From the category archives:

Photography

I am still chuckling over the irony in the post I wrote back in 2006 about getting our family portraits done at the local grocery store studio. That was the last time I was ever in a big box store studio, for good reason.

Nine years later, I’ve learned a thing or two about portraits. While my “mommy goggles” love the subjects of these portraits, which made me love the portraits themselves, I can’t help but pick out some significant faults that make me cringe when I look at the finished product, some more egregious than others. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Ten things that are wrong with these portraits:

1. That backdrop

Seriously? It’s stained. It’s wrinkled. It’s AWFUL. And that colour? Is that brown or grey or khaki or what? I remember having the choice between this and a stark white and some sort of 70s inspired print, and this was the best of the three. It’s the stains that kill me, though. They completely detract from the portrait subjects. This is a “professional” portrait studio – at least have some not-filthy backdrops, for goodness sake.

2. The seam in the background

See that seam running down the middle of the background? First of all, it shouldn’t be there AT ALL. There’s a reason the most popular background you can buy for your studio is called “seamless”. And while it would be distracting anywhere in the frame, it’s horrible that the seam runs directly down the centre, effectively cutting the family in half. It would have taken just a few seconds and a critical eye to slide that out of the way. Better yet, a larger aperture and moving the subjects forward a bit would throw the (really really awful) background pleasantly out of focus. Backgrounds should either be complementary or practically invisible and certainly not so obvious – that curtain and its seams and stains and folds draws all the attention away from the portrait subjects, and also makes us look rather slovenly.

3. The posing

While I forgot that I wrote this blog post, I haven’t forgotten the actual experience of having the portraits taken. We received no direction about posing ourselves AT ALL. I had grabbed Simon and pretty much dropped myself into the photo, leaning in a bit to see past him. By fluke, our heads line up to make a moderately pleasing diagonal line, but look how unflattering that pose is for me, from the tension in my extended hand to the way I almost disappear leaning between the boys. I wasn’t posing, I was acting as a human corral trying to keep Simon in the picture. A photographer’s job is to give advice to the models about posing for flattering body shapes and pleasing composition and to capture family dynamics, not to simply activate the shutter once all the required bodies are inside the frame.

4. The outfits

Okay, mea culpa. I can own this one. It’s only been in the last two or three years that I’ve really come to understand how to dress a family for portraits. In this case, I had simply dressed everyone in their favourite outfits without really thinking about pulling everyone’s outfits together for a cohesive look. I’m not talking about dressing everyone in white shirts and jeans, either – we were close with the shades of blue in Beloved’s shirt and jeans and the blue strip in Tristan’s shirt and my blue jeans – but the colours in Simon’s outfit aren’t echoed anywhere else and my stark white t-shirt is a little too plain. The electric blue toes on Tristan’s socks keep yanking my attention to his feet and away from his face. Our outfits are not at all harmonized; coordinated outfits would have helped pull us together as a group.

This is what I’ve learned about dressing the family for portraits: coordinate the family’s outfits together in the same way you’d coordinate an outfit for yourself. Go for mostly complimentary neutrals and choose one colour (or two, if you’re bold!) to run as an accent through the outfits. Maybe mostly blues and cool greys with an orange strip in dad’s shirt, an orange scarf on mom, a warm yellow pinstripe in daughter’s plaid skirt and an orange t-shirt underneath a grey shirt on junior. Or something similar. You don’t have to be matchy-matchy, but you should consider everyone’s individual pieces of clothing as part of one big family outfit.

5. Cropped limbs

See how my leg is cut off right at the knee? See what it does to my leg? Just call me stumpy. There’s an old rule in photography that you never cut off a limb at the joint. If you must crop, and you should try whenever possible to avoid cropping limbs like this at all, cut in mid-bone. On the other side, the crop on Beloved’s leg is better, but I would have worked harder to ensure the entire family was whole with a bit of room to breathe on the sides for good measure. Same with the picture of Tristan and Simon – see how Tristan’s jeans tangent the edge of the frame, but there’s room on the other side between the edge of the frame and Simon?

