Karen Woo - To Her Heart's Content
She took the leap from finance to fashion filmmaking and soared.
Melbourne-based creative Karen Woo is living proof that an authentic life is rarely linear. As a teenager, Woo supressed a fondness for graphic design at the behest of her parents, then spent almost a decade in corporate corners working on multi-million-dollar IT projects.
In 2011, she turned her back on that lucrative career and jumped lens-first into creative waters. Alongside her likeminded husband, she opened a photographic studio that allowed her to zip around the globe, creating lasting memories for newlyweds.
After five years of following her gut, it led her to another crossroads, at which point she took a sharp turn into high-fashion photography and videography. Since then, her career as a filmmaker, content strategist and all-round creative has gone from new height to new height.
Within minutes of sitting down with Woo, it’s clear why she’s able to make things happen. Her insatiable curiosity and craving for creative growth are evident in every story, anecdote or bit of wisdom that she imparts. You get the sense that for Woo, there is no fixed destination, and that the journey will continue as long as inspiration leads her into uncharted territory.
Here, she tells us about that journey so far.
What is your first experience/memory of photography?
My dad used to get me to be his model. He would use his Nikon, take photos of me on film, and print them out proudly. Things like me and my brother climbing trees, on holidays. He would document everything.
Karen's dad embodied the quintessential holiday photographer, carrying his camera and video gear with enthusiasm, 2005
Did your father actually have a passion for photography?
He’s always been artistic, but it was just a hobby. He really liked taking photos. He used to have stacks of film photos of my mum. I was looking back at them not long ago. Really beautiful. He had the eye for it. He would pose my mum against stunning backgrounds in Hong Kong and Macao. It was so natural. I’m really grateful to have memories of my Mum looking that young.
I think my father created that space for us to explore art and photography.
A photo of Karen’s mum taken by her dad in Hong Kong, 1970s.
And were you exploring photography before you chose a career in finance?
Back in the day, when you’re only a student, you don’t have the money to invest in a beautiful camera. But I would take a little film camera and take photos. I loved the way that you didn’t know what you’d taken. You take the roll to the post office and get it developed. I always took photos of people.
I’d then put them in a photo album (which I absolutely miss doing) and I’d write captions. And I’d journal about the moments. I think I carried that process on.
And even before I invested in my first camera, I remember when I went on a trip to The Philippines back in 2000 for a mission trip, and I showed my photos to a guy who used to work for National Geographic. He said, “wow, you’ve actually got an eye”. I go “oh, that's cool”. But I didn't think of myself as a photographer. I carried my passion and travelled to Cambodia on another mission trip in 2008. I enjoyed it, you know?
Early examples of Karen’s portraits taken during a mission trip visiting an orphanage in Phnom Penh, 2008
You spent almost a decade working in IT/finance. Did it feel like the right move at the time or as if you were turning your back on your real passions?
I really didn’t think about it that way. I thought, in my mind, I was ready to settle, find a good job, climb up the corporate ladder, do well. Possibly get married and have kids like the standard path, I thought that was it. Then when I met my husband, he was really encouraging. He encouraged me to explore my options and not feel like I have to be working in government. He never held me back from anything that I wanted to pursue. I think that's important. Finding the right partner.
At that time, a lot of my friends were getting married. I think that was the first step into: “hey, let's just use our passion for photography and photograph friends while they're getting married.” That's how it all started.
Karen’s first ever full-time IT role in a Government agency, 2003
(Left) This is Karen taking photos of family/friends casually in 2003. (Right) 20 years later she is taking photos of models as a professional photographer in 2023.
Did you photograph any weddings during that 8-year period while working in IT/finance?
I would play around and take photos whenever I had the opportunity. But not with a DSLR, just with a compact point-and-shoot. If there was a team event, or graduate event, or a focus group, or when I’d go skiing or out on the weekend, I’d photograph everything that was in front of me.
Early examples of Karen’s work colleague portraits taken during a ski trip to Perisher Blue, 2004
Another example of Karen’s early event work captured at the Subaru Festival Canberra, 2005
Can you tell us a bit about the transition from the finance world to becoming a professional photographer, content maker, strategist, etcetera?
After I got married and moved back to Melbourne, I was thinking perhaps if I really want to take the next step, maybe I should invest in going to photography school. I thought, wow, it costs $17,000… I just paid off my HECS, I don't know. But at the same time, I was taking more photos of my friends’ weddings. After capturing around five, we launched a portfolio on our website. And that's when people started to reach out and say, oh, I love to hire you as our wedding photographer.
