Cake metaphors and compassion were just a few lessons I learned on family photography from another family photographer.

Last month, my family had family portraits taken.  It’s been…a while.  In fact, my first-grader was still in diapers it’s been so long.  Shameful, seeing as how I AM a family photographer.

After booking a photographer, completing a session with her and seeing our images, I’m grateful because I got to understand what MY CLIENTS experience when they book with me.   I’m a better photographer for the experience.  In fact, it was so helpful I realized it was something I need to do more of.  And it’s something I now firmly believe every professional photographer should be a part of on a regular basis.  And here’s why.

 Choosing a photographer is hard if you don’t already have a relationship with one.

I delayed scheduling family pictures because I honestly didn’t know who to choose.  We’ve moved three times in nine years and on each of those moves I left behind my favorite photographer.  I had to start all over and find a photographer in my area that would work for me and my family.  I honestly had no idea who to reach out to.

Then it hit me.  This is how clients feel.  They need a service but don’t know who to go to.  So they ask around, maybe put it out there on Facebook for referrals and BOOM…sixty-seven different recommendations, each one with different styles, packages, pricing, availability, not to mention personalities.  Some had Facebook pages, some had websites, some just had a personal Facebook page where they posted their professional photos.  It is all so much information to sort through.  It’s overwhelming.

What does this mean for you as a photographer?  First, you need to have a great social media and online presence.  Even if potential clients get a verbal recommendation, chances are they’re gonna cyberstalk you and your work.

Second, connect with people before they become clients.  Network as a person and as a photographer.  Get involved in your community.  Volunteer.  Be visible.  Be someone people know in real life and online.  Because when a momma needs family photos taken and she has sixty-seven options in front of her, who is she going to reach out first? The best photographer in town OR the photographer she knows from her kids’ school, from church, from community events, from your crazy IG posts.  Yup, the photographer she KNOWS.

So it was with me.  I did some research and inquired with a few different photographers but ultimately went with a photographer, the lovely Kelly of Rugged Grace Photography, because we had met before and I found her to be genuine and fun.  We had a connection, already, so she was immediately at the top of my list.

Family photography skills

The whole process really is stressful.

I’m a pretty low key person.  We took our photos in jeans and sweaters because that is who we are as a family.  But even choosing outfits for three of us knowing what I know about photography and color and light was stressful.  Like, I want to wear this sweater but it’s a little chilly but my warm sweater makes me look bulky so now I’m back to square one kind of stressful.

Then you’re trying to take direction from the family photographer, wrangle a kid, keep up your enthusiasm for your spouse and it’s just sort of exhausting.  I was more tired from having my photo taken then I am when I’m the one taking photos of a family of twenty.

So show your clients some grace through the process.

I know it’s a hassle when they show up late or are pulling on clothing as you’re walking to the location.  But they are human, after all, and things happen.  One small oversight or uncooperative tiny human the morning of and the wheels have fallen off the bus.

It’s not as if the mom turned to the dad and said “Oh I know what will make this fun.  Let’s start getting ready 30 minutes late, start an argument with each other on the way there and pull a photo finish for our starting time so we arrive frazzled and on the fight.”

Remember, our clients want a session to be a success as much as we do as the photographer.  We’re all on the same team and if we work together and connect as one human being to another instead of provider to client, we will win trust, get everyone back on track and move on toward an amazing session.

Need help capturing authentic moments?  Check out these 3 tips.

The lens really can be intimidating.

I’ve been holding the camera for so long, I forgot how it feels to have it pointed at me for any length of time.  It is hard to feel confident, look at the camera and act natural all at once.  Even if you’re shooting more candid moments, it’s hard to be your authentic when you are doing something that really isn’t natural at all.  So expecting clients to succeed at something we ourselves rarely do is kind of silly.  By simply stepping in front of the lens, I immediately gained empathy for my clients.

Working as a Family Photographer

Judging people by whether or not they will pay our prices says more about us than it does about potential clients.

