Documenting Mitzvahs as Part of a Thriving Photography Business with Susan Kalina

I’m a documentary family and event photographer. However, I didn’t start out that way. I majored in photojournalism at Mizzou and worked at newspapers and magazines for ten years. Thirteen years ago, I made the decision to step off the career track to stay home with my children and quit my job as a photo editor at The Chicago Tribune.

And then I thought, why not take pictures of families? I was convinced it would be a fun way to stay creative, use my photography skills and make a little money.

I started out trying to book “Day in the Life of your Family” photos. Like many people, my first clients were friends. And then it blossomed to friends of friends.

Invariably, my new clients would say, “I love these photos. You captured our spirit wonderfully. Now where are the photos of us all together looking at the camera? I need that perfect shot for the holiday card.” 

So, I learned how to pose.

And look for open shade.

And crack jokes + act like an idiot to get people to laugh, so I could photograph a natural smile.

I learned how to ask emotional questions to evoke an emotional response, thereby creating a perfectly orchestrated “moment” in nice light and posed beautifully.

But I kind of hated it. I’d always get a pit in my stomach before photo shoots, wondering how I was going to handle a tantrum throwing toddler or a father that didn’t feel like being there for more than five minutes. And my photo shoots left me feeling empty.

But I trudged along, booking posed family shoots. And while I got better at handling sticky situations and looking for light, I never really LOVED it.

A couple years ago, I committed to re-orienting my business toward documentary photography, so I could have a business that made my heart sing and my soul happy.

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Around the same time, my oldest daughter and her peers started planning their mitzvahs. Our friends began asking me if I photographed mitzvahs too. I started out saying no. I didn’t want to book a photo shoot that took me out of the house for six hours. I never wanted to shoot weddings for the same reason. How would my husband and three daughters survive if I was gone for that long on a Saturday?

But then I realized, mitzvahs are a wonderful, festive occasion filled with natural moments. And, I knew I could find clients who would value my documentary style, capturing the story of their child’s right of passage.

I also thought to myself, ‘You know what? My children and husband COULD survive me being gone for the day. Just like I do five days a week, when he heads downtown to work.’

So, one day, I started saying yes. Lo and behold, I found something I’m good at, enjoy shooting, and my clients are thrilled with the results.

I still shoot portraits as part of my mitzvah package. I photograph the family and grandparents at the temple before the service. I do a pre-shoot a few weeks out with the mitzvah child, which is like a senior session for a 13-year-old. And actually, I love my little mitzvah portrait sessions. Sometimes I’m able to photograph the kids in a documentary style, though many prefer a fashionista shoot. But, they’re fun and it’s great to get to know the kids before their big day.

When it comes time for the party, I get to really dig in and find their unique story to photograph. And I love it!

I get to be a fly-on-the-wall and document the interactions of children making the first steps toward growing up + co-ed socializing. I get to photograph first crushes, confidence, insecurity, unbridled joy, irritation, and every other emotion you can think of.

I also enjoy seeing the different ways people celebrate their children. Some parties are nicer than my wedding reception. Others are more low-key, house parties.

I’ve been photographing mitzvahs regularly for about a year now and currently receive 3-5 inquiries a week, mostly through word-of-mouth referrals. Mitzvah clients tend to book 1-2 years out, so I have bookings on my calendar through 2018 (it’s March 2017 as I write now). I’m now in a position of occasionally turning down clients. Sometimes the date is already booked. Other times, I don’t want to book every weekend with bar mitzvahs.

I still love photographing the beauty in the ‘every day’. Especially grandparents and grandkids sessions. So, I make sure to leave time in my schedule for those sessions as well. But I have to say, I’m enjoying this evolution of my business.

Have you ever thought about photographing bar mitzvahs?

If you have a good knowledge of how to use your flash, an ability to pose groups, and a love for capturing a story, mitzvahs could be for you! Your best bet would be to approach local temples and ask if you can leave your information for families planning their bar mitzvahs. It just takes a couple mitzvahs to get the ball rolling with word-of-mouth. As anyone who has ever planned an expensive event knows, if you offer to do a couple discounted sessions to get a portfolio going, people will jump at the offer.

Writing and photography contributed by Susan Kalina.

Susan Ryan Kalina is a former photojournalist who photographs families and events. She specializes in bar mitzvahs and shooting the beauty in your every day. Due to her incredible relationship with her beloved grandparents, she especially enjoys photographing grandparents and grandkids spending time together. Susan lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, Ira, and three daughters, Bree, 13, Eliza, 12 and Sadie 10. Now that her children are getting older, she often feels like Uber – ATM. When she isn’t parenting or taking pictures, she is usually reading, playing tennis or outside with her chocolate lab, LuLu.  Website // Instagram // Facebook 

Author: Eboni Rivera
Fearless and Framed's Course and Community Ambassador + Self proclaimed "Memory Giver". Eboni is a Family Documentary Photographer and Film Artist at Luxe Art Images, LLC located in Long Island, NY. She provides emotive, heart-tugging, feel good photography and films for families who give a damn about the preservation of their memories. Her approach to photography allows families to leave behind a legacy of who they are, how much they love and just how awesome their lives truly are.

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  • Suzan is definitely one one the most talented photographer I know…and I know a lot of them. 🙂 Her works speak for themselves Our experience working with her is just amazing!!! Not only she is talented, she is experienced ( so she knows what’s going at the service and the party), organized and always on top of everything. Trust me ( and I am sure you know), when you have 100 things goign on at the big events, just talent is not enough. We love our photos and our album!!!

  • Great article! The whole situation really resonates with me. “fly on the wall” photography is my favorite!
    One question regarding photographing mitsvahs: are there any issues using flash in the Temple?
    Thanks again for the article!

  • I feel like I am reading about myself! I love my documentary work and prefer that over everything, but I have found my way into the Bar/bat mitzvah world. I am a pretty laid back, easy going, fun loving woman so when I meet with my clients I always like the kids to be there also so we can tell if we are a good fit for each other. I love all my kids!