By Ashley Soeder
In past articles, my focus has been on photographing moments within my own home. People I am familiar with, in spaces I know, in areas I can move and manipulate to my liking. Although I don’t take on a huge amount of client sessions it is still something that I feel not only passionate about but something that has helped me grow as a photographer in ways I can’t quite get from shooting solely personal work. Client family photography work is the thing for me that almost ended before it even really started. A self-proclaimed introvert, socially awkward, observing in the background. My idea of a family photographer was someone the exact opposite of all those things.
“Client work isn’t for me. I’m not very good at it. It brings unnecessary stress into my life. I’m not doing it. My focus will be on personal work, and I’m okay with that” – Ashley circa 2018
I truly thought some of my own unhappiness in my creative journey came from the fact that I was stressing myself out in taking client work. What I found though, was that once I stopped taking those sessions, as I slowly started to find my voice with the camera I really started to miss the thing I thought I hated. I started to entertain the idea of taking on a few client sessions, comparing working with strangers to working with my own kids. How do these processes overlap, how are they different, and how could I bridge the gaps to make it a more fulfilling experience for not just myself but for future clients as well.
So I present to you “A Guide to Family Photography for the Introverted Photographer.” This comes with a great big disclaimer that by no means am I an expert. I have so much to learn, and really hope that never stops, but the points below keep my introverted quiet self from entertaining the idea of packing a disguise in case I freeze and need to plan an exit strategy during a session, or simply just referring out those requests when they come in in the first place. ( which I do sometimes, but more on that later)
Step 1 – Nerves, they’re real: Know that sessions might still feel nervewracking, you might in the days or hours before have some slight doubt. I don’t think there is any way around this. Anytime we put ourselves out there, meet new people, experience new things, or do something we care so incredibly about (like our photographs) those nerves are there. Preparation is key, and although it won’t eliminate these feelings it will minimize them.
Which takes us to…
Step 2: Preparation is everything: The preparation process, for me at least, is a big one that follows me from inquiry to execution. I start with a client questionnaire. Mine is attached to the booking page on my website, and if an inquiry comes in from a different channel I refer prospective clients to it. I have a whole wide range of questions from the usual info ( names, ages, session date ) to some more personal questions that help me get to know the people I am working with and hopefully be able to channel and incorporate at least some of that into their session. I ask for fun facts about each family member, the last time they had a family session, why they are interested in a session now, the favorite thing about their family at this stage, and how they spend a lazy Sunday. I also ask things like, if they have any concerns, special requests, or if the kids take a while to warm up to new people. Through these questions, I can usually determine if the clients are a good fit for me and me for them. If they request something totally different than I shoot I will politely reply back and suggest that I would love to chat more about their vision and needs. If it’s a style much different than mine I will pass along the names of some amazing local photographers who I am sure will be able to capture what they are after.
Step 2- Part 2: Know your location: I mainly shoot in clients homes (usually there is no way to scope this out ahead of time, but I do have a guide that I send out to calm clients nerves about any uneasiness they might have about photographing in their homes ex: open the curtains, declutter and remove any items you don’t want to be photographed) and out in local parks and greenspaces. I have a list of local places that I am familiar with, I know the lighting, and they are large and sheltered enough that there are minimal dangers for little kids to run and play. I don’t want to have to worry about traffic or other unnecessary dangers while we are out shooting. I want families as relaxed as possible.
Step 2 – Part 3: Clients needs preparation too: I send out a session agreement ahead of time. It lists everything from image and processing expectations ( how many they can expect and how long it will take to get them), social media sharing information, but most importantly it sets the expectations that I want them to have fun, interact with one another, not focus on the camera. It reassures them that I’m with them every step of the way and will do my part to make sure they look great. I’ll be there with my camera capturing our time together, but it’s about the experience of it all more than anything.
Step 2- Part 4 ( see I told you preparation was a big part of it): Pre-session Pep-Talk: Once I know my clients, where we are shooting, and have my gear all packed up, I allow myself at least 30 minutes to an hour of quiet time before a session. This time to myself allows me to recharge and get in a better headspace to channel my inner conversationalist. I usually find a spot close to where we are shooting and hang out there, whether it’s in my car with a great playlist or in some nice grass under a tree.
Step 3 – Have fun: The biggest realization that I had in trying to decide if client work was something I wanted to do, was realizing the reason I didn’t like it in the first place. It always felt so formal, stiff, and impersonal. I don’t think there is anything wrong with formal and posed images (There are so many amazing photographers who do this beautifully and in a way that feels anything but impersonal) but realizing that it wasn’t for me was a big eye-opener. When I meet clients I don’t pull out my camera. It’s secondary to the whole process. I sit, whether it’s in their home, or at the park, and we talk. I allow clients to get settled, I allow myself to get settled. I slowly bring my camera out at some point through these conversations so they get used to its presence. If clients have brought a book to read I might set them up on a blanket somewhere and get them cuddling and reading, if the kids are active we might play freeze tag, red light green light, or eye spy. I tell the most ridiculous and totally lame jokes to get them smiling. I noticed once I immersed myself in the experience of hanging out with these people that I likely just met and took the focus off the camera I too started to relax. I’m in control of the session but don’t feel like me or the camera are center stage. And finally, the last part of this is that knowing even though I’m in control of the session, the kids really are the ones taking the lead. They dictate how our hour together plays out. If kids are shy and quiet I roll with that, if they need a break to cuddle, that’s what we do. If they need to run off some energy that is 100% cool. I don’t worry about anyone getting dirty, I don’t worry about goldfish cracker crumbs or a grass stain. For the most part, Photoshop is your friend here. As long as kids are relaxed, they don’t feel pressured, if they feel like they are a part of the process not only will they be easier to photograph genuinely, so will their parents. Being on the other side of the camera is a scary thing for a lot of families and something many don’t do often, and can sometimes dread, anyway I can make that a more enjoyable process feels like a win.
Step 4: You’ve made it! Celebration or nap time, you decide: You’ve shot a family photography session, there were no doubt smiles, laughs, lame jokes. If you’re anything like me you might have dirt stains on your pants, a few leaves in your hair, and some goose poop on your shoes. But also if you’re anything like me you’re tired and drained in only a way that an introvert feels after being around people. BUT you also feel creatively full and recharged as you settle into the comforts of your own car and head back home to back-up and preview your images.
Family photography isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of genres I will likely never shoot because they don’t speak to me but if you’ve ever turned down a session, or thought to yourself that you weren’t outgoing enough, or that family photography seemed like a scary or overwhelming experience hopefully there is something here that can help you out a bit. For me, I’ve learned the experience is often still filled with nerves but it’s also filled with rewards. Clients who turn to friends, getting to relive little moments of joy and laughter as I process the session, technical and creative growth that comes from putting yourself in new or uncomfortable situations all make the experience one that is worthwhile.
Ashley originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!