WILL IT BE AWKWARD? How does a day with a documentary family photographer FEEL?

austin documentary family photographer

When I walked into this beautiful Austin home this spring, nobody was uncertain about how our documentary family session would feel. One of my favorite things about repeat Day in the Life clients is the ease with which we fall into the day, comfortable and trusting, excited but relaxed. The last time I photographed this family, Finn was a wee toddler full of big feelings. The family was renting before buying this Travis Heights dream home some months later. There were questions. Lots. 

Granted. I've been in this business long enough to be able to predict what questions my clients will ask me in the days / weeks running up to our sessions, and we now go over all the details before the big day. 

But it turns out, these questions aren't just on the minds of scheduled clients -- they're also on the minds of those still wondering if a documentary family photo session is for them at all.

So let's have a little look at these questions (and their answers), shall we?

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Q: Will you just wander into our house while we're still sleeping? Is that weird?

A: It's not weird for me if it's not weird for you -- but truthfully, it's totally up to you. Not satisfied with that incredibly vague answer? Read on.

For some, the thought of having a photographer in the room pre tooth-brushing, pre-hair-taming, pre bra-donning . . . it's a bit too much. And I'm ok with that. I'll come when you're ready -- breakfast time is a natural way to begin.

For others, it's within the realm of reasonable, and I'm more than happy to sneak in to your house at the crack of dawn to catch those first sleepy moments. They're intimate and sweet and quiet and fleeting, and for many, they're worth the vulnerability. Just . . . don't sleep naked.

Q: Do we feed you? What do you eat?

A: Have I ever told you that I'm a morning person? Like, 5am comes, and my brain is wide awake. It's a curse. And a blessing. So chances are, by the time I show up at your house, I will have already had coffee and breakfast, no problem. 

If we're having a half-day (6 hour) session or less, you probably won't need to feed me at all -- maybe some coffee (black, thanks). I prefer not to eat while I'm shooting because the stress of that kind of multi-tasking gets to me. If we're spending all day together, I can either bring my own snacks and smoothies to tide me over, or I'll eat whatever you're eating. And I'll rarely pass up an evening beer or glass of wine.

Q: Are you really shooting ALL DAY? When do you pee?

A: In all honesty, I pee all the time. I have a bladder the size of a lima bean, and I drink A LOT of water.

But more importantly - no, I'm not shooting all day. One thing that experience has taught me is that not EVERY MOMENT of a family's life needs to be documented and remembered. We all have downtime. Even at my most fabulous, action-packed sessions I typically shoot a lot at moments that inspire it, but routinely put down my camera for moments -- or minutes -- or longer -- when life slows down. This is totally normal, and totally ok. It doesn't mean you're not awesome!

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Q: Do we have to spend all day at the house? Where are your boundaries?

A: Those who know me well know that I barely have any boundaries at all. I'll go pretty much anywhere with you. If your family loves to swim, I'll gladly hop in the pool. Fancy a trip to the amusement park? Count me in! Music Together? I've done it. Whole family bubble bath? Check. Dinner out? Save me a seat! The Rodeo? Yep, I'll come along to that, too.

What's most important to me, as your family photographer is that we plan a day rich with the activities that are important and meaningful to your family -- whether that be action-packed-out-and-about or stay-home-and-chill. I'm game either way.

Q: What about those awkward moments? Conflict, discipline, that kind of thing?

A: Before our session, we'll have ourselves a little pow-wow. I'll ask you if you have any "Do Not Photograph" list items. Some families prefer I steer clear of potty time, others wish to have some privacy during moments of family conflict / discipline. I'm good with either of those.

BUT. If your limitations are driven by a fear of what your life will look like on the internet, there's really no need -- I'm happy to let clients subtract out any / all photos from their set that they don't wish to be shared online. Your privacy is important to me!

Also: over the years, I've developed a pretty good sense of intuition about the right times to put myself in the mix, and the right times to distance myself and allow a bit of privacy. No awkwardness or hard feelings required.

Q: Speaking of being in the mix. Do we ignore you? Entertain you?

A: Nobody likes hearing "it depends," but really. It does. One thing I'll guarantee is that it'll never feel like there's someone creepily lurking in the bushes, stalking you.  With some families, I'm more like a fly on the wall. I remain mostly in the background, watching them do their thing. With others, it feels like an old friend come to visit from out of town. We'll chat and laugh together all day. The best part is, we don't have to decide ahead of time. We'll feel each other out and find the right balance.

Q: Our house is cramped and hectic. How do we avoid getting in your way?

A: Please don't. I guarantee that on more than one occasion, you will instinctively shift your body to get out of my way, and I'll remind you: "don't move for me." One of the (many) things I love about my work as a documentary photographer is using the layers of life (whether it be bodies, clutter, doorways) to tell a richer story about you and your family. 


