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  • From Photographer to Filmmaker: Bonnie Cee’s Beautifully Unconventional Career

From Photographer to Filmmaker: Bonnie Cee’s Beautifully Unconventional Career

Canon Ambassador Bonnie Cee wears many hats: professional stills shooter, founder of the innovative Colourtone app, and creator of short films and a TV series called Casino Beach for which she recently won an Australian Directors Guild award for Best Direction in an online drama series episode, in addition to three other awards. But her journey to commercial and creative success in the photo and film industries has been anything but conventional. Here she discusses how she self-taught, self-propelled and self-funded her way from florist to filmmaker.

Blossom, Boudoir, and Black Milk in Brisbane: The Beginning

As is often the case with modern imagemakers, Bonnie’s path to becoming a photographer and filmmaker was somewhat winding. Her creative inclinations led her to explore a variety of different avenues, including floristry and textile design, before fate placed a camera in her hands.

It was 2008 and she was travelling in Europe with a friend who had a DSLR. “Everything in front of me was just so visually beautiful. My friend lent me his DSLR and as soon as I touched it and tried it, I realised ‘this is it’.”

Consumed by her new passion, Bonnie started spending as much time as possible reading photography books and magazines to satiate her thirst for knowledge.

“Finally I asked my mum to help me buy a camera and some lights, because I knew this was my calling. I really wanted to create.”

Hungry for experience, Bonnie then took a job in a photography studio where she sold packages and absorbed as much as she could.

“And I just started shooting whatever I could in my spare time. I read the camera manual twice so I knew exactly what everything did and how everything worked. And then, with the help of the magazines, I learned about the essentials, like ISO and aperture and shutter speed.”

More importantly, Bonnie put theory into practice whenever possible, photographing anything and anyone she could, from portraits of her dogs and friends to leaves and flowers out in her garden. Before long, Bonnie had developed the skills necessary to take on a job at an e-commerce fashion company, becoming the in-house photographer for a label called Black Milk Clothing in Brisbane.

“It was a big deal to me to get that job and that’s where I had the most growth in photography. I finally had a reason to shoot with real models and I was shooting big, impactful campaigns.”

But Bonnie didn’t rest on her laurels and continued taking on extra gigs to expand her knowledge and portfolio. She shot weddings on the weekends and personal projects in her home studio. And she also took on any editorial or boudoir commissions she could get her teeth into.

Bonnie Cee using Canon gear for filmmaking
Bonnie Cee on the set of award winning TV series, Casino Beach

“I realised fashion photography was where my passion was and, after four years at the label, I went freelance to pursue exciting projects as a commercial fashion photographer.”

Bonnie Cee, Canon Ambassador

For many photographers, this might have seemed like the ultimate and possibly final career destination. But it was at this point that Bonnie made her most surprising and lucrative career moves of all.

Colour for the Masses: Creating the Colourtone App

With over five-million downloads, it’s safe to say that Bonnie’s Colourtone app is a raving success. Inspired after spotting the trend of photographers selling their presets, her idea was to bring Lightroom-style preset packs to smartphone shooters. It may sound simple by today’s standards, but at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary.

“Colour grading is such a big part of what I love about photography and I was getting feedback from my clients and Instagram followers that they liked the way I graded my images. But although there were colour filter apps out there, they didn’t entirely solve the issue for everyday smartphone shooters. They weren’t simple, convenient or quick, and they didn’t offer creative autonomy. What I was offering was a simpler way to take a snap on a smartphone and edit it well without having to pay for any other software, like Lightroom or Photoshop.”

Colourtone was also different because it allowed smartphone shooters to edit their videos as well as photos, while other apps only focused on photos.

Filmmaking in the beach
Bonnie Cee on the set of international award winning short film, On My Way

“It’s probably been my greatest career surprise and greatest success. I had no idea it would be so successful. As soon as I released it, customers flocked to the app and it's continued to enjoy amazing organic growth. Still to this day, I don't run any ads for it and it's had over 5,000,000 downloads. It generates a healthy income and people talk about it being a great app that’s easy to use. It was a product people wanted: easy to use, affordable, and it just works.”

In December 2019, Bonnie added a subscription option which gave subscribers access to all 200 filters – payable weekly or yearly.

“The subscription model is the reason the app is generating such good income today, because there are however many thousands of people using it every month. And the small couple of dollars per week or month all adds up.”

Covid, Childrearing and a Self-Funded Filmmaking Career

If we can learn anything from Bonnie’s fearless approach to her work, it’s that there’s no “one size fits all” route to a fulfilling creative career. In the true spirit of a modern-day visual artist, Bonnie leveraged the success of her app and commercial photography to follow her dreams and launch a filmmaking career.

“My success with Colourtone is the reason I have been able to pursue a career in filmmaking. For a single mum in the creative industries, it gives me a passive income that enables me to explore what I’m passionate about and what I can do next with my career.”

But financial freedom wasn’t the only motivating factor. Like so many creators, the Covid pandemic proved to be something of a creative catalyst for Bonnie.

