How to Get More Great Photos in a Short Session

This post is a continuation in my series about how long a documentary-style session “should” be. You can read the first post, Shooting Under the Pressure of a Clock here. To summarize, I mentioned how so often in a short 1 hour or so session, especially in-home when things are moving a bit slower, I leave feeling like I could have done more. Since I was a little worried about getting great photos with an audience and in only an hour, we planned a second session to happen later in the day outside of the home. I invited my workshop attendees to shoot alongside me for this session and we planned to arrive about 90 minutes before sunset.

So if you recall, the previous post had 30 images and I was there for just over an hour. This post has 60 images and I shot this in just over an hour as well. So what makes this session different from the last? Three things: 1. The family now had experience in being photographed by me, so the whole “warm-up” phase was less necessary 2. Environment and 3. Engagement. Let’s talk about 2 & 3 a little more in-depth.

How the Environment Affects a Session

When planning this session, we didn’t pick the Makapu’u beach because it would look cool in photos. The truth is, in my model call for this workshop, Anastasia’s initial response to my family questionnaire, she shared how her family loves beach time. She spoke about the tide pools and chasing crabs. When I read what she wrote, I felt like this was an environment the family felt free and that it encompassed a place of energy. This is precisely the kind of environment we need when the clock is ticking for a documentary session.

Think about it, people feel free at home also, right? Perhaps some insecurities arise about what the home looks like, but overall together they can relax and just be inside of the home. However, I hear stories from photographers (and have experienced this myself) that they show up to a client’s home and the family is almost waiting for you to stage the scene and even them too (read more on this in my checklist How to Get Clients to ‘Act’ Natural). When you have company over, do you carry on and do whatever it is you normally do in your day? Probably not… you stop to entertain. So it takes a little time to get back to that place of comfort where you move from being a guest into being a part of their day. So the warm-up phase doing an in-home session can take a little longer, not always, but often.

This is why there is a second part to the equation: engagement. Let’s go even deeper.

How the Subjects’ Engagement Affects a Session

Beyond the warm-up phase, a session in-home or even outside depending on the environment can be slower. Again, not always. In fact, if you ever come into my home and watch the speed of my son or how my husband gets the kids all riled up, you would think everything I’m about to describe is wrong. But the truth is, from my experience, for clients to get to that level of comfort…. for dad to start play fighting with the kids to create some energy or for your couple to get back to being them as if you aren’t there, takes some time. In my experience, when clients move beyond the warm-up phase and start to feel comfortable, 3 things typically happen:

  1. They engage in a slower activity (cooking, coloring, reading, chores, or a craft). This can either mean slow in the time consuming sense or slow as in calm with little movement or interaction. When my daughter is coloring, she looks the same from the second she begins (head down, hand on her marker) as she looks 10 minutes in when she is just about finished with her masterpiece. There can certainly be bursts of energy in this – like when my daughter is like, “Look what I made mom!” and there is that quick moment of connection between parent and child. Or maybe, if there is a character in the story like my husband, you may have someone that has a great sense of humor and tries to make everyone laugh by doing something silly… but not always of course.
  2. They start to settle without an actual activity, meaning they do “nothing” together (hang out on the couch, sit around and talk). This is another scenario that can go both ways depending on the subjects’ engagement with each other.
  3. Sometimes, they activity hop. This is when you can tell the clients are trying to cram in a bunch of activities into the session… they may color for 5 minutes, read a 5 minute book, then dad tries to tickle and play with the kids to get them to laugh, then they move into the kitchen for a snack, then they…. then they… then they… You can just FEEL that they are trying to do more for the sake of the camera. Let’s face it, activity speed with a typical little one can be extraordinarily busy as they bounce around so frequently. However, when I’m trying to photograph a story of my clients, I want the photos to be about the people in them, not focused on the activity itself (I hope that makes sense) and there is a certain vibe you can feel when the client is trying to over-fill the session with activities. You’ll just have to shoot with me to really understand what I’m trying to say here 😉

Depending on the energy of engagement, you’ll result with full-of-life photos (bursts of laughter, soulful interaction with each other, lots of movement) or a slower session where you feel like time is dragging between photo opportunities (moments), you are getting lifeless expressions that makes it look like they don’t even like each other, and it feels like your photos are all the same (there’s no variety to choose from).

So take a look at this example session. This was an environment the family was fully comfortable in, but also a place where there was non-stop movement. Their daughter was practically a little fish herself, their older son Maks was also exploring, and baby was all over being in this big, free space too. With all of the kids doing their own thing, mom and dad were attentive and full of connection with the kids too.


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So looking through this, notice how there is a wide variety of scenes/things happening? It’s not 20 photos that look similar?

This is why choosing an environment that also sets your clients up for maximum engagement together is key in yielding both more photos and a wider variety for the story in a shorter session. On top of it, we’ve respected their story as a family being ensuring this session is representing something deeply meaningful to them. Soon enough, as a military family, they will be moving away from Hawaii and now they have these photos to carry one of the memories from this season in their life with them.

How do you do choose an environment with maximum engagement AND keep it true to the client’s story? That’s another lesson for another day. I will leave you with this: my initial client conversation and getting a completed questionnaire is vital for me to map out my sessions. In the next post, you’ll see a couple’s session that lasted about 4 hours or so and you’ll see how different this longer session is compared to a short 90 minute or less session.

Read the next post in this 3 part series here: A Seaside Storytelling Newlywed Couple’s Session in Oahu


Challenge: Look at your own life. What environments do you feel free in, provide engagement opportunity (movement, energy), and that would represent your story? Then, also think about what environments you also feel free in, but perhaps the engagement is a bit more slow or calm? Finally, think about how much time you think you would need to photograph those situations true to the story. This is a great place to start when trying to develop session packages you want to offer.

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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