Could I bring photographers into the four walls of someone’s home and document a family in an hour… and yield some awesome photos? I really wasn’t sure. And I’ll never forget being on the phone with Anastasia (mom), telling her my plan, and her response, “Do you have kids?” I could hear the doubt in her voice and, though I didn’t let it show, my confidence was in agreement.
I was a photographer determined to make it work. Let’s face it – kids can be unpredictable. My experience with clients with kids has always been positive with them warming up to me quickly. However, bringing in a small audience of photographers + me with my big, black machine duo (5D III + D4) diving right into the session (under the pressure of a clock) could have ended in kids hiding their faces behind mom in dad in a “what’s going on?!” the entire time. To prepare for the worst, I also offered the family a second session at one of their favorite beaches after the workshop was over.
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In planning the Documenting Family & Beyond workshop, it was important I actually ran a shoot so the students could observe my movement and how I interact with clients. However, I didn’t want them to watch me shoot ALL day…. we had a lot to talk about during classroom time after all. In Oahu, traffic can be a little crazy from what I learned, so I knew I had to factor that into the timeline. With everything I wanted to cover, it was my goal to run a session in about an hour. So are you ready to see how that went?!
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Prep for a short family documentary photo session
A session for me begins BEFORE the shoot itself with the family completing a questionnaire (I use the Storytelling Questions for Clients – family version and the Personality Worksheet for my family shoots). These are a vital piece of my sessions, because they give me an arsenal of things to watch for during a session. Having ideas in what to watch for during a session allows me to shoot more from THEIR perspective rather than my own, because my inspiration is truly from their words. Of course, I shoot what moves me as well, but I am able to go into any session with confidence when feel like I know them.
Anastasia is a military mom. Richard used to be active duty, but today he is the stay at home dad. Right away from Anastasia’s responses, I learned their middle son, Maks, is a momma’s boy. This became even more clear as I was shooting just how much he loves his mom! On the weekends, they like to get out when they can. Around the house, they like to make pancakes, the baby will eat an insane amount of fruit, they do “lay down mommy” and hang out on their mattress in their living room (genius idea when you have 3 young kids, by the way), and make smoothies. Not to mention, Anastasia is a TALENTED photographer herself… not to add any more pressure to the mix (seriously love the color brilliance in her images).
Knowing our arrival was 10 a.m., after breakfast when you have little ones, I suggested they could make smoothies during our time together as a way to bring the family together and engage in case letting everyone simply be caused everyone to focus on the shooting and small audience. Let me tell you, they could have easily done without the smoothies and this session would have been successful. In fact, 15 minutes into the session, Milana gave me not 1, but 2 beautifully color pictures of a mermaid + rainbow.
The energy of the entire family was relaxed and playful without any designated activity!
Shooting the 1 Hour Session
Beyond introductions, the first thing I mentally do is assess the light. I watch where it’s coming from, where it’s falling, and the color. And we were off! All 3 children truly led the session. Where they were, parents followed, and I bounced all around between each person in a constant motion. They colored, red books, stepped out to their patio trampoline, made smoothies, did their tradition of “lay down mommy,” and simply fell into their role of being them… and yes all within an hour (maybe an hour and 15 tops).
(These are my 30 favorite images… Can you tell there were 3 other photographers here observing?!)
So how long should a family documentary photo session be?
Ahh this sure is a hot question! My first piece of advice is to NOT think about how long it “should” be. Start by figuring out these 2 things:
- What do you want your sessions to be like? (what’s their purpose – the emotional need you’re fulfilling for the client)
- How long does it take for you to feel fully free to shoot with fully relaxed clients? (i.e. not feel rushed under the pressure of a clock, yet fast enough that you’re not giving away your time for peanuts)
My session duration is all over the place, dependent on the goal of the session. For me, there are 2 ways to approach a session. There’s simply going for great, documented moments, obvious emotion (laughter, crying), & interaction being the sole focus. Then, there’s extending those things, but also utilizing more of the environment, objects, human details, and more. I’ll be present to watch for more than what I’d see walking into my clients’ home blind – I’ll work extra hard to watch for the things I know they want to remember from their words. (i.e. Intentional Documentary™)
I LOVE the 30 images shot in an hour above. The family loved them – in fact, Anastasia ordered an album and surprised her husband, Richard, with it for his birthday. However, as the shooter, I see where I could have done MORE. For a quick example, I could have pulled in details of their home where so many memories have been made and that they will be leaving behind the next time they PCS. Such details evoke a feeling I can’t quite put into words when you are looking at something that is iconic to a particular season in your life.
And how would I have done that? Simply by adding more time to my clock! For me, shooting in an hour, yeah I got some great images. But with the pressure of the clock, my focus was 100% on getting GREAT images of them and it hindered my ability to provide more. I would have LOVED more time with the family for them to really sink into just BEING as opposed for being ready for a photo shoot, ya know?
WANT TO RUN A SESSION THAT LETS YOUR INNER MOMENT-SEEKER WIN?
Grab this easy cheat sheet + training emails and infuse your documentary sessions with more client authenticity.
Read the next post in this 3 part series here: How to Get More Great Photos in a Short Session
Homework: Look back at your past 5-10 sessions and note the duration of each shoot. What differences do you see? Comment below, I’d love to hear about your discoveries.