Guest Blog: Child and Family Photographer Tracy Sweeney
Editor’s Note: In honor of Tracy’s new KelbyOne course, Retouching In Lightroom: It’s All In The Details, we’re sharing her guest post from September 2020!
FIVE TIPS TO CAPTURE AUTHENTIC MOMENTS IN CHILD PHOTOGRAPHY
Well Hello! Tracy Sweeney here, owner/photographer of Elan Studio in Bristol, Rhode Island. I’m thrilled to return and guest blog about an absolutely important topic in family photography.
Have you ever viewed an image that was so powerfully driven in “something” that it physically stirred you? Perhaps it was “something” so evocative, a single moment crafted from someone else’s time, and yet the picture’s energy mirrored an indelible memory of your own, bringing forth genuine connection? Or possibly there was a level of emotion that resonated so profoundly that it made you just feel “something?” That “something,” that thing that pulls us, draws us in and makes us wonder, anticipate, relive, laugh, cry, gasp, pause, that “something” is authenticity.
Authentic imagery is powerful, and because I know that, I approach every photo session with the goal of crafting beautiful images through authentic means. Authentic, in elementary form, is defined as real and genuine. And through this consideration, it might seem paradoxical that my entire aim is authenticity, because, after all, I am a child and family photographer who poses, orchestrates, and directs; I am not a lifestyle photographer. Do I capture candids? Absolutely, but my style is certainly not photojournalistic. So then, how does one, under these self-imposed parameters (that have shaped my business), create natural, authentic imagery?
1. BE YOUR AUTHENTIC SELF
The key to creating natural, authentic images is quite simple: be authentic yourself. That seems rudimentary, right? Perhaps there was a specific tool you were hoping I suggest, or an actual phrase, game, gear, or direction I would give to guarantee that, even in a melange of subjects, you would be able to draw each out naturally, and each of their best selves would shine.
Well, in part, that’s true, because your authenticity, your approach that makes you feel so natural and fluid, will attract that likeness, and in other trending words, “your vibe will attract your tribe.” If you are interacting with your clients in a way that feels fluid and true to you, your subjects will respond effortlessly and relaxed, allowing you to capture them naturally. This applies to adults and children.
2. ENGAGE IN GENUINE CONVERSATION
When I meet a new client for the first time, it is often at the beginning of their session. My pre-session consult takes place electronically, so the first time they are seeing me in-person many times is right as we begin our photos. I, as the hired photographer, know it is my responsibility to make the client feel comfortable with me, even before I lift my camera. And so, we simply begin in conversation, pleasantries and again, genuine conversation and questions aligned with my authenticity (the same way I would talk to a new friend or cohort).
I begin by talking to the child, often even before talking with the parents. I get down to the child’s eye level and start by issuing genuine warmth and friendliness. Younger children can be very shy, and clinging to parents, but the initial greeting is a way to establish connectivity and ensure the child that the session will be fun and possibly exploratory. I establish mood and also a bit of expectation in regards to our location and upcoming adventure. In doing this, talking to the children first, asking the child questions about his/her day, school, activities, etc. I am opening dialogue but also building an arsenal of material I can use later during the session when I need to recharge the child (ex. “So you were telling me you play hockey earlier, what is your favorite skating rink?”)
3. SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS
When parents know that their child is comfortable, they will ease up considerably. The major stress of family photos (beyond attire and aesthetics) is the concern that the children will not behave. I do truly believe it is my responsibility as the photographer to control the momentum of the session and essentially the behavior of the children, and this is done through establishing very clear expectations with the children, and consequently, the parents. I tell the family my goals, different images I would like to capture and the terrain we will cover.
My business is largely repeat clients, those who continue to rebook annually, and I attribute this not only to the quality of the final images, but the overall experience of the session. The success of your business is dependent on the session experience your clients have with you. Cultivating an enjoyable stress-free experience for clients is paramount for referrals.
When a client tells her friend about her family session and says, “Oh, It was so much fun. We had such a beautiful night together!” That testament is worth more than anything someone can say about your actual photography ability. What mother or father doesn’t want to have a beautiful night out with his/her family? And that there was a professional there, orchestrating and documenting the evening is where you insert your true value.
Notice I said “orchestrating,” because I don’t sit back and just watch. I do have to direct. I have to guide and support to create these authentic moments I want to capture. If I want younger brother to give his sister a kiss on the cheek, I ask him to and click away. If he does it without suggestion, fabulous. If he does it, but all I get is the back of his head and miss the sentiment entirely, I ask him to do it again, and point specifically to the temple to show him where to kiss his sister. Again, it’s that power of guidance. Children need direction, and structuring a family session in this way allows you to capture their essence as you, the photographer, see it.
4. HAVE A PLAN
Talking with my clients at the beginning of the session is so important as opposed to immediately diving into photographing them. In this way, I am able to build trust with little ones creating opportunity for genuine moments.
When I begin photographing, I often do not let the children know that is what I am doing. I ask the children if they want to go for a walk, or if they would like to help me hold something, or if they would like to “hunt” for seashells, or special rocks, leaves, etc. anything to get little ones not to think about having to perform, but rather enjoying our time. Even the most hesitant of children, even the really really shy ones, typically will want to discover/find/look/play if encouraged. And this is what I mean by directing, it’s having a plan.
Of course I want to photograph a family playing and just being themselves at the beach, but I have to help them to actually do that. Because again, I want authenticity, but this is a staging of sorts. My clients arrive beautifully dressed in corresponding attire and I sometimes bring delightful props to stimulate the story and craft interest.
But that is not real of a typical day at the beach. A typical day at the beach is a more beautiful mess than flowy dresses and precise poofing pomade in little man’s hair. And yet, I feel absolutely comfortable knowing that I am still capturing authenticity, because my search is the family’s connection, the subtleties, the tippy toe kisses from children, the stolen glances, the pure joy of a swinging walk, and the thrilling chase of a sibling run-off while mom and dad adore. Those moments are artfully crafted. I instruct, observe, support, suggest, and photograph, typically in that order.
5. CREATE WHAT MOVES YOU
The most beautiful thing about authenticity is the ability to let go of the pursuit of perfection.
Authenticity is an embracement. It’s harnessing the environment and family as they are in their most perfect imperfectness. When I ask the family to go in for a tight hug near the shoreline (directing) and their toddler runs in the opposite direction, I continue taking photos….and to laugh, and to enjoy, and to truly capture what that toddler is. I might chase the toddler a bit and keep taking photos, because that feels right to me, it is part of who I am and how I play with my own children.
Authenticity is often confused with uniqueness.There is nothing unique about a mother holding her baby in the air juxtaposed against a beautiful sunset. It’s been done before, it gets done all the time, I do it all the time! Because I love that pose, I love that image, as a mother, I wish I had that image of me and my babies. In that moment, with that specific child, unique or not, it is authentic to the subjects.
That is what I want to impart to you. Try to create what moves you. Those images I love to create attract like clients who want those images created for them. Do a few of the same things consistently. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it helps organize a session in a way that feels purposeful and fluid. And each family’s energy will take on the task/direction/suggestion in a way that is purposeful, meaningful and unique to them.
Thank you so much for having me here this week. If you enjoyed my musings and want to explore more of my work, please check out Elan-Studio.com. For additional chats, questions and sharing, join my Facebook group “All Things Child Portraiture,” and follow me on Facebook and Instagram.
In light and love,
In addition to seeing more of Tracy’s work and following her on social media via the links above, you can also check out all of her KelbyOne classes, including her latest, Retouching in Lightroom: It’s All in the Details.