What Lights You Up?


What Lights You Up?

Part 2 of the Ultimate Guide to Changing Your Life Through Photography (um…still working on a more concise title.)
Just starting? Click here to go to Part 1: Are You Missing Your Own Story?

A good portrait is a time capsule highlighting a unique person in a specific place, at a particular time. A great portrait helps us re-live that moment – the feel of a sweater, the chilly breeze, warm fingers on your own.

Curate your time capsule wisely – and avoid decision fatigue.

Choices – they are supposed to be great. We want more of them. Uh…right?

My 18-month old (second-born) is wearing out his first pair of hand-me-down shoes. It seems to be going to much faster this time around. I thought I’d never have to shop for toddler shoes again, and it turns out I was wrong. Add another couple hours of boring busywork to the week – searching the options, price-comparing, cross-referencing the seasons and measuring his chubby little feet while he kicks and tangles up the measuring tape.

I really don’t want more choices. I don’t want to spend hours comparing features, sole flexibility, and waterproof uppers.  I just want to know what specific things I really should look for and what gets me the most value for my money. Quickly, with as few try-ons, returns, and as little busywork as possible. So we can just go outside for a walk, already.

I’ve got decision fatigue. About baby shoes. Shoes that he will wear for six months. These will not be a lifetime investment. These will not be going into the family time capsule.

Family photos will compromise almost the entirely of your time capsule.

It’s a little more complex than browsing Zappos.

Choosing who participates in your session, the time and place, the weather, activities, props and finishing methods, not to mention which specific moments and from what angle the camera catches the light – that’s a lot to take on.

Luckily, you don’t have to ruminate over most of this stuff – your photographer does. All you have to do is pick the right photographer.

It’s worth working with someone who already makes the work you love instead of a chameleon who might be flexible and willing to ‘try new stuff’ or is constantly asking you for input. You want an expert who knows what they are doing, and have honed their craft to perfection rather than someone who does everything in mediocrity. This is the only way to get dependable results – to cut through the busywork so you can get back outside for that walk together.

If the pictures hanging on your walls could be head-swapped with any other family – what’s the point?

So first, determine what kind of images light you up, and search for someone who can give you that. Then add balance. You don’t want to end up with that one teenager at JC Penny posing each family exactly the same way, with the exact same angle, hands-on-hips before the exact same background. Unless we’re going for a 90’s retro-ironic-hipster Glamourshots portrait, in which case, please send me a link because that sounds spectacular.

If you love fashion magazine photography – find a fashion photographer and ask them if they are willing to experiment on families. Love that composite of T-Rex chasing that couple? Hire that guy! (But please don’t ask another photographer to rip-off his work). The only caveat – find someone who takes portraits, because a landscape photographer isn’t going to have the skills to chase down a tot. This is foreshadowing…dun dun DUUUUN!

Choose what to put into your time capsule – something that hits you not as novel and trendy, but that HITS you. Then search for the archivist, the person you entrust to keep your memories safe for decades and generations – the perfect photographer for you.


Quick Primer #2: Find a style worthy of your family’s story

To save your time and sanity, let’s look at the two most important things to know when choosing your photographer.

AND OF COURSE – if you notice that your priorities line up with mine, shoot me a digital-high-five because we are obviously made for each other ::wink wink::

1 of 2: Documentary vs. Editorial

cupoftea2-01It’s the year 2055 and you’re chillin’ on the hover-sofa with your grand-daughter. Which album do you ask the robot-butler to pull down from the shelf?

The Documentary: Show her your son – how her father as a young boy insisted on wearing his pants backward every day for a year, his favorite teddy bear before it lost a button eye and he chewed the tail off. Show her his jelly mustaches and his squished up face when he throws his daily 6pm tantrum. Show her how his little body fit with yours, snuggling together as a family on Sunday morning before breakfast. Show her food fights, puddle-jumping, pancake breakfasts and all of you picking tomatoes in the old family garden.

The Editorial: Show her a beautiful image of all of you in the ideal – soft, flattering light, perfectly coiffed hair, coordinating outfits and friendly smiles. Show her the most beautiful place ever imagined (even if it was a backdrop and some plastic plants) with props that complement your matching pastel polo shirts. Show her that one time when your kids had perfectly starched outfits and hugged each other without one of them turning purple.