I reached out to a family photographer whose work I admire and inquired about her availability and pricing.  She responded back with:

“I tell people if they have to ask they usually can’t afford me. Ha ha.”

Um, excuse me?  What?

In one sentence, this photographer completely changed my opinion of her.  Maybe she was trying to be funny, but I don’t see the humor.  I see a value judgment where none needs to exist.

Y’all, having a budget for photos and living within your means is NOT a character flaw nor is it a reason to judge people and make them feel unworthy of you.

I applaud the photographers out there who can command $2,000 in sittings and sales per session.  You are awesome.  I’m glad that you’ve raised the bar when it comes to photography sessions.  But you aren’t in everyone’s budget, and making someone feel bad about that is just plain wrong.

It’s not hard to get wrapped up in the “but I’m totally worth it” mentality and lose our compassion and humanity in the process.  As much as we try to tell people they NEED professional photos and the NEED to capture those memories, it’s not the truth.  People need a working furnace in the winter.  They need warm clothes and food to eat.  They don’t NEED a professional photo session.  There are many families out there who love your work but can’t afford your sessions because they are living paycheck to paycheck.  Please don’t look down on those people.  We all need to stop standing in judgment of one another.  We as photographers don’t need to justify our prices.  But neither should our community be made to feel small or inferior because they can’t afford those prices or are budget conscious.

We can always learn something from each other.

I don’t care if you are the best photographer in town.  There is always more to learn.  I picked some great tips and ideas from Kelly that I will incorporate into my future sessions.  And it was great to see how my family responded to her vibe and personality.  I am a better photographer for having experienced how she runs a session and works with clients.

Check out our tutorial on 5 Keys to Taking Better Family Photos

Family Photography Lessons

And finally…the final images are just the icing on the cake, AKA a wonderful experience trumps perfect images.

If I turn my critical photographer’s eye to my family photo session, I could find flaws.  Photographers all have different styles and prioritize different things in our images.  I would shoot the same scene differently than Kelly, you or just about every other photog out there.

But I can find no fault with the entire experience.  Kelly was fun, kind, humorous and patient.  She was encouraging without being patronizing, upbeat without being overly amped and just incredibly sincere.  She gave me a sneak peek within a few hours and she had kind things to say before, during and after the session.

The experience was fun and positive for my entire family.  Even my daughter, who suffers from Photographer’s Kid Syndrome, told me she loved it.  We were all excited to see our images.  And when they finally did get posted, we welcomed them with enthusiasm as the final product of a fabulous experience.  They were the icing the cake.

It made me stop and think about the overwhelming emphasis I put on the final images.  As a family photographer, I spend a lot of time focusing on that icing.  I nitpick images in post, tweak highlights or shadows, adjust contrast or sharpen eyes.  But what good is beautiful icing if the cake underneath isn’t there to support it?

My time with Kelly made me realize I should spend equal amounts of time preparing my cake as I do on the frosting.  Think about it.  Would you go back to a bakery if you got a cake with eye-poppingly beautiful frosting but the cake itself tasted awful?

When we communicate with clear expectations before a session, when we run sessions with confidence and kindness, when we connect first as people, we are adding layers to our cake.  Delicious, decadent, flavorful layers.  Our images are just the beautiful finish.  They are important, absolutely, but they should not and cannot be the full measure of a successful session or a successful photographer.

Want more ideas on being a better portrait photographer?  We’ve got 18 of them!

Pulling it All Together

When I reflect on my entire experience of having family photos taken, I realize that it is something I need to more regularly do for my family, myself and my future clients.  I gained empathy for anyone daring to be vulnerable in front of my lens and I understood more about providing an entire experience, not just great images.  These lessons are not new, by any means.  They are talked about in photography courses, forums and from one family photographer to another in private conversations.  But walking a mile in my client’s shoes really drove the point home.

As you budget for more photography classes or gear, I’d encourage every photographer to earmark some funds to be the subject of a lens this year.  What you learn may surprise you.  I have no doubt it will make you a better photographer, too.

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