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What Lights you up?

This is the second post in my series, ‘The Ultimate Guide to Hiring a Photographer’
See part 1 of the series here.

OK, guys – this one got away with me because I tried to distill a billion styles of photography into four semi-measurable aspects. I made lots of charts and graphs, spent hours analyzing and nudging things this way and that, and now I’ve only discussed 2 of the 4 to my satisfaction. On the plus side, I have like half a textbook already written! So here you go, two super-important things to consider, and we can get to the next two next week. Enjoy!

Warning: You may become EXTREMELY PICKY about your photography after reading this. It’s a curse and a blessing.

Curating your time capsule

A great portrait is a time capsule – we’re aiming to capture a genuine personality, during a particular fraction of time, on this distinct patch of earth. How we go about creating an image makes all the difference in our emotional response when we experience this moment every time we view it in the future.

There are so many choices, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by decision fatigue. 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. They will enjoy the session more, and you will love the results.

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, and the exact same background.

If the picture hanging above your mantle could be head-swapped with any other family…what’s the point?

It’s OK to find someone who has branched out selectively and pulled together all of this experience to enhance the images you participate in. If you love fashion magazine photography – find a fashion photographer and ask them if they are willing to experiment. 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 – the style of image you love. Then search for the capsule itself, the person you entrust to keep your memories safe for decades and generations – the perfect photographer for you.


Quick Primer: So what kind of art lights you up?

To save your time and sanity, I’ve developed a quick primer discussing four aspects to consider when to creating images that will take your breath away every single time you view them – in one year, or one-hundred.

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 4: Documentary vs. Editorial

Picture yourself in about 40 years, chillin’ with your grand-daughter on the hover-sofa. Which albums will pull off the shelf?


This one is a cheat – a truly, REALLY editorial image is created in a studio with a backdrop, props, and often lots of awkward posing – think magazines and JC Penny bulk studios. But… I just couldn’t bring myself to go through all of that nonsense just for one blog post. Whatever, you get the picture.

A Documentary: Show her your son – how her own father insisted on wearing his pants backward every day for a year, his favorite teddy bear before it lost a button eye and the tail fell off. Show her his jelly mustaches, and squished up face when he throws his 6pm tantrum. Show her how beautiful the two of you looked, cuddling at story time, waking up and all of you snuggling together on a Sunday morning. Show her food fights, puddle-jumping, pancake breakfasts and all of you picking tomatoes in the old family garden.

An 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 you’ve ever been (even if it was just that one time) to complement the beauty of your family. Show her the one time ever your kids had perfectly starched outfits and hugged each other without one of them turning purple.

Trouble deciding? Answer 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 cushion and an affinity for solitude).
  2. If in 40 years you were offered to be a part of a science experiment that let you delete memories of the hard parts of parenthood, would you do it?
  3. If not, could someone 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. Think back to a year ago – what was your son’s favorite shirt? What new weird hobby did your daughter have? What was it like to be 6 months pregnant?

Do you remember it, and if so – is it because you wrote it down, photographed it, or posted about it on Facebook? If you want these memories to last, you need to get them into a stable record that you will actually have accessible and use 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 snacks, do that too. And no – forgetting about them in a sea of files on your hard drive does not count as accessible.

There is no right answer, and it’s more of a spectrum between documentary vs editorial images rather than a either/or situation – but depending on your answer, you may have eliminated 99% of your bookmarked photographers to evaluate, which takes a lot of busywork off your plate. That was easy!

If it’s not already obvious and you’re wondering which way I slide on the scale, I go into details further down the page.



2 of 4: Composure & Craft

This one is hard to explain without getting snarky, but I’ll try to keep it upbeat, because this is honestly 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 – 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. I didn’t throw some random dude to the wolves (or in this case, elephants) – he’s a very talented landscape photographer [link opens to outside website] who happens to be the god-father of my grandchildren, so I’m allowed to pick on him.

So if a photographer whose job it is to travel around the country on his bike taking images isn’t going to take a memorable photo… it’s just another reason to pick a photographer who specializes in what you’re hiring them to do.

See what I did there?


Experienced & 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 another photographer 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.
  • 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 moving toddler is SUPER hard to do – which is why most children’s photographers trap them in baskets and other props. My pin-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.
  • Under/Over Exposed – This one is a deal-breaker. With digital technology, it’s free and easy to double-check exposure on the fly 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.
  • Truncated limbs – Everyone has these, and most images are salvageable. I like a tight crop for my editorial-style images where not all of a person’s head and body is in the image, but the edge of a subject’s body should never be within a hair in or out 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.

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 not only free from the criminal justice system, but consistently published by magazines despite how simply awful his ‘style’ is.  The reason they succeed is a combination of subject matter and our social culture (or in Richardson’s case, famous parents). 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.)

[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. Since we photographers reward our most loyal clients with essentially free work, many families work with an inexperienced photographer and shoot yearly with them as the photographer improves. If you’re OK with the first decade of your family’s photographs being a practice run in exchange for some wonderful photographs when your kids are adults, that could be a great investment. I’m not going to lie – that’s my marketing plan since I rely on word-of-mouth – clients always ask how I stay in business (secret plan: raise prices every quarter until business is sustainable). Do what makes you happy.

Stay tuned for part 2.5 of this series where I go over aspects 3 and 4. What will they be? Oooooh, is it a mystery*?!

*Translation: [Mystery] – Things that sound super boring and I need a few days to make it entertaining to read.

This post is part 2 of my series on ‘The Ultimate Guide to Changing your Life through Photography,’  which will be running through January.
Click here to go back to Part 1: Are You Missing Your Own Story?

Part 2.5 will be published next weekend!