Originally from Moab, Utah, Drake Hackney now makes his living as a fashion and beauty photographer in Los Angeles. The multifaceted creative was inspired to pick up a camera at an early age after being intrigued and excited by the fashion and beauty magazines that would seldom make their way into his small town.
When an accident sidelined Hackney as a high school swimmer, he had plenty of time to explore his newfound passion for photography. While many photographers believe lighting to be a challenging area of their trade, he found himself more and more interested in it as he learned more about the craft. After a few years at a state college, Hackney dove headfirst into photography, with a focus on beauty portraiture. Since then, he’s become well-known as an accomplished and in-demand photographer, whose work is renowned for its remarkable aesthetic quality and powerful emotional impact.
In spite of his achievements, Hackney has never lost his sense of humor or his desire to grow as a photographer. In showing what can be accomplished with dedication, hard effort, and a genuine appreciation for one’s profession, he’s an outstanding role model for budding photographers across the fashion and beauty landscape.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Drake about his Utah upbringing, what makes a good photograph, and stepping outside of the box to name a few topics. Check out our conversation below!
Tell me more about your upbringing, what is it that led you to taking photos?
Yeah, so I’ll give you a brief rundown. I grew up in Moab, Utah. If you’ve ever seen the Utah license plates that have the orange arches on them they basically sum up what the town is about. It was basically a really small intimate tourist town. Throughout my high school years, the most people I ever had in my high school was around 400 students. So it was a very small community.
During high school, I was very passionate about competitive swimming. However, I sustained an injury to my shoulder during my junior year. Around that same time I was also taking a black and white film photography class and I became more interested in photography because my injury made it difficult to continue swimming.
Unfortunately, my photography teacher wasn’t very supportive. She referred to me and my friend as her “special students,” implying that we weren’t very good at it. The class didn’t cover the basic concepts of photography, such as the exposure triangle, until halfway through the class. So I actually had a hard time picking up even the basic fundamentals because they weren’t being taught correctly.
During the class I was really interested in just learning about photography on my own. So a lot of what I learned was through YouTube. At the time, there were a lot of growing content creators in the education side of photography. Previously photography education would be something you would pay for through web seminars etc. The education scene for photography had just changed and a lot of experienced photographers were exploring and teaching lighting methods
etc on YouTube.Growing up in such a unique landscape a lot of my classmates loved to photograph landscapes, but I was always interested in portraiture and fashion and found myself diving deeper into the technical side of lighting and photography. Eventually even building a small portrait studio in my basement and photographing friends and family.
How did you eventually land on fashion and beauty specifically?
I moved out here to LA about five years ago. I was honestly just trying to shoot as much work for my portfolio as possible, and beauty was something I was able to shoot in my small apartment. That’s kind of where I started. Beauty quickly became my comfort zone. Around the same time I got a job at a local photo studio. I learned all of the large scale equipment there and that really helped me develop. Then I was fortunate enough to work with a few local working photographers. I started doing light design and assisting them and I’m lucky to now call them mentors.
I began consulting with other artists building out lighting setups etcetera for various jobs and campaigns. So for a while I was doing a lot of light design and light assisting. Now I’m focusing on my personal work, but I still do assist, depending on the artist and the job.
Out of curiosity, what is your process for conceptualizing and planning a photoshoot?
I’m always on the lookout for interesting lighting and I find inspiration on Instagram by looking at the work of other photographers. However I think it’s important to know the difference between inspiration and copying. I think it’s important to always add a fresh take on a concept. My work is often inspired by different lighting aesthetics and I find myself constantly thinking about what kind of lighting and color I want to use in my own work.
So often I will see the lighting for a concept in my head before I see models, clothing, makeup etc. Sometimes I’ll see an interesting light or style of lighting and build my shoots around that. I have a side of my brain that’s more focused on the technical side of photography and another side that’s more creative, and I find it challenging sometimes to balance the two.
I have friends who are also photographers and I admire their natural creativity. I really admire artists who have an amazing eye for seeing things and concepts that aren’t present on set. I personally think Photography with CGI elements has really changed the scene and it’s really cool to watch. Personally I don’t think that style is for me but I really enjoy the work others create with it. I try to find inspiration in the work of other visual artists and stylists, especially those in Europe and Korea. I think they have such a unique approach and vision and I try to implement elements I am inspired by.
I also sometimes start with a specific piece of clothing or prop and build my shoots around that, I believe it can be a great starting point for creative ideas. Sometimes I will ask a stylist or makeup artist what they are currently inspired by and sometimes it can be easier to build a story off of a strong garment or makeup look. I always try to find one element or one main theme or concept that I can build my shoots around.
How do you work with makeup artists and hair stylists to achieve the desired look for your shots?
Having a clear vision and a good mood board is essential for me when I am shooting. When I had just started shooting beauty, one of my mentors taught me the importance of being specific in my vision. I used to think that it was better to have other artists come in and add their own creativity to the shoot, and sometimes that’s true.
However, if you are going for something specific it’s important to be clear in what you are wanting from your team. Because without a vision it’s easy for the style of the shoot to go haywire. There are some directions for my makeup artists that are always specific to my style and the work I like to make, like minimal skin products like foundation and concealer. I find with beauty those directions are extremely important.