6. Tristan not looking

It’s hard photographing excitable toddlers. Trust me, I know this. However, it’s the photographer’s job to WORK to ensure that the kids are actually looking at the camera, if that’s the goal of the portrait. If I need to take five snaps and do a head swap to get all the kids looking into the camera, that’s what I’ll do. It looks awkward and unbalanced to have one kid looking and one not. (And it would have been so much nicer had the photographer suggested the boys have some sort of contact or interaction with each other in that photo of the two of them instead of having them look like they were randomly plunked there, which is actually what happened – Beloved and I each dropped a boy on the rock and stepped back and SNAP.)

7. No attention to detail

I’d've loved it if the photographer took a second to tell me that Simon’s pants were riding up his legs like that, so I could tug them down. And all that crumpled leftover backdrop going every which way in the foreground is really distracting. It could have been smoothed and straightened in two seconds. As it is, both compete for attention with our faces.

8. The props

A big styrofoam rock? What’s a rock doing in a studio portrait anyway? You know I love props in my own portraits – wagons and apple boxes and cute kid-sized furniture. But this just doesn’t make any sense to me. I know I chose it – but it doesn’t help tell any sort of story, or contribute anything to the photo. It’s jarringly out of place. A nice bench or stool or even a crate would have made more sense.

9. The lack of direction

The photographer gave us no direction at all. I would have been grateful for suggestions about posing, props, or even any attempt to interact with the kids beyond looking bored and impatient when they acted like the two- and four-year-olds they were. I admit, I tend to err on the side of pushy during a portrait session, but I think direction is the job of the photographer, not the subject. The photographer should absolutely listen to the input of the subjects – they’re the customer, after all – but at the end of the day, being a photographer is about more than just pushing the button.

10. The abject lack of creativity

I get it. These are high-volume, low-budget operations. The idea is to get people in and out as quickly as possible: line ‘em up, take the photos, get ‘em out. But there’s no story here, and there are so many ways to elicit reactions that will result in a capture of the family’s personality and dynamic: have the subjects touch each other, have them look at each other, make them laugh by telling a corny knock-knock joke (I got a million of ‘em!) or asking who has the stinkiest feet in the family, ask dad to tickle one of the kids, tell mom and dad to kiss and watch the kids react… or just change up the poses a little bit, so everyone is feeling less stiff and anxious in front of the camera. Zoom in, zoom out, shoot from anywhere except dead-on straight.

What we have here is a picture, but not a portrait, and while it’s us, it doesn’t really show who we are.

What do you think? Are my expectations too high? Am I being overly critical? I mean, it took me five years of running my own portrait business to develop all of these skills, so should I be expecting them from someone who is probably told to get behind the camera, don’t touch the settings, and sell as big a package as possible while still getting the clients in and out as quickly as possible? Have you had similar or opposite experiences with grocery store or department store photo studios?


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This month, I’m celebrating an anniversary-palooza of ten years of blogging by revisiting some of my favourite old posts. I have to tell you, I was utterly delighted to find this post about us getting family portraits done from the winter of 2006. I wrote long before I had even the faintest idea of opening my own portrait photography business, and to be honest I completely forgot that I wrote it and I find it hilarious now. Although I had forgotten this post, I never did forget the experience, and it has served to inspire me in my career as a family photographer, because NOBODY should ever have to go through this to get decent family portraits. Trust me, my lovely bloggy peeps, you do get what you pay for and I genuinely do know whereof I speak on this one!

Our grocery store has a dry cleaner, a café, a tobacconist and a women’s gym on site. They have a portrait studio as well.

Each time I’m in there, which is about three times a week, I stand in the checkout line and admire the oversized portraits of cheeky babies posed with adorable props – fluffy white teddy bears, giant daisies, stainless steel tubs. And I look at those pictures and wonder why I never get around to getting professional portraits done of our boys.

My sister-in-law brings my 14-month old nephew in to her local version of the same grocery-store/portrait studio every few months, and we have a series of exquisite photos of him, from sleeping peacefully on a pillow (barely a few weeks old) to sitting proudly on a rocking chair (his one-year-old portraits.)

