She did her first professional job at 21, but fashion photographer Emily Abay now boasts an enviable portfolio of images and has worked with an array of iconic brands.
The 33-year-old has photographed campaigns for Kookai, Bardot, Quicksilver, Chadstone and Monday Swimwear, and has worked with models and personalities like Jesinta Campbell, Elle Ferguson and Natasha Oakley.
Her love of photography began at a young age – Abay’s mother is a photographer so she spent much of her childhood around photography studios and in dark rooms. As such, her interest evolved naturally.
“I knew I loved shooting people, and I was attracted to the fashion industry because it was like seeing my childhood Barbie dolls come to life,” Abay said.
Originally from Melbourne, Abay now spends the majority of her time based in Sydney for work.
But the in-demand photographer is increasingly taking on assignments overseas, so claims she “lives at the airport these days”.
Abay made a start in photography when she studied the subject at RMIT University but admits the course only taught her the foundation skills for the job.
“Mixing the commerce with the art was very difficult. Once you have a degree it really means nothing – no one is going to give you work just because you did a course,” she said.
Eager to take charge of her own career, Abay would pick up magazines to find out who the editors were and would cold call them to see if they needed any product shots or other photography jobs done, so she could try to get her images in print.
“In those days, social media was non-existent so seeing your work in magazines is what gave you credibility,” Abay said.
Upon graduating university, Abay began working professionally and relied on photography as her sole income.
She did everything she could to gain her first clients, so took on any job that came her way.
It wasn’t without its challenges, of course.
“Starting a business and living out of home as such a young age was pretty tricky. Baked beans had to become a main meal,” she said.
“I have been so fortunate to have had a career like this at a young age, and I’ve had a business for 12 years already; I feel very lucky.
“But at the same time, I worked so hard to get where I am, and did it for a long time without social media. It’s so overwhelming to look at my career and everything that I’ve achieved now.”
Learning valuable lessons
Without a doubt, Abay said the most crucial lesson she has learned in her career is failure and patience.
“I needed to fail again and again and again. It’s the most important lesson for progression and to stay humble,” she said.
“These days, people put so much pressure on themselves to do a good job that when they fail, it’s like the world has ended and they don’t know how to handle rejection or lack of success.
“Patience is also so important. Don’t expect to see reward overnight, it takes time. I have so many young, aspiring photographers asking me all the time for advice because they want success quickly, and it’s just never the case.
“You must work hard, you must be patient and you must experience failure to learn how to grow.”
Abay has also learned to never stop testing new techniques and makes a point to take on the creative projects she is passionate about.
“It doesn’t matter how old you get or how busy you get, it’s important to take time to shoot what you would like to shoot as a reminder for why you started this,” she said.
“I am so fortunate to be able to do what I love and make a living from it, but sometimes it does all become about work, work, work. So, it’s important every now and then to take a day, get together with a great team, just have a play and create something that you can be proud of.”
As someone who has been self-employed for the majority of her career, Abay has had to invest in building her personal brand to become renowned as a fashion photographer.
“It’s funny, I didn’t realise until a few years ago that I had a personal brand. It’s really because of Instagram that I’m more conscious now of how my work comes across,” she said.
“I’m very selective with what I post on social media – I want it to be a good representation of me and my lifestyle. The photos I post paint a pretty clear picture of what I’m about, my preference of style and light, and I guess that shapes my personal brand the most.”
Words of wisdom
For aspiring photographers who want to break into the industry, Abay has this advice: “Don’t be in a rush to succeed”.
She said success is unlikely to happen quickly and that persevering slowly and humbly is key.
“Anyone can pick up a camera these days, put a filter over the image and call themselves a photographer. But you must test yourself, experiment with lighting, and learn to anticipate what might happen when light hits the camera,” she said.
But when success comes, the payoff is enormous, Abay admits.
“I love everything about my job. I don’t feel I’ve really ever worked a day in my life. I want to be here, for every minute of it,” she said.
For Abay, the biggest appeal of the job is the people she gets to work with. She’s had the chance to collaborate with professionals who are just as passionate as her, and she has made some life-long friends along the way.
Having creative freedom is the other appeal.
“My opinion always feels so valued with my colleagues and it’s so nice to also be able to bounce off one another and create something where several people have had input,” she said.
And, ultimately, it is the people that make the job a dream.
“I really couldn’t do what I do without the amazing people behind me, especially my assistants. They work so hard carrying everything, building my sets, and holding all my reflectors in sometimes very tolling conditions.
“All the creatives on a shoot get rewarded for their work with having some lovely photos to show in their portfolios but my assistants are there to help, be my right hand and an extra pair of eyes.
“No one understands that sometimes it takes an army to make a strong photo. It’s not just you by yourself, you need a great team behind you.”