Finding Your Vibe

A few weeks ago I was asked by good friends of mine to do a "Bump Shoot", or "Maternity Shoot".

Leanne BP1 927.jpg

I've never done one before so I agreed, albeit with a bit of trepidation. After all, I'm a single dude with no family of my own, so would I have the emotional involvement to be able to capture this important life stage for this couple?

I think at the end of the day I did ok.

We ran through a series of shots indoors, working off my iPad and a Pinterest Board which we had compiled together as a reference. I tried a few light set ups and attempted to replicate some of the shots with the limited space we had available, but I didn't really feel like things were clicking. I knew I had enough to go on, but I was keeping an eye out for golden hour because I knew they had beatific surroundings which would really offer us some gems if the light would only play ball.

And it did. 

For those not familiar with the term, Golden Hour is a photography term for the first and last hour of sunlight in a day. Obviously it's often not strictly an hour, but the point is that at sunrise and sunset the quality of light is softer, with less harsh shadows being cast, which makes for more diffuse light and flattering pictures.  


I use a great little app called "Sol", which tells me the exact times for golden hour each day based on my location and time of year. It really comes in handy with planning shoots. 

For example this screen grab is telling me the best time to shoot today, here in South West England is between 15:06 and 16:29.

The evening in question we had a beautifully rich, orange sunset which played so well in the golden fields behind their house. 

We walked around for a good 2 hours, well into 'Civil Dusk' and got some really great light. Leanne and Conan were both troopers, being willing to trudge some distance to search for good locations, not to mention Leanne being willing to lie down in some very uncomfortable stubbly grass to get some beautiful shots in the newly manicured fields.

So all in all I was happy with the results at the end of the day, but I did end up driving home in my car wondering, "Did I just do my first maternity shoot, or did I just do another model shoot with someone who happens to be pregnant?"

I suppose I was questioning whether I shot on brief or not. Did I get the vibe right? As I played the shots back through in my head they didn't feel like other maternity shoots I had seen fellow photographers post. Had I messed up? 

I suppose this is the tricky part. Was what I had produced a 'maternity shoot in my style', or a missed mark by unprepared portrait photographer falling back on tried techniques? I think there is a fine line between deliberate stylistic choices, and a lazy reliance on your usual bag of tricks.

A very good photographer friend of mine did make the comment, after seeing the photos, that they 'weren't smiling', and this was supposed to be a 'happy event'. I suppose the insinuation was that I should have been getting them to smile and laugh throughout to give the sense of 'joy' which comes with birth. Did he say that because those are his stylistic choices, or because I had done it wrong somehow?

That got me thinking some more: I'm not really a 'smiley' photographer. Everyone knows how mother's feel about their imminent children arriving. I don't believe that we need to go through painful hours of me cracking lame jokes until one lands and I can catch that moment of 'genuine' joy. Maybe it's a personality thing, and I am an introvert so I prefer a more contemplative style of photography. I think even if I went to the shoot with this advice in mind I still would have aimed for the same vibe.

I remember when I shot for a company a few years ago as their in house photographer I was constantly criticised for not getting people smiling and laughing in shots. They wanted me to paint this picture that around the office everyone was always joking and laughing, which they obviously weren't, and to be honest those weren't the shots that interested me. It took me ages to own that that just wasn't my vibe, and it doesn't make me wrong, or a bad photographer, it just meant I had to work against my natural grain to meet the brief.

Now I understand that my more sober, thoughtful vibe may not be everyone's cup of tea, but at some point, with my own work, I either have to own it and make it the best it can be, or spend my career pretending to shoot like other people.

So this is my journey at the mo: to define what my vibe is and move away from the generic feel of my shots to give them more character. I may lose business that way because it doesn't appeal to everyone's taste, but I have to hope that those who latch on to my ever-defining style will be loyal followers and effective evangelists in helping me get the word out about my work.  

NOTE: Thanks to the amazing Sarah Howse for an awesome job retouching images 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Check out her stuff here, and hire her: ... and I'm not just saying that because she's my partner. She's bloody good. You can also read more about her under the 'retouching' menu link above. 