Q: Do we clean up for you?

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A: No. Or yes. You’ve got kids, right? We’re ALL a mess. It’s one of life’s certainties: gravity exists, the sun will rise again, and life with kids is messy. But do you know what else? Some day the legos underfoot and the smudges on the window will be gone, and they won’t let you help them change their shirt for the 16th time today, and you might miss the chaos. I’m here so you can always remember how sweet the exhaustion really was.

More about your mess and how I think about it here.


Q: The weather's looking iffy. Should we be worried?

A: I once shot a half-day session in a hurricane. And it was great. But obviously, this is not what anyone's "normal" real life looks like. At the session pictured in the photos accompanying this post, there was a big rainstorm right in the middle of pool time, followed by a swampy afternoon and evening. As you can see, the photos and the story didn't suffer.

This is Austin, so chances are, it'll be sunny and glorious on our scheduled day -- but hey -- I can't control the weather (not yet, anyway). If we're approaching your session date and the weather forecast is looking dreadful, we'll talk about the options. The first thing I'll ask is (you guessed it): what would you normally do on a rainy day? And: is the rhythm of a rainy day important for you to remember? Is it in line with what feels normal? The answer may be yes or no. If you'd had your heart set on photographing your traditional Saturday-afternoon swim and it's gonna be storming up a storm all day, we can talk about reschedule options. I aim to be flexible so that you may have the experience you had wanted.

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Q: We only have one kid, will we be too boring?

A: If the images from this session with one child don't answer that for you, let me put it another way. Some of my very favorite sessions have been of families with one child. There's something about the dedicated attention, the slower pace, the simplicity of photographing one child and parent(s) that is positively 

beautiful. Plus: do YOU find your life boring? Chances are, no. All those sweet gestures, expressions, habits, and traditions that you're absolutely obsessed with? They'll make amazing photos that you'll want to keep forever and ever.

Q: Can we do just one posed portrait for grandma?

A: Absolutely! Who's gonna judge you for wanting a photo of everyone looking at the camera, semi-behaved, with a pleasing background? Let me know ahead of time, and we'll work it in.

Although my expertise is in making totally unscripted images that accurately reflect the most interesting aspects of otherwise-mundane family life, I'm totally willing to huddle you all together and take a photo of everyone smiling together for your holiday card.

Q: How much should we engineer this?

A: If you can help it, just don't engineer it at all. What does your most typically family day look like? Let's just do those things. Because chances are, your most favorite photo from our time together won't be during an especially "photogenic" activity you chose because I was coming over, it'll be something unplanned. An in-between moment. I like to tell families to think about their most average day, and maybe add in one or two "best of" type activities -- not the things you've never done or would rarely do, but the things you do now and then and really enjoy and look forward to. We want to keep it within the realm of normal so that your photos may reflect multi-layered memories with roots that run deep.

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Q: Will you ride with us?

A: Yep. If you're going on a bike or scooter ride, we'll have to plan it a bit. But if you're taking the car or the bus, I'll just ride along -- provided you have space for me. Otherwise, I can bring my own ride. And don't worry, I don't cringe at a sticky handful of cheerios on that rarely-occupied seat in the back!

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Q: What if my kid's an asshole?

A: Whose kid isn't an asshole, honestly? You've gotta trust me about two things. First, EVERYONE'S kid has moments of being an asshole. It's totally normal. And second, I have seen it ALL. Between the antics and tantrums of my own little ones and the many, many families I've photographed by now, there are precious few child behaviors I haven't been witness to. And it takes an awful lot to shake me.

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Q: My mom might stop by - is that cool?

A: I love grandparents! And best friends, and favorite neighbors, and whoever else is important to you and a part of your life on a regular basis. To the extent possible, it's best if you let them know I'm coming ahead of time and that they don't need to do anything special or act differently for me -- but even if you forget, no biggie!

Q: Do I have to decide in advance what I'm going to do with my photos?

A: I'm no psychic, but I can spare you the suspense and tell you that you're going to end up with a book. All of my clients buy a book, and every client comes back to me to tell me that their album is one of their most favorite possessions to date. 

That said, you don't have to decide ahead of time. Some families think they want digital negatives and end up with a giant piece of wall art. Others come in expecting prints but then can't decide, and walk away with a book and the full digital gallery. Many wind up with a bit of everything. Sometimes, the images you see will be the inspiration for your choices. And that's fine by me.

There you have it - answers to my clients' most burning questions in the days leading up to their sessions.

What did I miss?

By the way, I HAVE ONLY THREE FULL- OR HALF-DAY SPOTS REMAINING FOR 2018.  If you've been dragging your feet on booking your family session, contact me today!