51 things I’ve learned about documentary family photography in 5 years

Myra's natural Fresh 48 hospital session | San Francisco Bay Area documentary newborn photographer

I just celebrated 5 years since my very first documentary session. While it feels like these years have gone by quickly, I’ve collected *just a few* realizations along the way:

1. The 35mm lens could be glued onto my camera body – but having a 24mm on my 2nd camera body is a great addition (could also be glued on)

2. Don’t be scared to get closer – even closer than you are thinking right now

3. Remember to step back – and grab that wide lens

4. Working with the same gear year after year and figuring out how you like to edit *all your photos* – not just photo-to-photo – makes your work consistent and helps you develop a recognizable style, instead of always chasing something new

5. Buying – and implementing! – courses/workshops is a better investment than new gear

6. Err on the side of business and marketing courses over photography courses, if you want to make a living

Girl dancing, mom and dad watch

7. Be selective about when you press the shutter – but when the moment comes, take multiple photos

8. Embrace the grain instead of feeling bad about it when there’s no better option

9. Photo books are the best way to tell the story of the day

10. Shoot at F4-11 when you want several layers to make sense

11. Emotion trumps composition

12. A crappy photo will still be crappy in black-and-white

13. Buying more gear won’t make your photographer eye better

14. Shoot what interests you – even if you think your clients could think it’s weird. Usually they don’t!

15. The families you work with will not be as critical as your inner critic – so don’t believe your inner critic

16. Photos *almost* always look better in print, so don’t worry about them not turning out beautiful if they are beautiful on your screen (though remember to check that your brightness isn’t dialed up high)

17. The older I get, the harder it is to keep the camera straight as I follow along busy kiddo life on the floor

18. Once you’ve packed up your camera, divert your eyes from the baby who keeps making cute faces

19. Shoot from the eye-level of your subject – until there’s a *good compositional reason* to change perspective

20. Instead of capturing/posting photos you think your followers will like, capture/post the photos that move you

21. There’s a difference between “shooting at” something interesting, and making a good photo of something interesting

22. Documentary family photography is the most challenging approach to family photography because of the uncontrolled environment, zero directing of the family, and the constantly changing lighting conditions – allow yourself time to get decent, good, and better

23. Luck is rarely involved in capturing “lucky” photos – it’s about being prepared and open for *anything* to happen and capturing the magic as it suddenly pops up

24. Listening to the family’s stories helps you find the photos they will cherish

25. Only follow photographers who inspire you and make you feel excited to shoot

26. It’s often better to underexpose than overexpose

27. The longer the session, the more natural the family’s day gets and the more access you get to affectionate moments

28. Parents will love the photos even if they aren’t all “portfolio worthy” – if you’re getting 1-2 portfolio photographs per session you’re ahead of all the games

29. Don’t subscribe to magazines and newsletters that are filled with photography gear – and try to not keep up with all the latest gear – to keep your work space clutter-free

30. Sign up for courses/workshops that correspond to the phase you are going through in your business, instead of signing up for *everything* – and implementing nothing

31. Shoot as if it was the last time someone was making pictures of the people or the place

32. Be ruthless when editing (culling), so that you spend less time post-processing

33. Decide on 3-5 types of moments/photos to look for throughout each session – the things that you believe matter the most when it comes to family photos

34. Make photos that don’t have people in them – but that include a human element

35. Allow limitations (“we don’t want pictures of our baby’s face online”) to push you creatively for a few photos you may not otherwise have thought to make

36. Long focal lengths make the viewer detached from what’s going on

37. The more often you photograph a family, the more comfortable they get – and the more meaningful the photos get for them

38. Look for similarities between the now and the past sessions with the same family

39. The reaction is sometimes more interesting than the action – focus on the reaction but keep the action visible within the frame, too

40. Don’t worry about not getting awards to the point of giving up – your clients’ reactions matter *SO MUCH MORE*

41. Don’t be afraid to put your camera down and interact with the family

Michaela's in-home maternity pictures | San Francisco Bay Area family photographer

42. Likes and comments don’t measure how good your photograph is, and should not change how you feel about it

43. Look at amazing photography, and think about what makes them so

44. So far I have not regretted taking a photo – but I have regretted not taking some

45. Don’t worry if your photos qualify as “documentary” – you do what you want to do in your business, and don’t submit non-documentary work to documentary photography contests

46. Follow your gut instinct

47. You can find the best of moments to photograph in the most mundane, slow moments

48. Don’t worry about critique from others unless they are also making themselves vulnerable by sharing their work

49. Try to clean up your background by moving around – but embrace any mess or background element that enhances the photo

50. You can’t control the environment or the people in it, but you can control when you press the shutter

51. Even if black-and-white is my greatest love, some photos work 1,700x better in color

Mom eating, newborn baby and toddler sleeping

What lessons have you picked up during your photography journey?

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Documentary newborn and family photographer serving San francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and surrounding areas