Here are more shots from the day:

Leanne field 2 Final 930.jpg
Leanne 12 Final 938 web.jpg
Leanne Bedroom 3 final 928.jpg
Diptych 1 Leanne.jpg
Leanne sun 1 Final 931.jpg

Shooting Camera-Shy Clients

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to shoot an engagement session.


A friend of mine from school days (which I don't mind admitting is a while ago now) got hold of me because he had seen some shots I had posted on Facebook. This is one of the few times Social Media has led to actual work for me. I know it really helps some photographers, and I make the effort and put in the time, but it doesn't often pay dividends for me.

More about that in a future post perhaps.

That said, this time it did pay off.

We agreed to meet at Hampstead Heath in North West London, because it was full of outdoor options and happened to be close to where they lived.

I arrived a little early and settled in for a coffee while I waited. I fired up my iPad and googled around for images other people had taken in the area so I could familiarise myself with interesting shooting spots. This is something I now make a habit of doing. It's a way to give myself some space relax before shooting, as well as doing a bit of a virtual reccie of the area. Looking through other people's shots also inspires me and puts me in a 'shooting headspace'.

The couple arrived right on time and we got to talking as we strolled up the hill and onto the Heath.

And that's when she dropped it. The bride-to-be turned to me and said, "I just want you to know, I really don't like having my photo taken."


Now what?

I mean you called me right? You wanted photographs.

It's a strange phenomenon, and it happens a lot around weddings, that couples who really dislike being in front of cameras feel the need to put themselves there anyway because, well, you have to. Everyone does.

So you are faced with people who simultaneously desperately want good photos of themselves, whilst wishing they didn't have to be in them.

They were a lovely couple and we got on pretty well right from the get go, but I knew that I was going to have to work hard to make them both feel comfortable in order for them to come across naturally in the images. I find that a camera picks up discomfort very astutely. The frozen moment gives you the opportunity to more finely observe an awkward stance or expression, and then cruelly preserves it in time.

So I would have to put them at ease.

As the photographer that is my job. I am the one who lives in this space. Photography and cameras are my comfort zone (although I still don't like being in front of them that much either). It's my job to welcome them in to this space, like it would be my job to make them feel comfortable when visiting my home.

I can do this in a few ways:

Act like I know what I'm doing.

I kept telling them, "I'm good at this. I'll make it easy on you. This will be quick and painless, and even fun." That way they know that I, as the professional, will absorb all the pressure. It feels good to be in the hands of a professional in any sphere. If my computer breaks and I take it in to a technician who tells me that he is great at what he does, and he will get my computer working again soon, I feel instantly more at ease. His confidence gives me confidence in him. Admittedly, sometimes I have to fake that confidence myself, but I know it's worth it because the shots will show a more relaxed and natural subject.

Let them know they are doing a great job.

I had to learn early on that I couldn't look at the shot I had just taken and frown. They would assume I was frowning at them. Truth is I was usually frowning at the fact that I had just stuffed up the lighting, but they would assume that I was a professional and that they were more likely the problem. Being in front of a professional photographer's lens is a very vulnerable place to be. Remember that. Cover your mistakes and give them the impression things are going well, even while you're working out a way to make that true. Most importantly, let them know they are doing great.

Spark conversations which makes them talk easily.

I got them talking about their wedding and plans for the future, even while I was posing them. This is when they both became more animated and began to act more like they were just sharing plans with a new friend. At rare moments I think they even forgot they were being shot and those were the moments I tried to grab.

Use the 'testing the lighting' trick.

I do this often. I get my subjects to pose somewhere and tell them to just relax for a couple of minutes and chat to each other while I 'dial in the lighting'. What they don't know is that I am shooting the whole time, hoping to capture less guarded moments with shots they assume don't count. I have gotten some of my most natural moments this way. It's an old trick, but a goodie.

I'm sure you have a load more tricks, and I would love to hear them, but either way, it is your job to put your subjects at ease. Create a professional atmosphere, swallow your own insecurities, absorb the pressure, and make them feel at home

Here are some more shots from the day: