Shooting Under the Pressure of a Clock

Could I bring photographers into the four walls of someone’s home and document a family in an hour… and yield some awesome photos? I really wasn’t sure. And I’ll never forget being on the phone with Anastasia (mom), telling her my plan, and her response, “Do you have kids?” I could hear the doubt in her voice and, though I didn’t let it show, my confidence was in agreement. I was a photographer determined to make it work.

Let’s face it – kids can be unpredictable. My experience in my clients with kids has always been positive with them warming up to me quickly. However, bringing in a small audience of photographers + me with my big, black machine duo (5D III + D4) diving right into the session (under the pressure of a clock) could have ended in kids hiding their faces behind mom in dad in a “what’s going on?!” the entire time. To prepare for the worst, I decided to offer the family a second session at one of their favorite beaches after the workshop was over assuming I may not get “enough good shots” in-home (I’ll be sharing the beach session next week + will link to it here, so bookmark or pin this post)

In planning the Documenting Family & Beyond workshop, it was important I actually ran a shoot so the students could observe my movement and how I interact with clients. However, I didn’t want them to watch me shoot ALL day…. we had a lot to talk about during classroom time after all. In Oahu, traffic can be a little crazy from what I learned, so I knew I had to factor that into the timeline. With everything I wanted to cover, it was my goal to run a session in about an hour. So are you ready to see how that went?!

 

Starting a Documentary-Style Session

A session for me begins BEFORE the shoot itself with the family completing a questionnaire (I use the Storytelling Questions for Clients – family version and the Personality Worksheet for my family shoots). These are a vital piece of my sessions, because they give me an arsenal of things to watch for during a session. Having ideas in what to watch for during a session allows me to shoot more from THEIR perspective rather than my own, because my inspiration is truly from their words. Of course, I shoot what moves me as well, but I am able to go into any session with confidence when feel like I know them.

Anastasia is a military mom. Richard used to be active duty, but today he is the stay at home dad. Right away from Anastasia’s responses, I learned their middle son, Maks, is a momma’s boy. This became even more clear as I was shooting just how much he loves his mom! On the weekends, they like to get out when they can. Around the house, they like to make pancakes, the baby will eat an insane amount of fruit, they do “lay down mommy” and hang out on their mattress in their living room (genius idea when you have 3 young kids, by the way), and make smoothies. Not to mention, Anastasia is a TALENTED photographer herself (see here)… not to add any more pressure to the mix (seriously love the color brilliance in her images).

Knowing our arrival was 10 a.m., after breakfast when you have little ones, I suggested they could make smoothies during our time together as a way to bring the family together and engage in case letting everyone simply be caused everyone to focus on the shooting and small audience. Let me tell you, they could have easily done without the smoothies and this session would have been successful. In fact, 15 minutes into the session, Milana gave me not 1, but 2 beautifully color pictures of a mermaid + rainbow. The energy of the entire family was relaxed and playful without any designated activity!

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Shooting the 1 Hour Session

Beyond introductions, the first thing I mentally do is assess the light. I watch where it’s coming from, where it’s falling, and the color. And we were off! All 3 children truly led the session. Where they were, parents followed, and I bounced all around between each person in a constant motion. They colored, red books, stepped out to their patio trampoline, made smoothies, did their tradition of “lay down mommy,” and simply fell into their role of being them… and yes all within an hour (maybe an hour and 15 tops). And these are my 30 favorite images… can you tell there were 3 other photographers here observing? I bet you’ll say no.

 

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So how long should a documentary session be?

I figured this question will come up, so I’m going to address the duration of a session. My first piece of advice is not to think about how long it “should” be, but to figure out 2 things: 1. What you want your sessions to be like 2. What time does it take for you to feel fully free to shoot (i.e. not feel rushed under the pressure of a clock, yet fast enough that you’re not giving away your time for peanuts)?

My session duration is all over the place, dependent on the goal of the session. For me, there are 2 ways to approach a session. There is simply going for great, documented images memorable moments, obvious emotion (laughter, crying), & interaction being the sole focus. Then, there is extending the memorable moments, obvious emotion (laughter, crying) & interaction (which are still my priority), but then I will utilize more of the environment, objects, human details, and more that make YOU as the audience feel like you are living the experience right alongside them (a true, visual story).

I LOVE the 30 images shot in an hour above. The family loved them – in fact, Anastasia ordered an album and surprised Richard with it for his birthday (see here). However, as the shooter, I see where I could have done MORE. For a quick example, I could have pulled in details of their home where so many memories have been made and that they will be leaving behind the next time they PCS. Such details evoke a feeling I can’t quite put into words when you are looking at something that is iconic to a particular season in your life.

And how would I have done that? Simply by adding more time to my clock. For me, shooting in an hour, yeah I got some great images. But with the pressure of the clock, my focus was 100% on getting GREAT images of them and it hindered my ability to provide more. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more of my recent sessions that will help you understand exactly what I’m talking about. Set yourself a reminder to check back or hop on the Fearless and Framed list so I can simply send you my next session link.

Homework: Look back at your past 5-10 sessions and note the duration of each shoot. What differences do you see?

Read the next post in this 3 part series here: How to Get More Great Photos in a Short Session

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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  • Hi Marie, I completely agree. I have completed documentary sessions varying from one hour to 13hours. One hour, in my opinion is not enough. You hit the nail on the head, you leave wanting to give them more. You just don’t have time to really take notice of everything around you in that time. 13hours – I was exhausted, but the family went away with a time capsule from wake til bed and it was beautiful. I really got under the skin of the family. But, I do believe a really good documentary session can be nailed in 2-3 hours. 3hours is my preference, to allow families to really be themselves and allow for a lovely range of images from different activities and I can be that bit more creative too.

    PS – I have just discovered this website and facebook page and I’m in love. Can’t wait to read more. xx

  • Hi Marie,
    So this is my 5th article from you that I have read and I am doing my best to try and absorb everything! I have shot events & coordinated a large photo shoot with a few models where they were in costume and just acted while I followed them around. With all of these sessions I was super happy with the results and in my element because I wasn’t causing an aneurysm trying to figure out a location, how to pose, etc. I just did what inspired me by capturing what was already happening in front of me. I’m am working on trying to shift my sessions to reflect this approach, but it’s not easy! It amazes me how much people resemble cattle in following what everyone else is doing, right along with the rest of the herd (I feel I can be blunt with you, based on what I have been reading, which is truly refreshing I must say). Thanks for giving me inspiration for my sessions, I was starting to suffocate with traditional sessions 🙂

    • Hey Marcy! People resembling a herd of cattle most times is such a great analogy! I’m so glad you’ve found the blog and hope you’ve made your way over to our Facebook group – http://www.goodbyeposingguide.com – where there’s a bunch of us that all feel passionate about unposed, authentic sessions 🙂