How to Get More Great Photos in a Short Documentary Session

This post is the second in a series about how long a documentary session “should” be. The first, Shooting Under the Pressure of a Clock is here.

To summarize, I mentioned that often in a short, 1 hour or so session (especially in-home when things move 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 at the family’s favorite beaches. I invited my workshop attendees to shoot alongside me and we all arrived about 90 minutes before sunset.

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 was “warmed-up” to being photographed this time around
  2. Environment
  3. Engagement

Let’s talk about 2 & 3 a little more in-depth.

How the Environment Affects a Documentary Family Session

When planning this, we didn’t pick Makapu’u beach, because it would look cool in photos. In Anastasia’s initial response to my family questionnaire, she shared how her family loves beach time. She spoke about the tide pools + 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 that works well when the clock is ticking for documentary coverage.

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.

More on overcoming unrelaxed clients in this checklist:

When you have company over, do you carry on and do whatever it is you normally do in your day?

Probably not… you pause to entertain your guests.

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. The warm-up phase in-home can take a little longer (not always, but often if this is your first in-person interaction with them).

This is why there’s a second part to the equation: engagement.

How the Subjects’ Engagement Affects a Documentary Family Session

In-home or even outside (depending on the environment), you can find your session to be a bit on the slow side.

Again, not always. In fact, if you ever come to my home and watch the speed of my son or how my husband gets the kids all riled up, you’d 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.

Examples:

  1. When my daughter colors, she looks the same from the second she begins as she looks 10 minutes in when she is just about finished with her masterpiece: head down, hand on her marker. There can certainly be bursts of energy, like when she’s like, “Look what I made mom!” and there is that quick moment of connection between parent and child (especially if the parent joins in!).
  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.

2. Sometimes, they activity hop.

This is when you can tell the clients are trying to cram in a bunch of activities into your time together. 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 FEEL how they’re trying to do more for the sake of the camera. It feels unnatural. It’s hard to explain, but you can just tell when you’re in it.

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).

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 😉

All that to say, depending on the engagement energy, you’ll result with:

  • full-of-life photos (bursts of laughter, soulful interaction with each other, lots of movement) or
  • slower paced photos where you have DOZENS of them doing one thing (like making a pizza), meaning your photos are all the same (no variety to choose from), or they wind up with a bunch with lifeless expressions that makes it look like they don’t even like each other, even though they were just in a total calm state (like if they’re all sitting in the living room, on their phones + tv).

I’m not saying slow is a bad thing, you can certainly get some great stuff, but in my opinion, you’ve got to work a lot harder and you may not even be working with a part of their story that has meaning. << that’s what matters the most, I think.

Documentary Beach Session Example

This was an environment the family was fully comfortable in, but also a place where there was non-stop movement (engagement).

Their daughter was practically a little fish herself, their older son Maks was also busy exploring, and baby was all about 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’s a wide variety of scenes/things happening?

It’s not 20 photos that look similar?

In a shorter time, choosing an environment with your clients that allows for maximum engagement together is wonderful to yield both more photos + a wider variety for the story.

Most important, we’ve respected their story as a family being ensuring we’ve photographed something deeply meaningful to them. Soon enough, as a military family, they’ll move from Hawaii. Now, they have true memories in pictures 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?

I teach everything, including my 10 Steps to Intentional Documentary™, inside the Intentional Documentary™ video series here.

Read the next post in this series here:

A Seaside Storytelling Newlywed Couple’s Session in Oahu

Challenge:

Look at your own life.

  • What environments do you feel free in that provide engagement opportunity (movement, energy) and would represent your honest story?
  • What environments you also feel free in, but perhaps the engagement is a bit more slow or calm?
  • How much TIME you’d need to photograph those situations to be true to the story?

This is a great place to start when trying to develop 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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