The first time I picked up a camera with actual intent, I hadn't yet decided to become a photographer - but I certainly knew that I wanted to suck less at photography than I did.

So I started studying pretty much anything I could get my hands on at the time. As this was nearly ten years ago, I was able to access about 10% of what I could if I were starting out as a photographer today.

I set out to learn my camera from the ground up, and that included shooting in manual mode and putting myself through the paces until I learned enough about responding to a variety of situations that I finally felt in control of my equipment. That also meant I took on quite a variety of work for some time - if I could gain experience, get paid, and stay out of any sort of legal snafu, or at least prison time, I'd do it. In my first few years as a photographer, I shot weddings, editorial, headshots, children, family portraits, glamour, political campaigns, newborns, maternity, travel photography, landscapes, food, commercial work, editorial work, stock, architecture & interiors, and sports.

I didn't attempt underwater photography or aerial photography, but that's about all I didn't cover; I was essentially an everything-on-land photographer.

But everything-on-land is a lot of ground to cover and although I enjoyed the experience of shooting nearly all of it, it wasn't long before I recognized that I was becoming a great generalist and a pretty crappy specialist. I wanted to master something. Or at least I wanted to start the process of mastering something because, as it turns out, by the time you master anything in photography, all the rules change - and then you just end up building from there, working towards a new type of mastery.

I decided to narrow the field down to portraits and really place my focus there. The biggest surprise was finding out that those years of shooting so much variety taught me more than I would have ever guessed. I learned that shooting weddings (especially several hundred weddings) prepares you for being able to shoot anything, anywhere, and in any lighting situation - especially if you believe that your job, as the photographer, is to be able to roll with the day and be up for anything that unfolds, no matter what.

I also learned that shooting sports teaches you to anticipate the look of frozen movement, like the precise moment a runner tucks an elbow back and in while lifting his knee in symmetry, which is different than anticipating emotion, like the sweet moment a resistant father of the bride finally gives in to overwhelming sentiment.

(I also learned that you should never skimp on great lenses ⦠and you need to get past any body consciousness you might have when you're in the pool shooting an Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer with 1% body fat - but I digress.)

The reason I was most drawn to portraits is because that is where I found the most significant amount of connection between my subjects and me. It was also my best opportunity to build long-term relationships that would pay off exponentially not only in referrals and sales, but in having a front row seat to follow the lives of those I came to care about a great deal.

A great example is actually tied to the new book I just wrote, Envisioning Family. The focus of the book is about making meaningful portraits of the modern family - but the cover image is a pretty meaningful portrait in and of itself.

What's compelling to me about this cover is that I have been photographing this family since 2003, and so much has changed for them before and after this specific portrait was shot. Initially, nine years ago, it was just the couple and their baby. Then the second daughter came along. Then a third little girl came joined in - and suddenly life got more difficult, about the same time the army came calling. The family of five moved to the West coast and Dad was called up for a long-term deployment to Afghanistan. Mom became a single parent to three kids, as well as a doctor, working the night shift at a very busy Easy Bay hospital ER. And their middle child, the one on the cover of this book, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that caused all of her hair, everywhere on her body, to fall out. Her parents were told that it was not going to grow back. And this diagnosis came through while dad was very far away – and would still be very far away for the rest of the year. It was simply a very rough time for them. And, yet, you can look at that image and still see such sweetness and care. You can see that this child would be protected.

As happens between portrait sessions, time moved forward, and we just had another shoot two weeks ago. Dad is now home and out of the military (with decidedly longer hair), they moved back to their hometown, mom's work life improved dramatically, they gave birth to a brand new baby boy - and, an unexplained medical miracle, their little girl just started growing hair again: beautiful, bouncy, auburn hair. She's the little photographer in the top photo of this post - and here she is in her very own portrait:

We know it's a privilege to do the work we do, especially for appreciative clients. We also know that the reason it is called work is because it's just that: there's a significant effort involved in producing portraits that capture something genuine, expressive, soulful, and beautiful, while still being shot technically well with respect to solid exposure and great lighting. Since so much needs to come together in the right instant, challenges abound in each shoot. Especially when you're photographing children.

