How to Be a Photo Director: In Conversation with Tracey Woods

For more than fifteen years, photo director Tracey Woods has helped shape and create positive narratives as a photo researcher, editor producer, and director. Her wide range of work includes beauty, lifestyle, politics, human rights, and celebrity culture.

Shortly after receiving her MFA in photography, Tracey Woods‘ career quickly spun into working with photographers. She began working as a freelance photo researcher for Essence Magazine, which soon evolved to full-time-photo-editor and then photo director. In her time at the magazine, she commissioned hundreds of photographers to shoot features and cover stories with celebrities, political figures, and luminaries like Michelle and Barack Obama, Mary J. Blige, Hillary Clinton, Yara Shahidi, Janet Jackson, Issa Rae, and countless others.

Woods regularly works with a slew of impressive clients including Billboard, Bon Appetit, InStyle, Wiley Publishing, Revlon, L’Oreal, Kraft, General Mills, Verizon, Bulova, Marriott, and Samsung. She is incredibly active in the photography community and (now often via Zoom) regularly participates in portfolio reviews like The New York Times Portfolio Review, Atlanta Celebrates Photography, The Palm Springs Photo Review.

The Luupe speaks with Woods on her inspiring career and her return to consulting and producing after 15+ years at Essence.


Niecy Nash photographed by Sophy Holland for the September, 2017 issue of Essence Magazine

The Luupe: How did you get your start photo editing, directing, producing, and working with photographers? 

Tracey Woods: After I received my MFA in photography from Pratt Institute, I assisted some commercial/editorial photographers. I quickly realized that I did not like assisting nor did I want to be a commercial photographer (I wanted to be a still life photographer for a hot minute.) I ended up working behind the scenes as a studio manager, then producer for photographers and photo reps. This is where and how I learned the business of photography. Not only are you a creative, but you also need some business acumen.

The Luupe: Do you have any new perspectives on photo direction and the creative process having recently returned to consulting and freelance production?

Woods: I think the creative process during the pandemic has definitely changed in how we create. Photographers and photo editors have found new ways to create original content through. Remote shooting through Zoom and Facetime, subjects photographing themselves, social distancing photoshoots with less people on set, etc.

Tessa Thompson photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis for the November 2019 issue of Essence Magazine

The Luupe: Does working for yourself change your process of hiring photographers? 

Woods: No, not at all. Everything is based on the clients’ needs and wants. It’s still about finding the right photographer for the project.

The Luupe: Do you have any career insights or advice to aspiring photographers or photo editors?

Woods: Be nice to everyone, don’t burn bridges and network. Everyone you come across is in a position to recommend you and some will be in the position to hire you one day. This business is not only about creativity, but also relationships. Also, keep evolving in your work (testing, other creative outlets you may have, trying new technologies, etc).

Chloe + Halle. Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom for the March, 2019 issue of Essence Magazine


The Luupe: If it’s possible to narrow it down, do you have a particular “most memorable” moment of your career so far – something you’re most proud of? 

Woods: There have been a few, but one that stands out is being on set with Michelle Obama. We only had about 20 minutes to half an hour with her. We wanted to show her in her naturally curly textured hair. You have never seen her like this while she was First Lady.

Once the shoot is confirmed, weeks prior to the shoot, we have pre-pro calls with her team (including the hairstylist, makeup artist, and fashion stylist) and the photographer.  All details are ironed well in advance of the shoot. On the shoot day, everything is set up and tested prior to her arrival on set. When you have such little time with a subject, everything has to be on point. When she arrives to set, she’s glam ready, dressed and it’s time to go. Mrs. Obama was gracious and welcoming to everyone – she said hello to each person on the set. She also had her own playlist and danced to the music.

Michelle Obama photographed by Miller Mobley for the December 2018/ January 2019 cover of Essence Magazine

The Luupe: We’re in the midst of a long-overdue public reckoning on systemic racism in every aspect of our world. Do you notice this impacting how editors, brands, and magazines research, hire, and work with photographers? 

Woods: I have definitely noticed that more BIPOC photographers are being sought out by my non-BIPOC peers. I hope this is not a short-lived trend and that folks in hiring positions consider BIPOC photographers for everything, not just when a subject is similar to their background.

The Luupe: Is the quarantine impacting your work or how you work with photographers?

Woods: The quarantine pretty much halted the projects that I had in the works. Some things were pushed back to an undisclosed date and others went away completely. I was able to still do a few virtual portfolio reviews that were originally scheduled as in-person reviews. I also at on some photo juries and contest judging.

Isa Rae. Photographed by Itaysha Jordan for the April, 2019 issue of Essence Magazine

The Luupe: Who was the last photographer you commissioned? 

Woods: The last photography projects I can speak about publicly, was done at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. Itaysha Jordan photographed approximately 17 African American beauty executives in group and solo shots. Itaysha is able to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera and gives good light.

The Luupe: Congrats on your recent work with Macy’s! What’s the story behind the project?

Woods: Harlequin Design reached out to me to collaborate with their client, Macy’s, and the Herald Square NYC store reopening. Macy’s wanted something to show New Yorkers their love and support they have for everyone. The idea was to show love, support, togetherness, gratitude, and hope.

Woods’ installation for Macy’s. © Bill Sullivan
The Luupe: How do you balance your own photography and design work with all of the other work you do? 

Woods: It’s tough, especially when I was working full-time, to dedicate time to my own art practice. After working a full day, sometimes long days on set, I had no inspiration or energy to be creative for myself. I think this is real for a lot of people. I say to others and myself, you have to create space for yourself to be inspired and to create.

The Luupe: What photographers get you excited about photography today and its future potential? 

Woods: There are so many talented female photographers. My list can go on and on. Here are a few: Itaysha Jordan, Sophy Holland, Erica Genece, Celeste Sloman, Ramona Rosales, Nathalie Gordon, Kelly Marshall, Manjari Sharma, Naila Ruechel, Djeneba Aduayom, Lia Clay Miller, Phylicia J. Munn