Trouble deciding? As yourself these three questions:

  1. If you could change your child’s personality, would you? (No one can hear you, so it’s OK to be honest. Personally I’d make my kids 40% quieter with elbows made of memory foam.)
  2. Imagine in 40 years you are offered an opportunity to delete your memories of the hard parts of parenthood – one ones that required you to push through even when you had nothing left – the ones you got through somehow. Do you give up those memories?
  3. If not, could I PAY you to take those memories away? Or would you refuse no matter the offer?

I ask because we all overestimate our ability to remember, especially when life is full and busy and we haven’t slept for six straight hours in months (or years). Think back to a year ago – what was your son’s favorite shirt? What new weird hobby did your daughter have? What was the one chair in the house you could sit in that didn’t make your butt numb when you were 9 months pregnant?

Do you remember? If you do – is it because you wrote it down, photographed it, or texted your friend about it?

If you want these memories to last, you need to get them into a stable record that you will have accessible to enjoy in forty years.

If you know you’ll pull out your handwritten journals, or read your old blog, do that. If you know you’ll love to see pictures of your favorite moments on your wall or flip through albums over midnight cocoa, do that too. And no – forgetting about them in a sea of files on a disc somewhere in storage does not count as accessible.

There is no right answer, and it’s more of a spectrum between documentary and editorial images rather than a either/or situation. The memories you choose to hold on to should bring you joy and provide a narrative for your best future. Do you want to remember the highlights? Or do you want to remember the real who, where, and when of your life right now?




2 of 2: Composure & Craft

This one is hard to explain without getting snarky, but I’ll try to keep it upbeat, because this is a very important aspect that you need to be aware of.

Basically, gauge your level of tolerance for, um…

[still searching for a thesaurus word that doesn’t make me sound like a jerk – Eh, I’ll get back to you].



Fast & Loose: Rooted mainly in inexperience, you’re bound to find a bunch widely-accepted no-nos in 85% of the pro portfolios you find online. To give you a visual example, I created a scenario with the same subject, place, and time of day from a personal session I did a few days previous, and told a friend to just shoot whatever and give me images he was proud enough to release to the public. I didn’t throw some random dude to the wolves (or in this case, elephants) – he’s a very talented Americana photographer [outside website] – who also happens to be the god-father of my grandchildren, so I’m allowed to pick on him.

So, this image was taken by a photographer whose actual job is traveling around the country on his bike taking images of The Great American Landscape. This is…not a memorable photo. Seems like another reason to pick a photographer who specializes in what you’re hiring them to do, yes?

See what I did there?


cupoftea-6Experienced & Attentive: I doubt there is a (live action) photographer on the planet who has finished a photograph and thought “Yep, all done, that’s perfect!”

We all have little things that drive us crazy, even in the great shots. The one on the right, for example, features some clipped highlights on his hat, his left hand is cut out of the frame, and there is some blue fringing

(see the bottom edge of the swing) that needs another hour of editing before I send this to print. This image also features vignetting from my lens and a lens flare (both intentional) that a traditionalist might be turned off by.

That said, there should be a reasonably high proportion of how much you love a photo to how many unaddressed issues still exist. The composition and details of an image should enhance the subject – not distract from it.