Like when your subject is wearing a beautiful dress, but it also happens to be mega-bright white, and you're shooting on an extremely sunny day at the worst time of day (thank you, reflector-that-acts-as-a-flag):

Or when you find an amazing new location, but realize right after you get the great shot, that there are ticks everywhere, and you're suddenly swarmed (you pluck them off as best you can and then make a run for it):

Or those times your subject takes a while to warm up and won't put on "the good clothes" (you distance yourself considerably, talk in a soft voice, use a 200m focal length – and then just wait as long as it takes):

Or if you happen to be shooting in dappled sunlight and you can't remember which twin is which (reflector as shade, pop in some fill flash, and create brand new, interchangeable names for them for the length of the shoot):

Or that evening when there's a lot of wind on the beach and you're shooting belly-to-the-sand (keep two lenses attached to two bodies and use a lens hood and, depending on spray, a plastic bag):

Or if you're facing a very nervous little girl who is being photographed for a workshop you're leading, and the crowd of shooters behind you is scaring her to bits (stay close to her with a wide lens, speak to her gently but consistently and calm her further by maintaining eye contact and moving the lens ever so slightly away from your face):

Or when it's near freezing, rainy and cloudy (encourage color, shoot low to show less sky and more local scene, and make it a game that your subject will jump several times, until you get what you need):

Or in the not-uncommon instance when a little girl is all done with the shoot and just wants to go home now (simply take one last photo and then let her go ;)

I could go on and on when it comes to listing challenges and found solutions, but I can nearly hear Brad and Scott whispering that this is a blog post and not a manifesto, so instead I'll summarize by saying that most of the joy of portrait photography comes from the consistent practice of:

– Learning the technical specifics so well that you don't have to let thoughts of equipment interrupt the interaction with your subject
– Understanding that connecting with your subjects is just as important as any other aspect of portrait photography, if not the most important aspect
– Falling back on quotes as a wonderful way to end your blog posts

So, lastly, in the wonderful words of Erik Christopher Zeeman, remember this:

"Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity."

You can see more of Tamara’s work at TamaraLackey.com, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter, and circle her on Google+

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72 Comments

  1. Awesome Guest Blog Tamara, love listening to ya as guest on podcasts too!
    KT

  2. Let me be clear – I am lucky enough to call Tamara a friend and she’s simply one of the top photographers in the world. But much more importantly, she’s one of the PEOPLE I’ve ever met. She’s a talented teacher, an empathetic human being and it’s my opinion that one of the reasons she’s such a great photographer is that she actually cares about her subjects. Congrats to Scott for finding Tamara for the blog and to Tamara for getting a chance to reach out to a new audience. 

  3. This is a great guest post! Thank you for the insights into Tamara’s photography!

  4. scott bournes mentions it already – “cares about her subject”  – i agree totally – as long as you love the people you capture your pictures will show that ! – and Tamara’s images are showing this…sorry for my bad english :)

  5. Well said Tamara. I admire your work and your dedication and passion are evident in the quality of your results.
    Clearly, you care about your clients and relate to them in a way that brings out their best. Keep up the great work.

  6. I love her portraits! Look at those eyes and how she adapts to situations. Really great photographer!

  7. sorry if i sound rude, am i missing something here,? all the photos looks like ok snapshots.crappy editing, like she is using some silly action from acctncentral.com or something,those eyes of children looks like glass beeds and made to look horrible and haunting in PP.
               No i have no doubt she´s  very good with interacting with her cleints and subjects,but not a single pic here nor on her website shows anything which any of those who visits this website cant do.

    sorry am fed up of these so called Top photographers in the world who cant even produce a single pic worth the title.
    end of rant.
    it´s just frustration seeing crap hailed everywhere in the name of art and creativity.it´s simply frustration , when all you are trying to seek is inspiration visiting sites like Scott´s and Strobist and Joe McNally´s.
    well, it´d be much more inspirational  if such photographers can share their marketing tricks rather than their non existant technical skills.

    Ps:- please delete this message, as it was not meant to bash your guest but to simply let you know that, the work above looks crap and dont deserve this post except for the reason that she´s your friend.

    • Where is the link to your site? I feel like if your are going to judge someone’s work you need to be prepared to show yours. 

    •  Tamara aside for the moment, imagine how the subjects depicted in the
      images above will feel when they read your critique, and many of them
      will because, hey, here they are featured on a world famous blog about a
      dear friend of theirs right? How does that help you? How does it help
      anyone?
      Every photographer I know who has learned to connect with people
      and moments more than their gear and software celebrates the genuine
      success of genuine people like Tamara. As you rightly point out, she is
      probably not here as a guest as much as she is here as a friend. Ta-da!
      Successful portrait artistry 101.
      It certainly doesn’t hurt that every
      image above is technically perfect enough to become a treasured family
      heirloom long after last month’s magazine cover has been processed through the recycle center either. Look again. They are beautiful!

    • @5c6ae7ea09a4db0bdd6a109cd37a7694:disqus
      Yes you missed something but looking at your rude, uninformed comment – it’s my guess that you regularly miss just about everything. Tamara’s work is world famous for a reason – it’s amazing. I’m guessing your work is not so good do this is some sort of jealous reaction. Tamara doesn’t use Photoshop actions (btw did you post an affiliate link so you can make some money off this comment?) She photographs children naturally. So you’ve proven you don’t know much about Photoshop either.

