March's selection for Photography Book Club was Tamara Lackey's new book, entitled Envisioning Family. I had been eagerly awaiting this one - it was on my Christmas list after all! But after having read it, I have to say, I'm kind of on the fence about it. The reviews on amazon are glowing, but to me, this book didn't seem to decide what it wanted to be and to whom. Sometimes it's a how-to guide, sometimes it's a dump of partially useful information, sometimes it's a historical perspective. As a reader, it was confusing to follow along as the author jumps from all the gear in her bag and why she uses it (very helpful) to how to set up a working studio complete with multi-thousand dollar lighting systems (less helpful), to the importance of having a studio sign (random) and then concludes the section with how to turn on your camera and basic settings when you take it out of the box (um, isn't that the first step - if you're buying a sign, you should know how to turn on your camera). From a flow perspective, it was all over the place - for me anyway.
It's not to say that it wan't a useful book - I dog eared quite a few pages. The bigger issue was that you weren't sure with when you were going to get hit with something really good. Ms. Lackey starts out with a section that's a historical overview of families - meh - it's not short enough to be anecdotal and not long enough to be actually substantive so it's a weird inbetween. But she talks about order of children in the family and how that might affect how their photographed - they are generalizations but helpful to keep in mind. She also goes into how she formed her own family with her children, both natural and adopted, and unexpectedly, the story of picking up her daughter in Ecuador actually left me in tears. More importantly, she talks about how her own transition was reflected in her professional transition - she became less interested in just children's photography, and more interested in actual family photography, and if nothing else, her words there leave you inspired to want to capture those moments for someone else. She moves on to gear, setting up a studio, interaction, sessions, posing and composition.
What I really appreciate from Ms. Lackey is her continual insistence that it is the photographers job to make sure clients look good. People pay you to take good pictures of them - so if they should be standing a different way, or you should fix your shirt, or move whatever, then there is a way to bring that into the conversation without making the person feel like they are doing something wrong. As someone who's been on the receiving end of a lot of sessions, it is amazing to me how many photographers don't say anything when something is off. They just keep plowing forward, and it inevitably results in client disappointment. As a photographer, you can see behind the lens - as a client you can't, and I appreciate Ms. Lackey's continual reinforcement of that.
So with that - here were some of my favorite takeaways and most were on managing how you approach the photography of families and kids:
- It's okay for children to behave like children during a photo shoot - "I assure parents during a photography shoot...that this is not the time to be actively raising upstanding members of society. This is the time to let them show me...who they are". Imagine the relief a parent would feel if they knew that going into a session.
- Anticipate what will happen next so that you don't miss a shot
- Become the subject - I literally just talked about this with my ladies photography group earlier this week so I was relieved to see I'm not the only one that thinks so but basically, you can't have people pay you take their pictures if you haven't paid someone to take your pictures. Having been the subject will make you much more empathetic to how nervewracking it is to not only be a subject, but to have made a significant investment of time and money.
- "Because much of photography is actually mirroring, start by recognizing that as the photographer you need to show your subject how comfortable you feel, how naturally you interact, how lacking in self-consciousness you are. You put them at ease by actually being at ease". Again, as a client, I couldn't agree with this more.
- "But taking everything into account, I'll choose best moods over best lighting or best location" - Ms. Lackey astutely points out that a good photographer can fix the other two.
- Just becuase you're shooting families, doesn't mean you can't benefit from a second shooter or assistant to help with wrangling, reflectors, changing lenses, etc - consider one.
- The worst thing you can do as a photographer is to look at the back of your camera in front of the family and say things like "I'm getting nothing" or "Hmmm...this isn't working...hmmm". I'm definitely guilty of this one - never as a paid photographer, but I know I've definitely taken pictures of my own family and then immediately rejected them. I never thought how about how that probably makes them feel - again, if it's not right, it's my fault - not theirs. And if you are being paid, it probably just makes you look incompetent (you're paying me and i can't get it). Definitely a big note to self.
- The "family looking together at camera" is not often the most creative shot, but it's a loved one by clients so get it done first and break off from there
- She asks clients to bring multiple options of what to wear - that way, she can change them out if the colors aren't working, it gets dirty, etc. Or ask people to wear solids from the same color family
- Positioning your subjects at a 45 degree angle away from the lens but have them look back at the camera - the s curve looks good on everyone
- If you're going to make a suggestion on how to sit/tilt/etc be prepared to show it yourself, it's often the fastest way to get there
- If you see something going wrong in the shoot - change it - it's the responsibility of the photographer.
"We give them the opportuntity to look at themselves all together. A bona fide, true look at who they are and how they belong to each other to say, I have been so busy, so preoccupied with details but look! Look at what's been here all along! Look at how we've grown, at what we've overcome, and how much we still have to look forward to as a family."
Next month, for April, we'll move a bit from taking pictures, to displaying pictures (hint: just storing them in your computer probably isn't doing the most for them with Living with What You Love by Monica Rich Kosann.
First three photos by Tamara Lackey.