One day, all the tumblers clicked into place, and I had an epiphany. My boys are plenty photogenic. They are growing like weeds. They have sweet dispositions and are natural hams. We are in the grocery store every two days anyway – while we’re in there, we should get some portraits done!

*cue ominous music*

For weeks, I was excited. Despite a complete lack of foresight on my part, the portrait sitting happened be the week before my mother’s birthday. What grandmother wouldn’t love a framed 8×10 of her beauties as a gift?

I spent idle hours minutes considering which outfits the boys should wear. I made sure all the laundry was done so we would have my first choices plus full back-up outfits to wear. The day of the sitting, I waited until 15 minutes before we went out the door to dress them, to avoid any potential unpleasantness with half-chewed goldfish or mashed-banana bits. We made it to the grocery store with just the perfect amount of time to spare – not late enough to be frazzled, not early enough to have to spend excessive effort corralling idle preschoolers.

And that’s when the dream of the perfect family portrait began to fade away like film exposed to bright sunlight.

The session before ours ran late, so we waited in an alcove in tantalizingly full but unreachable view of the toy section. Oversized babies leaning on giant blocks looked down on us as the boys went from disinterested to impatient to agitated in the span of minutes. Simon heard the voices behind the black curtain and became obsessed with getting into the studio. Tristan whined that it was taking too long. The oversized babies began to look less cherubic and more sanctimonious with every passing moment.

After a tense quarter hour of waiting, which included some of our lesser moments in public parenting, we were finally allowed into the studio. The photographer was a seasoned professional, likely old enough to drive but certainly not to drink. Which was unfortunate, because I could have used a drink by that point.

There were no giant daisies, no rocking chairs, and no big steel tubs. We chose the fake rock as a prop. (We could have gone with the paint-chipping-off wooden blocks. Maybe there is a reason professional photography studios charge more than $24.99 a package?)

Naïvely clinging to the idea that the picture-taking itself would go smoothly, we had Tristan lean on the (fake) rock while trying to entice Simon out from behind the curtain, where he was playing peeky-boo with himself. Tristan discovered that the (fake) rock was not level, and in fact could act as a catapult, should an unsuspecting brother be placed near it.

Neither boy would look anywhere in the vicinity of the camera.

Tristan was suddenly and chronically afflicted with an inability to smile in anything other than an ironic grimace.

Simon would.not. sit. still.

Eventually, Beloved and I hopped into the picture, hoping at least to confine the boys within boundaries of the frame for the length of a shutter-click. We poked, we begged, we implored, we ordered, we tickled. Finally, regretfully albeit successfully, we made fart noises.

After what seemed like mere moments, our session time was up. Beloved shepherded the boys back out into the alcove while the photographer (I am making air quotes around the word photographer as I type – I can’t help myself) showed me the scant few images she had deigned to capture.

With every passing image of painfully forced smiles, blurry toddler escapes and maternal hairy eyeballs (nobody should have to look at a picture of themselves giving the hairy eyeball), I felt my standards lowering from perfectly composed, beautifully realized portraits that captured the complex but ultimately sweet essence of their personalities and the magic of being a parent to one marginally acceptable pose that didn’t feature someone with a finger up his nose or looking like (s)he had been recently lobotomized.

And then I saw these.

(Oh, and the bit about the fart noises and that throbbing vein over my clenched jaw muscles? Let’s just keep that as our little secret, okay?)


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Photo of the day: Ice flowers

by DaniGirl on January 15, 2015 · 0 comments

in Photo of the Day

Leftovers from our little ice storm last week:

ice flower

Pretty, but oh so cold!

(I’ve sent my main camera off for service. It’s been a week. I’m starting to twitch!!)


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Our darling old dog Katie arrived in our lives long before any babies did, and I think that’s why she always acted in a very maternal way toward them.

Bella, on the other hand, arrived into a pack of noisy, playful boys, and it’s clear she thinks the boys are her littermates; never moreso than when given the choice, she will choose to lie on top of one of them rather than just about anywhere else.

Like this:

Pups in a pile

I can’t figure out what I like more, the fact that Tristan is tolerating this or the expression on Bella’s face as she looks directly into the camera that says, “What?!”