      What’s really offensive about your comment is that you are not only mindlessly attacking Tamara, but you are attacking the little children she is photographing. Making fun of children is about as low as you can go dude. In my opinion that makes you lower than whale crap – which is technically the lowest thing on the planet. And I’m guessing your comment is more about your inability to gain traction with YOUR photography than it is anything else. You have no authority, credibility or right to attack Tamara, to lie about her or misrepresent her and you ESPECIALLY have no right to attack little kids. The family whose children were photographed for this story are reading your insult about their children. How do you think that makes them feel?

      And stop talking out of your ass. I am friends with BOTH Scott and Tamara and they don’t even know each other. She’s never appeared on any Kelby show. She was selected because she knows what she is doing and your comment demonstrates aptly that you do not.

  8. Yes, Nortongreen, you are missing something.  Tamara shoots real photos for clients that love them.  In her line of work that is all that matters.  They are not technically the best, but they are beloved by the subjects.  Photography has room for artists, technicians, and people who do the job.

    • Ouch, that’s still quite a back-handed compliment…  You understand that what you wrote says; “I agree that she’s not making good photographs but her clients enjoy them so that’s what counts.”

      Don’t ride to the rescue if you’re still going to kick her on the way out as well…

    • Roger, i know what you mean ,i saw that post you mentioned yesterday, now it´s deleted, i wanted towrite something but hesitated ,so now i´ll chime in anyway.:-).
      There are 2 types of photographers, good technicaly capable photogs, and then those so-so photogs good at winning the hearts of their cleints with their charm and goodness.
       i´ll rate Tamara among the second group . her style inspires me a lot because some of it shows how happy her cleints are and they enjoy being in front of her camera, but her work ( the resulting pics) dosent inspire me a bit because as the poster yesterday mentioned, they are just average technically.lousy editing at best.and i´ll bet you a pint that the originals looks way better.

      well, you put it better yourself what the other guy wrote (rudely:-).  “I agree that she’s not making good photographs but her clients enjoy them so that’s what counts.”
      so in essence marketing and the way you interact with cleints is what counts  mostly. i´ll say,” god save photography” :-))

      • Man, you’d better be putting out some stellar photographs…  Because even if you’re trying to word it politely, it’s still elitist photographer bullcrap.  You’re claiming that Tamara’s work is “average technically” and her editing is “lousy at best.”  That takes some balls to comment trash like that on a guest blog post, and you’d better be able to back that up.

        It doesn’t inspire you?  That’s ok.  Never has Scott stated that everyone will gain tons of inspiration from every post.  If you don’t like a post, fine, just walk away.  We don’t need to know how much better a photography and editor you are than the guest blogger because frankly, we just don’t give a damn.

      • Justin, I could’ve have said it better myself.  Well done, sir.  Well done.

      • Justin, why not take your own advice and just walk away,what´s the need to comment to my post if you dont like it ?.
        simple as that,
         i was telling the truth, tell me honestly that you dont think the editing is lousy, i bet you think in the back of your mind that even you could do better . honestly pal. look at those pics :-)

      • by the way, post your email add and i´ll send you a link to my work.

  9. Great blog post, Tamara!  I love the first picture of the two little girls.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    –John

  10. Tamara, that beautiful, bouncy curly headed photo was a keen reminder of the true miracle behind this craft, the ability to trap a moment with clarity and celebrate it again and again. Wee bit of a tear in my eye on that one. Thank you!

  11. Very cool, I didn’t expect to see a great article by the person who shot my wedding many years ago today.  My wife and I knew you would be a big name one day and were so luck to have found you when we did.

  12. Tamara,

    There is one in every crowd and you just have to focus on the positive. Your connection to the subjects absolutely makes the portraits sing – personal, open, vulnerable, human.

    I love your B&W tone. What do you do to get it?

    Best,
    Steven

    • Hi, Steven – Focus on the positive: yes. Amen.  And thank you for your kind words.
      I’m a big fan of adding subtle warm tones to my black & white images, and I do that by dropping the overall color in RGB model and boosting reds and yellows in Color Balance.

  13. I usually stay clear of circle jerks like these, but in this case i’ll make an exception. Lovely post! You’re one of my favorites, Tamara! :)

  14. There is nothing more spontaneous and natural then kids in front of the camera, they expose themselves for what they are, no masks, no need for artificial means to make them look glamorous, they are what they are; sad we loose that genuineness growing up!!
    Thanks for sharing Tamara, you understood that is all about the subject in photography, we only freeze the moment!

