona and convey that for the camera. It all depends on the styling, makeup and fashion they’re wearing as well.”
Whyte can’t pinpoint any single moment that reaffirmed her decision to relaunch her photography career. Gradually, she started getting recognition online. “I felt like I was in the right place, I was where I was meant to be, and I was going down the right direction,” she says. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been pinch-me milestones. In fall 2019, she photographed Pamela Anderson. “[Here’s] someone who was such a huge icon when I was younger all of a sudden in front of my camera,” she says. “It wasn’t particularly long ago, but it felt like one of those moments where it was just, ‘Wow, that’s pretty incredible.’”
Creating a community
Whyte has embraced being part of the creative community. Yes, other photographers bid on the same business, but it’s to everyone’s benefit to see one another as colleagues instead of as competitors. “When I first started taking photos in 2008, I felt like I was the only person I knew who took photos,” she says. “I didn’t actively seek out other photographers. I think that maybe took a toll on my work where I didn’t progress as fast as I would have if I had made those connections.”
When she returned to the photography world five years ago, she joined as many online groups and reached out to as many people as she could. She quickly learned people were more than willing to answer questions.
One photographer in particular, someone who Whyte admits she was initially intimidated by but wanted to reach out to, is now one of her best friends. “Having that person who I can talk to who understands what I’m going through, who can give me advice, and I can do the same for her, has just been so invaluable. I can’t recommend it enough.”
Whyte is a member of Ladies Behind the Lens, a collective of professional women and non-binary photographers. The online community allows photographers from around the world to share their work, share advice and receive constructive criticism in a supportive and empowering environment.
She also started her own Facebook group, “Shooting Beauty with Kate Whyte,” to offer a supportive space and uplifting resource for anyone interested in beauty photography. The past year has afforded her more opportunities to share her experiences and her expertise. Speaking at The Portrait Masters Live was her first time teaching a course. “It definitely gave me a taste for wanting to do more of that in the future.”
One thing Whyte has been doing all along is using her voice to speak up for equality and representation. “I’ve always been very vocal,” she says. “It’s something that I’ve never held back on online.” She isn’t shy about challenging brands to diversify not only the style of photography they share but also the photographers they feature. Her openness to engage in conversation – not just click and constructively criticize – helps shift the focus to new and diverse storytellers. “It’s important when you see inequities to speak up and do what you can to change them,” she says. “If you have a platform, it’s important to use that platform to amplify voices.”