October 4, 2017
Crafting a Family Photo Shoot

San Francisco


It’s not simple to describe the creative process behind any one photo shoot, because there is no clear beginning or end.

It doesn’t exactly start when the client books. I have been shooting professionally since I was 19 years old, full-time since 2005, and in all of that time, I have had a lot of experiences to draw on.

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But it some ways, it does start to culminate when a client emails me and we start to talk about what they’re looking for. With this family in the Bay Area, we started by talking about a vibe they all liked, inspired by music and street-style photography they had seen on museum walls.

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This fortunately played very well into my experience photographing weddings documentary-style and creating album cover art for musicians in NYC. We decided to shoot on film — to emulate some of the results I had mastered back when I shot those other things entirely on that medium.

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So, the style and medium begins to narrow it down. In our pre-shoot discussions, we were hopeful we’d get a foggy day in San Francisco to obscure the fact that we had chosen a fairly quintessential location to document the family with their dogs. But wouldn’t you know, the day came, and it was hot and muggy. Fortunately, an interesting haze formed in the heat, that created a similar gauzy look to fog, but at the same time allowed a lot of bright sunlight through, which brightened up the areas around their eyes, perfect for portraits.

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We walked and meandered and I tried my best to tell jokes — mostly to take everyone’s mind off the task at hand. It is tricky to get images that look street-style in a situation that we so obviously concocted. I drew on a combination of working with families and musicians, so that we were part relaxing and being ourselves, and part posing with a bit of authority, the way a musician needs to project an energy to their audience.

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It had been awhile since I shot a job entirely on film, and I had some butterflies in my stomach as I sent the film to the lab to be processed. It felt like magic when I got the scans. Timing is an important component to the results of any photo shoot — arguably the most important for my style of work — and with film that’s even more obvious. Something about the way the medium records, freezes thought in that moment in time in a strong way.

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I’ve always had a hard time explaining what I see when a moment “lands” in a photograph. It’s something I can sense in the moment I’m recording it, too. The practice of getting this timing down with my subjects, and with the various cameras I use, has been my fixation for many years. I don’t play a musical instrument, but I often wonder if this is what it feels like. I show up, I perform, my performance is translated into a recording, the recording reveals how well I performed.

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Every subject, every angle of light, every location adds nuance to my performance history. No two jobs are ever alike. Yet, there is continuity in my work because of the way I look to time things with the shutter. Even what I look for is different with every subject, and their interaction with the light and the space. I look for relationships, humor, good nature, I look for what people might like to remember about themselves. I see what makes them attractive, what they have to be proud of, and perhaps what makes them special that they’re not even aware of. Sometimes I simply look, and wait to be surprised.

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Once I had the scans, I culled, edited, and tweaked the images to be at their best, and presented them to the clients. Still, we weren’t done because they wanted to order some prints for their walls. And as we started talking about those, we got ideas for our next photo shoot together.

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Everything about the creative experience builds for me, one upon the next, and this is just one example. I shoot photos wherever I travel, capturing daily life, on my iPhone and on more “serious” cameras, not just for clients, but any time something strikes me as memorable or interesting. I am constantly looking and interpreting and learning how to record to play up what I see is beautiful or strange or perfect or flawed in the moment. When I edit, I am pulling out of the shot what I can to make it more fully express itself, and as I do that, I am learning more about tweaking the way I capture the next shot.

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There is no end for me, and no clear beginning, either. My clients swoop in and go for the ride with me for a little while, and then they hop out again with photos in tow, and I hope they’ll come along again some day. For me the ride is constant, and I’m most grateful for those moments when I have company on the journey.

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