  15. Tamara,
    I so admire you and your work! It is amazing to see such great connection with the clients. And i specially love that you show your love for photography so freely. You seem like a very down to earth and genuine person. I hope to some day be able to take one of your workshops. I would really love to meet you! :)

  16. Great post and great picture of the scared little girl. Can’t wait to read the book too.

  17. Nice work!  Interesting point. Google “Tamara Lackey” and you get something on the order of 522,000 hits.  Google “Norton Green Photography” or Photographer and the nearest hit appears to be a retirement village.  We shoot what our clients need, want, and like and, just as important, what pleases us.  There is no “wrong” in art.

  18. I have had the privilege to see tamara’s work evolve over the years and the gift of her photographing our family along the way – and although I may be biased in judgement of her work with our kids, I am equally blown away by the way she engages with others to capture their “realness”. What she describes in summary is so true and would make anyone a better photographer – knowing your equipment and how to manage and capture light with such confidence, that you are truly available to “listen”.

  19. Love the total package!  Photos, blog post, and life down to the closing quotation are so together ….. Simplicity and to the point.

  20. Wonderful post, very honest, intimate and informative.

    Like all the images, but the “scared” little girl and the “i”m done” little girl are
    truly priceless!

    Thanks for sharing.

  21. Great post Tamara. I love the picture of a girl with umbrella.
    I bought the ebook version of Envisioning Family, great information and wonderful pictures.
    Hope you could teach at Kelby Training someday.

  22. Your pictures make me emotional! That my dear is what a great photographer is about. I am excited about my future in this business and from this, I managed to get inspired to take my photography to a new level. Thank you, you have given me that push that I needed. Question: did you ever have slow times? And how did you market yourself to get more jobs, but from the looks of it you rarely went out to get more jobs as you probably had plenty of work. Great pictures!

    • I am excited for your future in this business, too.  It’s incredibly rewarding.  In terms of slow times, I actually have slowed my business down in that I do less shooting and take more time with my subjects and have found that I enjoy it that much more.  In terms of slow time I wouldn’t want, though, I can’t overstate the significance of word of mouth marketing – and so much of that has to do with caring about the relationships you build with your clients and simply letting them know you appreciate them sharing their photographs with their friends & family.  Sounds so basic, but it’s truly at the heart of a marketing plan that involves a lot more that I could go into in a comment :)

  23. What an incredible story.  When you mentioned the “miracle”, my eyes watered and I could barely get through the rest.  Those big blue eyes later on helped a lot.  Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing with us today. 
     
    Scott, Brad, how do you come up with such great guest bloggers each week?  Well done guys!!
    MIke

  24. I recently had the privilege of taking Tamara’s Workshop and learned so much in two days. All 15 participants didn’t want the workshop to end. Tamara is the real deal – a geniune, kind hearted, passionate lady. Tamara gave us game changing photo and business advice. I highly recommend her books and workshop. I’m hoping she comes out with a Children’s Photography Workshop II. Sign me up!

  25. Thanks Tamara for sharing these insights!  I have read your first book, “The Art of Children’s Portriat Photography”.  I learned so much from this book, and I’m looking forward to reading your new book.  Thanks for teaching us portrait photographers how to better craft our shooting and subject interaction skills!

  26. Tamara,
    thanks for sharing what you learned over the years,
    I apologize for being frank here, i wonder who´s editing your work. i dont know what´s bugging me looking at these pics, extensive use of some filters or actions (MCP actions i guess). if you outsource your work, honestly you should fire the person editing those, and if you are editing these, please outsource the editing job.

    • You’re welcome, Matty – I don’t outsource my work, as it’s one of the parts of photography I love to do.  I don’t use MCP actions, although I haven’t heard anything negative about them. Best of luck with your work!

  27. Just wanted to share a big thank you to Scott, Brad, and Matt for welcoming me to this community (this seriously very cool community).  I have been pretty overwhelmed at how many new friends I’ve made in the last day and the number of people who took the time to send me genuinely kind notes, in addition to the many great comments here.  

    Even though we all produce different work, have varying styles, and focus on different genres, it’s pretty awesome to know that most of us care about the same basic things, the core stuff that easily transcends our varying opinions.  We all feel less alone when we’re reminded of that.  So, Thank You :)

  28. It rarely happens, that I instantly fall in love with the look of a photographers work. But ten seconds ago I did.
    There is a quality in your pictures that I can only describe as “truth”, since I can’t find a better word for it. And it speaks to me in a very strong way.
    … and now I will start reading the article.  :-)

  29. Great post and pictures. I love your children photography.

  30. This made me smile, Kim – and not just an emoticon one either  :)  
    Thank you!

  31. I’m really appreciate Tamara as a children’s photographer. Have learned a lot from her’s book and creativelive workshop.  

  32. The little girl holding the great big camera reminds me so much of when I struggled to learn how to photograph children as a youngster photographing my siblings

    I also love the last photograph which really captures a unique look of the child.

  33. You are definitely an influence to my work.  I love your photos and your insights.  I always get inspired by your photos!

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