Harbingers of a Fast & Loose style

Check out the photo by C. Ayers above and see if you can get a bingo.
  • Unintentional off-kilter horizon – If gimmicky is your style, a fair amount of photographers actively tilt for a zany effect – but it’s always obvious when it’s intentional. A slightly off-level horizon speaks volumes about how much attention and effort a photographer is putting into your images – not just in capture, but in post-processing and formatting your prints and albums.
  • Out of focus – Generally we aim to focus on the eyes on portraiture, but there are some great exceptions (you’ll know them when you see them). Getting the eyes in focus of an erratically running toddler is SUPER hard to do – which is why most children’s photographers trap them in baskets and other props, or force them to sit still in a studio. My lash-sharp image above is after 15 years of experience chasing kids with a camera while they tackle me, zig-zag, run, skip and do back-flips.
  • Boring and/or distracting background – Background is determined 50/50 by the direction a child is facing and where the photographer chooses to shoot from. Most of my job is spent climbing trees or wriggling through mud trying to avoid some adult’s tuchus or truncated legs from creating awkward distractions in the background. Sprinting back and forth to get the best angle from natural movement is not for everyone, which is why most studio photographers opt for posing and grabbing a child’s attention with charm and squeaky toys.
  • Under/Over Exposed – This one is a deal-breaker. With digital technology, it’s free and easy to double-check exposure on the fly and adjust during a session and then again to fix it in post-processing. While the general exposure of a photo is subjective for the purposes of setting an artistic mood, it’s often clear when someone was just being lazy. It literally takes one click to fix most overly dark or hazy-bright images.
  • Truncated limbs – Everyone has these, and most images are salvageable. I like a tight crop for my editorial-style images where only a part of a head or body fills the entire image, but the edge of a subject’s body (or any element) should never be within a hair of the edge of a photo – it creates too much tension. Similarly, cutting someone at the joints or crotch always feels creepy. Often a poorly-framed image can be fixed by cropping tighter and cutting the limb off mid-bone, which feels a little less awkward.
  • No shame – When looking through a photographer’s portfolio – note how many ‘meh’ or even questionable images are included among the highlights. It doesn’t take much effort to simply leave them out, so it can tell you a lot about personal taste and effort if someone considers a mediocre image worthy of showcasing – especially if the image is clearly over a year old. Be extremely wary of someone who will shoot & burn every single raw image from a session with minimal or no editing. This is the equivalent of a restaurant selling you the ingredients to a meal and telling you to take care if it yourself. They are taking the fun part and giving you 30-40 hours of work? No thanks. Professional equipment does not make an artist in the same way a puffy white hat does not make a grocer a chef.

When craft might not matter

Everyone wants the best possible images, but sometimes other stuff takes priority. Some of the most famous (and infamous) photographers are kind of terrible at craft and composition – Diane Arbus, who was big inspiration in my early work, was just awful at the camera part of being a photographer. Terry Richardson is simply awful (not just as a person – his entire aesthetic is based on amateur adult videos over-exposed with a single on-camera flash).  The reason they succeed is a combination of subject matter and our social culture (or in Richardson’s case, famous parents).

Sometimes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment and the subject matter is so important the ‘how’ is less significant – such as a major historical event.

Another benefit of fast & loose photographers? They’re often cheap.

I’m harsh on this aspect of photography mostly because that is how my brain works and I have spent 2/3 of my life polishing the details of my craft. But that’s on me – not on the fast & loose photographers of the world, and absolutely not on the people who love their work. It’s up to you to decide whether your children will grow up to the the type who are bothered by the little details, or will love old family albums no matter what (honestly – I think they will love anything that has all of you in it – assuming you’re still recognizable.)

[End of what is hopefully the only part of this website where I come off as insufferable.]

So you could very well fall in love with a fast & loose photographer – and that doesn’t mean you have bad taste, or that your portraits aren’t as nice as the Joneseseses. STOP COMPARING YOURSELF. Maybe you’d like to get yearly photos instead of waiting every other year, and you can afford to do that if you cut out some of the details. In the end, you’re compromising quality of your images (and how attractive you are in the final image) with budget.

Why craft does matter

The composure, details, and impact of an image enhance your experience. We photograph our lives not because we like carrying around cameras, but because we want to experience those moments again, analyze them, savor them. A sloppy ceremony kiss is still going to be treasured, but will it be worth hanging on the wall if there is a microphone in the way, or it’s out of focus, or the groom’s head is cut out of the picture?

Even if it’s an annual family snapshot and not the moments before the Berlin Wall came down – every moment of your life and stage of childhood goes by quickly and might not offer opportunities for a re-shoot. My own kids’ yearly album is a harsh reminder of that when I see the images that I had planned to re-shoot only to forget or run out of time.

This is when I point out in what I hope is a really non-skeevy way that doesn’t reek of self-interest – we need to get the best value we can afford. AFFORD – No photographer wants to feed their kids at the expense yours. However, a good image can take hours to process without ‘looking’ processed, and high quality materials that last generations are an investment.

I’m doing what makes me happy. You do what makes YOU happy.

Click here to continue reading Part 3: Navigating Wonderland

This post is part 3 of my series on ‘The Ultimate Guide to Changing your Life through Photography,’  which will be running through January.
Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Are You Missing Your Own Story?
Part 2: What Lights You Up?
Part 3: Navigating Wonderland

Did you learn something new from reading this guide?

Let me know in the comments if it was helpful so I know what information needs spreading!