First Person: Dawn Shields

In her own words, a pro photographer gives back

This year at WPPI, family and wedding photographer Dawn Shields won the Fusion Video Award competition for her inspiring video about a talented eight-year-old girl who uses her amazing singing voice to deal with a terrible loss. Adorama’s Joel Meisels, who attended the award ceremony, reports that Dawn received a five-minute standing ovation and “there was not a dry eye in the room.” Watch the winning video, and read Dawn’s story, below, of how this project happened.

Dawn Shields writes:

Over the past three years, personal projects have become very close to my heart. My first project was "Legacy," my personal story about my grandfather, who was an inmate at Alcatraz. After working on that project for close to two years. I was hooked. There is nothing better to rejuvenate your passion for this industry than a personal project.

A Facebook Connection

My current project came to me by the way of a Facebook video posted on a friend's wall.  It was of this tiny little girl singing "Amazing Grace." My daughter heard me playing the video and asked who she was. We decided to Google her name, and found her website. I immediately noticed her website was lacking imagery that matched the level of talented voice. They looked like images taken at the local mall studio.

I read the girl’s story and learned that she had lost her mother almost two years prior to cancer, and that she mostly sang at cancer charity and church events. I realized this little girl and her father were dong this all alone. I was compelled to send them a message and offer to shoot images for her free of charge so she could use them on her site. Her dad contacted me immediately and the communication started.

I live in Missouri and they Live in Dallas, TX, it just so happened WPPI had me speaking on the roadshow and Dallas was one of my tour stops. Her father and I made plans for me to spend a couple hours with Rhema as soon as I finished my presentation. I was a little worried about how I was going to shoot her winter-themed album in the middle of August, but it was amazing how things just started to fall into place.



The First Shoot

As I started the shoot, a huge storm started to roll in, dark sky and all..Perfect! The shoot was very quick, but I had one of my close friends, Dorene Nash, and my daughter there assisting me so we got the shots with no problem. It was if this little girl’s mom was watching over her that day, the sky, perfect amount of wind, and everything she did was all her. I gave very little direction. I just captured who she was without trying to impose my agenda on her. It was truly a magical day.

I came home content with the imagery I was able to give as a gift to this family, but as we listened to her music in our office it quickly became apparent to everybody that a fusion album was exactly what this session needed. No one can tell her story better than Rhema and we knew that you have to see her sing to believe that the amazing voice you hear is coming from someone so small. So I knew I had to get back down to Texas.

I could have easily packed up a 7D and recorded all of the interviews myself, but I don't have the best understanding of professional sound equipment and it was a must to capture Rhemas voice in the best possible manner. I called my friend Brandon of Goodwin Films and explained my plan. He was totally on board to help me with my project.



Back to Dallas

The day after Thanksgiving we took off on a road-trip to Dallas. When we arrived, we started with Rhema's interview. She was just so candid and open about her life and her gift and the camera just loved her. Her father, Teton, was really shy about being on camera, but Brandon let him know how important he was to the story and before I knew it he was mic'd up and gave us a perfect interview. After the interviews we headed out for one final shoot. My mission was to show Rhema and her father's relationship. The two of them are very close, and capturing that was very easy. All I had to do was let them be themselves. The father/daughter love was very apparent.

When we got back to Missouri the editing started, we went through five versions before we got to what I felt was my vision for this project. Once we played the final version, it made me cry. That's when I knew we had captured this little girl and her story the way it needed to be told. The only reason this video is so dynamic is because of Rhema, I was just the lucky photographer who happened to reach out and was blessed by an eight-year-old.

What I Used

For all the techie minds out there I used a Canon 5D with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens being my primary lens throughout both shoots. All video was shot on a Canon 7D with an 85mm f/1.2 lens. If you are interested in learning more about Rhema, check out this beautiful little girl's site at


Connect with Dawn Shields on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog.



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