Troubleshooting to make better photos in documentary family photography

If you’re here, it’s probably at least partly because you have a drive to go beyond just what your family looks like, and capture what life feels like. Posed portraits in a field at sunset are perfect for the former, but fail to hit that emotional sweet spot that triggers true memories. Family photojournalism, though? It can provide the whole package.

When you make a photograph captures the essence of a scene, you know you’ve got a winner. One that gives you pause every time. That brings you back to the moment and the moment brings you back to the broader space in time, and the memory of that space in time gives you a deep appreciation for who you really were and what life felt like. It’s like a symphony.

When you pick up your camera (or your iPhone) to capture something particularly cute or funny, chances are the first photo you take will do a fine job of representing what the scene looked like – right? But what happens if you keep shooting? Trying different angles, waiting out the moment, reflecting for a second on which elements tell the story best? With patience, luck, and a bit of knowledge, you might end up with the holy grail: the way it looked and that special sauce, too.

If you’re still with me, go ahead and stick around while I walk you through my process of working a simple scene and moving from a photo that’s forgettable at best to one that has a bit of oomph.


This morning, my son was sitting on the windowsill at sunrise, fiddling with his socks. Nothing special. And yet that moment felt so quintessentially fall-mornings to me, that I ran and grabbed my camera, praying that he’d still be in his tiny sunspot when I got back. Hooray, he was.

Now, to compose the image that gets the feel across. Above are the very first and very last frame taken (all in the course of one minute and 17 seconds, by the way) as I worked through the puzzle.

8:02:05 AM: First, a quick snap (admittedly before I adjusted my settings properly). There’s a boy on a window seat, sticking his sock up on the windowsill. An uninspired composition, and definitely too bright given that it's barely sunrise, early morning.


8:02:11 AM: Bringing down the brightness so you can better see the sun speckles on the window and the fact that it's not actually broad daylight....


8:02:24 AM: That still isn't working, because it's not clear what he's doing -- and the composition is boring and awkward. Maybe a little to the left to better see his face....


8:02:45 AM: OK. The composition is definitely better, but now that we're in direct sun, it's too bright again and we're losing detail in his adorable face (and on the window). So bringing it darker again . . .


8:03:04 AM: Better again! Now we're getting close. The light and brightness are nice, the angles are working for me. But, this isn't much of a moment. Nothing is happening, and the subject seems to be in transition. Also, I am not getting a good view of the driveway and neighbor's car, which is important to me because I know he's waiting for the girls next door to step out and hop in their car for school. Maybe if I wait right here and watch carefully, a stronger moment will happen.


08:03:22 AM: Aha! Got it. He finished fiddling with his rainbow sock and pressed his nose against the glass, and I clicked the shutter. A sigh of relief.

The final step is a quick hand-edit to bring out the details and help the image tell the story. In this one, I wanted to highlight the warm, yellow sunspots in juxtaposition with the cool dawn air outside. With the toning enhanced, there's no mistaking it: this is a cool, early morning. A bit of contrast and color adjustments to my liking, and voila! We have a final image.


There you have it: the basic "behind the scenes" thought and technical process for going from an uninspired "looks like" to a rich, evocative "feels like" documentary image.

Go on, get out there and shoot yours! Or email your friendly area family photojournalist to get it done for you.

RELATED BLOG: On cross-generational memory.