“It was during the first lockdown that I decided to pivot into filmmaking. I was going so hard into the fashion photography realm. I absolutely loved it and hadn't experienced any burn out or anything. But in the middle of it all I had a baby and my mindset shifted. My life priorities changed and I saw an opportunity for my professional life to change as well.”

Whilst interning on a film set, a DP told Bonnie that the only way to climb the ladder would be to work in a camera department for 30 years and then take on every job and work her way up from the bottom. However, in classic Bonnie style, she decided she wasn’t willing to settle for 12-hour days and minimum wage ‘just to see what might happen’.

“I thought, if I want to make this work, I absolutely have to do it in an untraditional way and prove myself in my own way. I realised I’d have to do it myself and pay for it myself. It was the same when I got into photography. You're not going to get hired to shoot a wedding or shoot fashion until you've done it and you can say ‘here's what I can do’.”

And that’s what Bonnie did. Having made her decision and committed to her pivot into filmmaker, she shot two short films (6min + 17mins) called, Run With Me and Unseen, with the objective of honing her craft and demonstrating what she could do.

“I know I’m taking an unconventional route in the film industry, and that there might be a backlash. I fully expect people to laugh in my face. But in today’s creative world, where everything is accessible online, it's easier than ever to carve out your own future without following a traditional path.”

Bonnie Cee, Canon Ambassador

Bonnie’s efforts paid off and led to a collaboration with a writer with whom she developed and shot the pilot episode of Casino Beach, which will be extended to an eight-episode season.

“It was inspired by a couple of young adult drama shows on TV called Outer Banks, and Into the Blue. Lots of mystery, lots of adventure. I spoke to the writer who wrote my first short film and told her I envisioned it as a series, which was quite ambitious for someone so inexperienced in the industry. And she said, ‘Sure, let’s give it a crack!’.”

It was a big commitment to make, both creatively and financially, but Bonnie believed in her project and remained focussed on her vision.

Bonnie Cee's Canon gear for filmmaking
Filming Casino Beach

“I reached for the stars with this project, completely self-funding and self-producing it, because it just wouldn't have been made otherwise. It's been a passion project of mine. And the feedback has been great with everyone involved saying the script is solid and the production quality is high.”

Bonnie continued, “I put my own money behind it because I wanted to show production houses what I can do. I'm all about doing things in a non-traditional way and making things happen. Even my approach to marketing is odd to some but a no-brainer for me.”

In addition to her Casino Beach pilot, Bonnie has also created short films including Run with Me and, On My Way which has to date received 14 international short film awards including winning best cinematography awards at the New York International Film Awards, Canadian Cinematography Awards & Cinematic European Film Festival.

Crushing the Learning Curve: Creating with Canon

As a photographer expanding into video, Bonnie’s confidence was boosted as a result of her familiarity with the gear. As a long-time Canon shooter, her new video-centric cameras felt right at home in her hands, making the switch feel natural and intuitive.

“All of my film and TV work is shot on the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, Canon EOS C300 Mark III and hybrid EOS C70, paired with anamorphic lenses from Atlas Orion. Right from the beginning I felt confident shooting with Canon cinema cameras because I was already familiar with the systems and colour science. I know, especially with skin tones, what is going to come out and I know where I can get it to. Shooting Canon Raw is also a must and I really like the reliability and dynamic range I'm getting out of the EOS C300 Mark III and EOS C70. The image isn't noisy or unstable in the dark. One of the other features I love and use most is the in-built ND filters, which allow me to shoot wide open at virtually any time of day at the press of a button.”

Ultimately, having the right gear in her hands frees Bonnie up to explore and overcome the myriad other aspects of filmmaking. “It gives me confidence knowing exactly what I'm going to get out of the camera as I’m shooting with it, which leaves me free to focus on the other elements of production that are less familiar to me.”

Another surprise along the way has been the shift in Bonnie’s aesthetic shift. “I'm definitely still developing my filmmaking style but I have noticed that it’s visually very different to how I shoot my stills. With my swimwear and commercial fashion photography, it’s all about the glow and being beautifully lit, but I tend to go a lot darker and lean into shadows more with my motion work. Obviously, something is influencing me, but I haven’t pinpointed a specific style or director or DP or anything. I'm just kind of having fun.”

Bonnie Cee using Canon gear for filmmaking
Bonnie Cee on set filing Casino Beach

Top tips for starting up a photography business as a woman:

1: Find your photography style and what you love to shoot, then invest your time in building a strong portfolio showcasing your best work. Reach out to models, makeup artists and other creatives and set up test shoots and start shooting the imagery you want to be hired for. Then once you have some strong examples of your work, reach out to brands and pitch yourself.

2: Get online and utilize social media channels to get your work out there and seen by the right people. You never know who's watching and it's a small industry. If you are consistent and present a quality curation of your work...the right people will start to take notice.

3: Invest in yourself, invest in your business and take the leap on those crazy ideas. Being a creative gives you so much freedom to explore all aspects of business. It's possible to do a lot (in regards to starting a new business) for not a lot of money. Just break down the big idea into actionable small steps and start ticking them off. Consistency is key!

  • From Photographer to Filmmaker: Bonnie Cee’s Beautifully Unconventional Career