We got our first customers that weren’t friends - two from Sydney and one from Canberra. The next questions were how are we going to build our brand and be serious about our customer service? Already being entrepreneurial really helped us understand how to provide the best care and understanding for our clients.
An example of Karen’s wedding photography work which was awarded an AIPP Silver award in 2013.
Karen’s classy boudoir work. Fashion, hair and make-up by Candice Deville, 2010
Since 2016, your primary focus has been on fashion. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I think it all started when I went to buy a vintage Chanel bag at Madam Virtue back in 2010. Dean Hewitt and JC, the founders, asked me if I was a relative of some jeweller with the same surname. He found out I was a photographer and asked me to come back to shoot this well-known fashion blogger named Bryanboy. I said yes, confidently, as if I was already a fashion photographer.
That shoot really sparked that energy and interest in fashion, leading to a series of collaborations on subsequent fashion editorial projects with Dean and JC. These opportunities allowed me to broaden my repertoire in fashion photography and explore new creative avenues.
The Bryan Boy fashion shoot which ignited her fashion photography career.
Styled by Dean Hewitt, 2010
Subsequent collaborations with Dean Hewitt & JC Lloyd-Southwell d'Anvers on a hair fashion shoot with Strugnellcole, 2010
You now do a lot more than just pure photography, including film…
I was seeing what was trending on social media at the time, and a lot of videos were popping up. But finding a filmmaker that I liked and had the style I was after was hard. Even when I was doing wedding photography, we used to get asked all the time, do we do filmmaking and I’d always say no. At the time, camera technology wasn't quite there yet, it was really heavy. I wasn't really keen on using a monopod. I was like “let's just focus on photography”.
But the more I could see the trend moving towards videography, the more I considered trying it out. A footwear brand gave me the opportunity to film a short campaign - the owner really liked my eye. I did it with the NIKON D810 and I really enjoyed it.
I also had the help of a really good filmmaker friend and he taught me a lot. He referred me on to Vogue Australia, and I developed a really great partnership with them.
It was initially very hectic and stressful. You're doing something which is time-conscious, like literally, you shoot, you edit, and you're done in two days. I'd never done any filming in that capacity. But I realised that when you put your mind to it, and you really believe in yourself, you can really do it. I built up a really great relationship with them. And it was awesome. Since then, I've been able to work with brands ranging from Vogue Australia to Ted Baker.
Was it the work you did for Vogue that opened those doors for you?
It was a combination of things. It was also uploading a lot of Instagram stories. With stories, you have to understand what engages people and put together a narrative. What are you trying to say? If you don’t have a narrative then why bother putting up a video at all? I struggle when I see a video that’s just pretty for the sake of it. It’s nice, but at the end of the day – what are you trying to say? What are you selling to me?
For those who may not understand what you’re talking about. What might an Instagram story that isn’t just pretty but has a narrative look like?
I usually recommend finding two or three key points and creating content around that. So, you always have a process structure framework. You’re going to have an introduction, a quick title, and then say what your first point is, talk to it and show imagery that is relating to it, then to your second point, and a conclusion/call to action.
Say we were talking about a camera – a NIKON Z fc. I might want to talk about the colours, and how you can style your camera with your outfit. The second point could be how light the body is, showing how easy it is to move with it.
Karen capturing her REPLAY outfit styles using the Nikon Z fc, 2023
I get what you’re saying. Narrative in this case is the selling point.
Yes, but then you want to do something at the end. Prompt them to reach out, find out more, or whichever call of action is appropriate.
It seems everyone is a content creator or videographer these days. Have you thought about how you were able to break through and do well in such a competitive space?
I think it’s because I’ve always kept myself open. I’ve never thought I know it all. I’ve always had that mindset. If I’m new to something, I’ll learn about it. Read about it. I would buy books on film directors. Watch their films. I’d listen to podcasts. I’ll ask questions. Self-education. Investing in knowledge is very important.
I do look at other social accounts, but I don’t obsess over it as it can take up too much of your time and you can start comparing yourself. At the very beginning when you’re new to it all, you can get too tied up in what other people are doing and lose sense of who you are. Now, I never compare.
It’s also about practicing, and having a good team around you that you can feel safe to explore your ideas around. A team that can help you get to where you want to go. I think that’s really important.
Early on, you saw that videography was likely to blow up. Any predictions as to where we are going from video, or how video might change in the future?
I see the next step up is 3D animation. Anything 3D. And AI.But there are a lot of adult AI artists out there who are changing the way through photographs. I've been studying a lot because I started working with M&C Saatchi, and I love studying ads and where people put their media. Having a 3D billboard or panels engages a whole new level of audience. I think that's where people are going to move - into mixed mediums.
You’ve worked with quite a few of the top fashion brands. Are there any specific brands that you’d love to shoot for?
[Thinks] Nothing comes immediately to mind, but…
Is it more the content than the brands? Like, if the project is attractive?
It depends on what the brand wants to explore. If they want to do something that requires storytelling, I’m all for it. And when I say storytelling, I mean like a little movie.
So, you’re becoming more and more interested in narrative, obviously?
Yeah. Creating a feature film will always be something at the back of my mind. That would be awesome. I think I’ll be moving more towards directing as time goes on. It’s something I’m definitely interested in exploring.
So, when you boil it all down, what do you consider yourself? A filmmaker, a photographer? A strategist?
I try to explore my options and see what I can do well, and what I love, and combine my skills together. Everything's transferable. Initially, I thought: what am I? Because I got confused. Am I a filmmaker? Am I a photographer? An influencer? Until someone said, you're actually a creative.
So that's why I call myself – a creative. That's what I think I'm most happy with. Because at the end of the day, I have all these amazing foundations to help me build into a better, well rounded, creative person. Yeah, so I feel don't silo yourself and don't be so narrow minded. Don’t try and put one label on yourself.
Karen’s portrait editorial shoot was awarded an AIPP Silver award in 2012
Karen's standout editorial work published on VOGUE.COM, 2018. This was highlighted as "Best in PhotoVogue". Styled by Emily Edwards, makeup by Tre Dallas.
Karen’s favourite editorial work published in Vogue.com, 2018. Art direction by Emily Edwards and makeup by Kate Radford
Karen’s most creative menswear film campaign with INFORMALE, 2021.
Karen’s pinch-me moment: launch film for HERMÈS, 2022
If for some ridiculous reason, everything you’ve ever created is going to be wiped off the face of the earth except for one thing – a photo or a video. What would it be?
Being time poor, I haven’t documented my family a lot. So, if I was to loop back to what I feel is most valuable is probably the newborn photos of my son. I printed them, I put them in an album. As a mum, it’s the proudest moment and I think going back to the basics of documenting, printing and archiving. You can touch it and it’s tangible and that’s what I really love the most.
And what about on the work side of things. Any one creation that stands out?
I think my work is… just okay. I don’t ever think it’s that. It’s hard to explain.
I think I understand, it’s more about the process for you?
If it’s something that resulted in me achieving something – for instance, what I created that landed my partnership with Nikon, then that’s the memory I hold onto. I’ve always wanted to be recognised as someone who is self-taught and actually contributed to the industry and that’s something I’m really proud of.
Karen presenting the Nikon Z Creator Fashion Editorial workshop, 2020
If someone was starting out as a creative and they need some words of encouragement, what would you say?
I always go back to never compare yourself. We all get imposter syndrome. We all think we’re not good enough. You’ll always have gaps in what you know – but spend the time understanding those gaps and ask for help if you need it. Don’t feel like you’re alone. If you spend your energy being positive towards yourself as opposed to down on yourself then you can actually start to evolve and create a unique standpoint of who you are as a brand. I think that’s a good way to start.
If we were to peek inside your gear bag, what would we find?
Two cameras. You’d find my NIKON Z 6 mirrorless and a backup. I have my mirrorless for filming and photography. My favourite 70-100mm. My portrait lenses – 50mm, 35mm and 85mm, and my Rode audio recording equipment for filmmaking.
Obviously, sound is important, please! Ever since I've ventured into filmmaking, my gear has grown. I have a Ronin S gimble and Profoto lighting gear. Yeah, so from now on I'll always need an assistant to carry my stuff!
It also depends on the job. If I was doing street stuff, I’d keep everything simple. Just a camera and a lens or two. Keep it light.
A peek inside Karen’s gear bag.
Is there a reason you gravitated towards Nikon?
I started out with a competitor, but at the time, my husband and I were shooting a lot of couples. They’d often be facing a stained-glass window and the backlighting was really hard to focus on properly.
And then every time we’d see the resulting photo in Lightroom, it wasn't sharp, and the highlights and the colours weren't what we were after. We then decided to look into Nikon and see if we can improve our colour range and diversity. It all started from there.
We got, I think, a NIKON D50. Then DX cameras. Then we moved into mirrorless. I should say: the Z 7 really launched my filmmaking career. I really do owe it to Nikon for bringing out that camera and giving me the opportunity to use it and test the waters. I’ve been doing films rather than photography from then on. I maximised the camera and its use and became part of my offering. So, it’s awesome.