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When the last of your Christmas family visitors happen to arrive on the first day that the Rideau Canal is open for the season, and they’ve never visited the world’s longest (or is it largest?) outdoor skating rink, and the temperature rises above minus 10C for the first day in a week, an extended family excursion for Beavertails seems almost inevitable!

Family fun on the Rideau Canal

(Can you believe that my wee baby Tristan is the second-tallest person in this photo? It’s been a fun holiday game seeing which adult family member he has outgrown over the holidays!)


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You might argue that this is not a photo at all. It’s bits of two photos, actually, plus a filter, and a colour tweak, and some contrast.

The snowy owl is from a photo I took about this time last year. Have you ever driven the roads south of town, around Eagleson or Barnsdale or Leitrim, and seen the clusters of photographers with their ginormous lenses, shooting towards farmers’ fields? They’re likely on the hunt for a capture of the snowy owl, which is such a highly sought after prize in the local photographic community that people guard the locations of their photos with a ferocity matched only by the pride they exhibit in sharing their captures. I got lucky – we were on our way home from a ski trip and I had my camera in my car when Tristan noticed this snowy owl perched at the top of a telephone pole on Moodie Drive near Brophy. We’ve seen them often since – if you’re driving the rural farm roads south of town, just watch the tops of light poles and farm fenceposts and you’re likely to find one.

The background photo was one I took a week or so ago. Once again, it was Tristan and me in the car – he seems to be the one most indulgent of my occasional need to pull over and take a photograph. The sun was setting on a moody, chilly day and I loved the texture in the sky as the sun poked in and out of a film of clouds. I stopped on Eagleson just south of Fallowfield to snap a photo of the sunset with the silhouette of a farmer’s field in the foreground.

As we drove further south on Eagleson toward Manotick, we laughed to see not one but three clusters of photographers with massive lenses pointing towards tall poles. We drove by too quickly to be able to resolve the owls, but I’m quite sure they were there. I had only my wide-angle lens with me, and no mittens on a raw cold day, so it was easy to resist the temptation to stop. But I was inspired – how would my previously-captured snowy owls look against this dramatic sky?

Here’s the answer!

photo of a snowy owl against the sunset

I wasn’t completely in love in love with the composite, partly because the light on the owl was coming from the wrong direction and partly because I was a little sloppy with my selection and extraction but too lazy to go back and re-do it. I wanted something a little more dream-like and moody, so I added the painterly texture, and then played with the tones until it had this low-contrast, blue vibe.

Not so much a photograph as a digital painting, but I’m happy that I achieved the mood I set out to convey. Have you seen the snowy owls? It’s a fun afternoon out to go looking for them with the kids!


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Photo of the day, #TBT version: Pining for summer in PEI

8 January 2015 Photo of the Day

It’s minus stupidly cold with the wind chill, and my darling Nikon has gone back to the mothership for service, so I decided to post a warm summer #TBT (Throwback Thursday) photo as today’s picture of the day. Then I realized that somehow I had missed including this, probably my favourite photo of 2014 (it’s [...]

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Photo of the day: Typebars

7 January 2015 Photo of the Day

When I asked Beloved to digitally sketch me a camera for my new photo website design, the original idea was a vintage typewriter for the blog and a camera for the photography site. And maybe, just maybe, a tattoo of each on my left and right wrists. We ran out of time (and, ahem, attention [...]

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Photo of the day: Ice and sunlight

5 January 2015 Photo of the Day

Well hallo winter, you’re a bit late this year aren’t you? Came back with a vengeance though, didn’t you? Snow, several hours of freezing rain and then a flash freeze? What a delightful Monday. I nearly froze my aperture off taking photos in the park on my lunch hour. Ah well, at least it’s pretty. [...]

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(Nearly) Wordless Wednesday: 50 favourite photos from 2014

31 December 2014 Ah, me boys

Wow! 2014 was an amazingly photogenic year. I could easily post 50 favourite photos just from our trip to Prince Edward Island alone (yes, I know, I’m on about PEI again – I never really stop thinking about it!) or 50 favourite photos of fun family adventures with the boys. I probably even have 50 [...]

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