From the category archives:

Mothership 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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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 photos of Bella and Willie, and 2014 was my most successful year with Mothership Photography, so I’m sure I have 50 favourite portrait session photos I could post.

I’ll restrain myself, though. Some of these are dear to me because of the moment they captured, or the memory they evoke, or even the fact that I look at them and think to myself, “wow, I made that?” Every single one of them, though, makes me smile. They’re in no particular order.

Brothers on a winter walk

Diefenbunker-14

PEI revisited

Tulips in front of the Chateau Laurier

snowy owl-2

Kayaker at Chapman Mills

Even after the worst storms, the sun comes back out.

Reflecting on family

On guard

Writer's Block

Boots and booties

team donder posse

Oops this was yesterday's #mo365 7:365 #dogsofmo365 #latergram

A girl who loves books

Snowflakes

Autumn cutie

Silly string

National We Day in Ottawa 2014

Family reunion

Simple little pleasures

Tattoo selfie :)

Five generations

And baby makes three

Beautiful Baby O

Urban duck about town

My Name is Donder

leafy bokeh

Red riding hood bubble boy on the way home from school

A 10 photo essay on pumpkin smashing

Cuties on a red wagon

Brainy boy on the porch

Siblings

Cavendish, PEI

A boy and his hedgie

Two boys in a wagon

Souris and Basin Head PEI

Father's Day in Perth

brady bunch 2

Souris and Basin Head PEI

Sir Lucas

Luke and Bella #latergram #mo365

At the Flavour Shack

Doesn't everybody keep their typewriter on the porch?

Simon is 10

Peace Tower tour

boys at the beach

Winter walk

Apple picking 2014 3

Pumkin Pickers

Hollywood girl

Menfolk

Easter eggs 2014

Me and my ski buddy on the chair lift#mo365

Diefenbunker-8

first & last day of school

Family fun at Baxter Beach conservation area

Winter walk to feed the chickadees

Birthday cupcake

Christmas tree quest 2014-9

Kerry's family

Cumberland Heritage Museum

Adventures in PEI

Pumkin Pickers

Apple picking 2014 1

Souris and Basin Head PEI

Siblings

Happy sigh. Thank you to everyone who was a part of this year, whether that was letting me get you in my viewfinder or letting me interrupt whatever it was we were supposed to be doing so I could take a photograph or letting me share my treasures with you. It’s been a beautiful year, and I cannot wait to see what 2015 has in store!

Happy new year!


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When your best friend asks you to collaborate on a family portrait project to celebrate her extended, blended family, of course you say yes. And when she has an idea that is equal parts silly, fun and hilarious and perfectly exemplifies a family that prides itself on chaos, humour and love, you know you have to make it work. A little 1970s retro pop culture reference is just the icing on the cake!

The Silly Bunch

And then, you have a little fun.

brady bunch 2

Pro tip: When you’ve been friends for 30+ years, you cannot make faces like this in front of a camera and not expect them to end up on the Internet.

And if your photographer friend has a truly evil streak, she’ll go one step further and turn them into one of these:

Merry Christmas to my best friends in the whole world. I love you guys and I’m always happy to be a part of your crazy. :)


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Oh dear, I am falling further and further behind. At this rate, I’ll be posting my Chrismas photos next July! When I say “photo of the day” one can no longer assume I’m talking about *this* day!

This fun family came for porch portraits this past weekend. The boys, ages 3 and 6, were full of monkey business, which made them an absolute delight to work with. I love families with a great sense of humour who are willing to have a bit of fun with the photo session. Aren’t they a gorgeous family?

Two boys in a wagon

And that warm autumn light – so lovely. It may be true that I have just a wee bit of a bias in favour of families with boys. ;)

Speaking of boys, I put mine to work not long after this photo session raking up those lovely leaves in the background. Just a few days later, I’ve got a studio full of leaves again!


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I‘ve had a rush of babies on the porch for portraits this month. Lucky me!! Babies are a lot more work when it comes to portraits: they are terrible at listening to directions, I have to get down on my belly to see them eye to eye, and they have the disconcerting habit of suddenly giving over to gravity and tipping over. No other age group has quite so many drool marks to photoshop out, and I don’t generally have to jump up and down and make animal noises to maintain the attention of teens and pre-teens. Babies don’t even laugh at my knock knock jokes! However, they are truly delightful to work with, because when you get that shy smile you feel like you’ve really earned it.

All the babies I’ve had the joy of meeting this month have been of the girly kind, and then this handsome fellow showed up yesterday. You KNOW I have a soft spot for boys!

Photograph of a baby boy on a wagon in the leaves

Isn’t he just about the definition of autumn adorable? He’s a perfect match for my wagon and that hair!!! *love*


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Photo of the day: And baby makes three

28 September 2014 Mothership Photography

Some babies are jolly and full of chortles and some babies are more reserved. And then you have babies like this little charmer who came to the porch for portraits yesterday. She watched me and my camera with careful contemplation for most of the morning, neither smiling nor crying. In the vast majority of the [...]

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Photo of (a few days ago): Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah

24 September 2014 Mothership Photography

You might remember this beauty from her Hollywood-style portraits on the porch this summer. Those portraits were in preparation for this weekend’s big event, Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah at Stonebridge. I’d never been to a Bat Mitzvah before, and I really enjoyed researching the traditions behind the event. The ceremony and party were warm and full [...]

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Another book cover!

20 September 2014 Mothership Photography

You might remember I was pretty excited earlier this year when I found out that one of my photos of Lucas was being used on the cover of a book by author Brando Skyhorse. That came about through Getty Images. Around the same time, I was contacted by a tiny independent press in Tennessee. They [...]

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Photo(s) of the day: Kerry’s family

15 September 2014 Mothership Photography

It’s not every family that would let you pull out the silly props on a stick for their family photo shoot. But when it IS that sort of family, it makes for a REALLY fun family photo session! It wasn’t all silliness, but laughter comprised a good part of the morning. That and a truly [...]

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