By Annabelle Bok
January 21, 2021
From finding a gap in Singapore’s photography scene to establishing a signature style and thriving in trying times, this boutique photography outfit has come a long way in the last 12 years. Co-founder and creative director Elaine Lim shares more about the journey of White Room Studio
In 2009, White Room Studio was launched by sibling duo Dan Yeo and Elaine Lim in a tiny unit on the second level of a spacious heritage corner shophouse. Perched above a well-known local coffee shop in River Valley, the photography outfit soon gained traction with a well-heeled clientele comprising locals as well as expatriates. Over the years, their reputation has grown, gaining them multiple awards and a long list of new and repeat customers, who seek them out for their seemingly simple, yet emotionally charged portraiture skills, as well as elegant and powerful corporate photography.
Now, 12 years on, White Room Studio—whose staff team has grown from two to nine—occupies both the second and third floors of this beautiful colonial building with Peranakan architectural features. These interiors are also newly renovated, with every part of the space thoughtfully adapted to the themes most often used for studio portraiture.
Co-founder and creative director Elaine Lim shares her inspirations, dreams and aspirations along the 12-year journey of White Room Studio.
Let’s start from the beginning. What made you decide to take up photography?
Elaine Lim (EL) My mother. She was into photography when I was growing up in the 70s. It must have been a fairly unusual sight seeing a young lady toting a 35mm rangefinder all over Singapore! My brothers and I were constantly used as her photographic subjects. I guess somehow, the image of my young mother taking photos in a serious way stuck with me. Although I graduated with a computing degree, I accidentally discovered a burning passion for the fine art of photography when I purchased a film SLR during a backpacking hiking trip in Japan. I was incredibly lucky to find established learning support in Sydney, where I learnt about camera works, darkroom printing, and my biggest love – fine art landscape photography.
What was topmost on your mind when visualising the concept of White Room Studio to make it different from other studios in Singapore?
EL When I entered the field, there were already many photography studios and freelance photographers in the Singapore photography market who were offering their services via website portfolios. However, I felt that something really essential was lacking: customer service. Customer service is just as important as what one sees from the back of a camera. Additionally, quality retouching and design are crucial when it comes to the finishing and presentation of portraits.
I was also certain that my eye for quality, detail, and finishing, which I had developed over the years in Australia, was different and could be a unique selling point. I am really happy that White Room Studio is now renowned for its passion and perfection in portraiture in Singapore.
Also, with regards to pricing, White Room’s packages are simple, and our clients are free to purchase as many or as few photos as they like. Pushy sales tactics have never worked on me, so we afford our clients the same courtesy that we appreciate extended to us.
What about White Room’s spaces? How are they different from other studios?
EL Unlike most portrait studios, which gravitate towards using standard paper or canvas backdrops and open window portraiture, White Room is all about creating and leveraging strategically designed space for shoots. To stay on the cutting edge, studio concepts can no longer be predictable and stale. Our space is where we have created genuine concept areas that are in touch with the history of Singapore as well as with nature: Peranakan, Plush and Lux, Classic European, Nature and Greenery, and Cool Studio.
(Related: Get the Perfect Shot For Your Family Portrait with White Room Studio)
Tell us about working with your brother Dan.
EL Setting up White Room Studio with Dan has been a dream come true. He is a complete artist at heart. He’s a great listener, and he gets personal insights into every single client before he even picks up the camera. That contributes greatly to the unique experience our studio delivers. We realised early on that we have to be open-minded in listening to the stories of people from different walks of life, and being open to ideas, while also bringing in our own creative thinking: this is all combined such that we can deliver the kind of imagery that appeals to our clients. This shared understanding is the basis of White Room Studio: to listen and understand, and to be a friend. To be able to capture the essence of our clients’ personalities, and touch their inner souls through the use of light and shadow.
What do you love most about portrait photography?
EL Being portrait photographers is not just about capturing pretty images. We are essentially memory creators, and we need to possess the skills to make strangers comfortable enough to open up to us. From clicking the camera at the right time, at the right angle and with the right settings, to working with each image in the digital darkroom to such that it prints to its best effect, we as photographers have a responsibility to be honest, serious, and open-minded. When you approach this work with honesty and authenticity, magic happens, and our photos touch our clients’ hearts in the deepest way. That brings me great satisfaction.
Our clients constantly reaffirm that what we do is meaningful, and each heartfelt review strengthens our dedication. The many thoughtful conversations I’ve had with them over the years just goes to show how each and every one of us is unique, beautiful, and worthy. I feel so lucky to be doing what the studio is doing, and so blessed to meet such caring souls along the way.
You undertook an extensive studio renovation in 2020. Tell us about it.
EL As a photographer and a visual artist, I found myself constantly tinkering with our expansive interiors, feeling that they were under-utilised. That brought me to the idea of creating a personal gallery space on the third floor and calling it Third Room Gallery. Embracing everything that speaks to me as touching and cultural makes me feel good, so we carefully restored the original floorboards, windows, and ceiling, to make better use of the space for portrait shoots with different concepts. After all, we are committed to enhancing our position in Singapore as the leading service provider in portrait photography, while also expanding further into corporate and lifestyle portraits.
What are some of your favourite new concept areas or details in Third Room Gallery?
EL Overall, I was inspired by the historical use of Peranakan tiles in shophouses, so I sourced some from Chinatown—there are plenty in use around the studio. These works of art also provide colour inspiration for me; in fact, they also informed the anchor colours of each concept space in the studio. At the Peranakan Corner, for example, the traditional colours and patterns of the tiles inspired our choice of emerald green for the walls.
Dan and I decided to install a beautiful interior arch overlooking the black wooden staircase landing, for the French Classic area. We also decorated the plain white walls with graceful full-height French-style wainscoting. The finished look is sufficiently formal for photographing families and individuals in a classic setting, yet intimate and homely enough for families old and young to relax and be at their natural best during a shoot.
On the other side of the third floor, a curved row of grand colonial windows let in floods of natural sunlight all day long—portraits taken here hardly need more than a fill flash to create the required mood!
(Related: Why China’s Chen Man Is Regarded As One of The Best Fashion Photographers Today)
How was it for White Room Studio during Covid-19?
EL What a year 2020 was! No one could have imagined the ups and downs that it brought beforehand. The team worked twice as hard as usual during the Circuit Breaker period, facing uncertainties week by week — there was no night or day to our working hours. Third Room Gallery was launched in September. By the time Phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening came around, our feet were totally off the brakes — we have been pushing forward at full throttle since then. Yes, we’re still at it right now!
The most awesome thing is that the team has never been stronger and more cohesive than now. I’m so grateful, so thankful, to each and every team member of White Room Studio, for their dedication and effort in every single enquiry, every single shoot, every photograph we retouch and produce into memorable displays. How amazing it is to witness us helping one another: when one of us is about to drop the ball everyone else will rush to catch it and then laugh about it. We shared so much fun and joy and pushed through all the drama, hand in hand.
Now, we’re embracing 2021 with wide-open arms, and I wish everyone a Happy New Year and a great beginning to exciting and happy times ahead!
White Room Studio is part of the Best of Singapore 2021 guide.