If I have a very specific editorial look in mind, I don’t hesitate to tell the makeup artist or stylist exactly what I want. I understand now that clear communication is key, as a lot of time and preparation goes into a shoot and it’s important that we are all on the same page. It’s not worth doing a shoot if the stylist is pulling the wrong clothes or the makeup artist is not achieving the look I want.
For you personally, what ultimately makes a good photograph?
I don’t know, it’s such a unique and interesting kind of phenomenon. I find it interesting how our taste in art and photography can change over time based on what we are exposed to. This is something that I keep in mind when working with clients, as they also have their own perspective on what makes a good photo and it might not be the same as mine. My own taste is very specific, with a focus on certain lighting, expressions, and color. I think color is one of the most powerful elements in an image and I am constantly striving to improve in this area.
I have always had an admiration for artists that have a very unique perspective and style. The use of color and post work can really set an artist apart. Ultimately, I believe that a good photo is subjective and unique to the viewer. What one person may find beautiful, another may not. The most important thing is that the photograph resonates with the viewer.
Naturally, you’ve had the pleasure of working with so many talented models and creatives—do you have a memory or set of photos that stands out the most to you?
I’ve always thought the first few years of photography or anything creative is so exciting. Even when I first started in my hometown everything felt new and everyday the chance to create something new or try something new was invigorating. Now that I have developed a sense of style for my work I’m a bit more selective in my approach, but still enjoy experimenting with color and light. I used to do multiple test shoots a week and have many fond memories of working with many talented makeup artists.
Some of my favorite work I’ve made with Ally McGillicuddy who is an amazing makeup artist. A favorite of mine was a shoot where she had sketched a spider over a models eye and every time we work together the possibilities of the looks she can do is always exciting. I also did a lot of beauty work with Jen Tioseco who is also incredibly talented. I’ve always been appreciative of them both because they worked with me early on and always saw the potential in my work when many artists at the time wouldn’t work with me because I was new to the area.
I have a hard time identifying a favorite photo of mine because they all represent different times in my career and have different meanings to me. My favorite photo tends to be the one I took most recently. I’ve had a lot of fun working on a recent shoot with Baskin Champion, where I changed the background multiple times and experimented with different color grades for each outfit. I’ve enjoyed working on this set, as it allowed me to do something different and I think anytime you can do that in life or in art you are growing.
Do you still experiment though?
I always try to approach each project with a fresh perspective and find new ways to change things up. My background and interest in lighting helped me to learn how to light a variety of different styles of shoots, but after a while, I found that the same setups and lighting were being used for multiple jobs.
Like in beauty there are some main beauty lighting modifiers that everyone uses and I think they are great tools but I always like to try and change things up a bit. I don’t like to add things just for the sake of adding them. But I am always experimenting and trying new things to make each shoot unique.
Even if I have extra time on set, I am always looking for ways to add something new or different to my shoots. Whether that’s another light or maybe even taking a light out I am always analyzing what could be better. Looking for new ways to expand my repertoire of looks and techniques is very important to me. This way, I can be prepared to switch things up on set if needed or I can be inspired to try something new.
How do you work with subjects to get them to feel comfortable and confident in front of the camera for shoots?
Yeah, I think one of the most important things for me when shooting is to create a relaxed and fun atmosphere on set. For me music is everything it should be on every EQ list. Even on location I always have a speaker, music breeds creativity and also helps to make a subject feel more comfortable. Music aside, I always try to make a connection with my subjects and make sure they feel comfortable in front of the camera. Whether it’s making jokes or just chatting with them, my goal is to create a space where they feel at ease and can explore different poses and expressions.
Even if they’re not experienced models or if they’re feeling insecure, I believe that by being patient, encouraging and positive, we can help them to overcome those feelings and capture beautiful and genuine images. I always keep in mind that my job is not just about taking pictures, but also about creating an experience for my subjects, and making sure that we have fun and enjoy the process together.
If you could photograph any celebrity as a subject, who would it be and why?
If I could photograph anyone, I would love to work with Stevie Nicks. I have been a huge fan of hers since high school and I think we would have a lot of fun working together. I love artists who have a clear vision of who they are and what they want to convey through their art. Stevie Nicks is one of those artists for me where I have an exact idea of what I would want to do with her. I could get the call to photograph her in an hour and I know exactly what I would want to do. I can see the images already made in my head.
I would also love to work with Lil Nas X or Conan Gray. They are both artists with a clear vision of who they are and what they want to convey through their art. I sometimes find it’s more inspiring to work with artists who have a strong sense of self and identity because it makes it easier to create something that is true to who they are and their energy. Sometimes when an artist or model comes in with a clear concept or idea that can sometimes be easier to build off of their ideas and add where I feel I need to add.
In closing, what advice would you give to younger or more inexperienced photographers?
I think one important thing to remember is that everyone’s path to success is different. Just because someone did something a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to make it in the industry. It’s important to focus on creating work you’re excited by that’s number one. You should be your number one fan. You can always be better but you should always be proud of where you’re at. That’s something I had to learn.
Wanting to be better can be a negative and overwhelming feeling and it’s a valid feeling but there is a fine line between encouraging yourself to be better and beating yourself up because your work isn’t as good as this artist or that artist. Everyone starts somewhere and it’s important to enjoy the process. It can be hard because there’s a societal pressure to make money with your art, but that doesn’t always equate to artistic fulfillment. Finding a balance between making a living and staying true to your artistic vision is important to me.