No More Excuses: Family Documentary Myths Debunked / by Andrea Moffatt

In April, I had the pleasure of stepping out from behind my camera and getting a turn to be the subject. This means that I got to actually be in the pictures with my kids, thanks to the lovely and talented Sue Keller Photography! Sue and I have been collaborating a lot lately around the idea of lifestyle and documentary photography because we are both have the same thing in common: we live in the same geographical area, and we want to convince YOU that you want (no NEED) unposed, real life, documentary style images of your family! 

To that end, we decided to photograph each other's families. Now I know exactly what it feels like to be on the other side of the lens in a Story of a Day session. And I know what it feels like to have all the concerns I hear from my own potential clients- because at some point during my session with Sue, they all crossed my mind! And so now, without a doubt, I can address the main worries (which are, by the way, all myths!) that I commonly hear about this type of in-home, moment-based photography. In no particular order they are: 

"My house is A cave at night - there's not enough light for pictures." 

Never thought I'd worry about this one, as I shoot in my own house and all its dark rooms ALL THE TIME. Still, the thought crossed my mind!

"It would take a modern miracle for my house to be clean enough for pictures in every room."

I mean, let's be clear: It WOULD take a miracle for all the rooms in my house to be clean at the same time. And they were still cluttered when Sue came.  But the real question should be: Will my messy rooms come through in the pictures?

"My family never does anything interesting."

I'm embarrassed to say, that for a brief moment, I did think: What if the kids do something they've never done before and they just ... sit there??

And now, what really happened...

myth #1: Not enough light

Truth: Your house might be too dark for your iphone or maybe for your DSLR if you aren't shooting in manual or aren't intimately familiar with the settings. For a professional photographer though, your house has plenty of light. And not only that but I, for one, LOVE to shoot in low light and little pockets of light. I love small windows that make more concentrated patches of light (maybe even more than big windows that throw beautiful even light.)

Even though I know this, I found myself wondering the same thing as we went upstairs to get ready for bed, Sue carrying her camera behind us. I thought to myself, "If we turn all the lights off when we read, just like we normally do, will she really have enough light?" But one look through my pictures will tell you she had more than enough light. I love the bedtime pictures she took!

greensburg pa photographer boys with light up toys

Myth #2: Too messy

Listen. We all make clutter and we all hide in different ways and places. (wink) Me? I like a neat and clutter-free living room, but as for the rest of the house, forget it. I try, but I just can't keep up. During my family's session, Sue shot in my living room (yay!), kitchen (don't look at my work space!), kids' rooms (don't look in the closets or in the corners), attic (don't look at the entire South side of the room) and playroom (don't look anywhere). But I can honestly say that when I look at the pictures, no matter what room it was shot in, I don't notice clutter at all. I just get a warm feeling when I see our family of four being together within the walls of our home. 

Why don't I see the clutter when I look at my pictures? Three reasons:

  • The first is that, like I said above, the warm and fuzzy feelings I have for seeing my family together in my home out-weigh my embarrassment over little messes here and there.
  • The second is that Sue is a professional who knows how to frame images to minimize distractions. The documentary photographer is not JUDGING you for having piles here and there. On the contrary, her primary concern is to make the cleanest most impactful frame she can by only including what is important to the story. Usually, clutter is not part of the story, so usually it's not in the frame or purposefully hidden by working our angles.
  • And three, the subject has control over where the session takes place. This is not because the client and photographer talk ahead of time concerning in which rooms you prefer the session to take place, but because in documentary photography, the photographer simply goes where you go. So if there is a room that looks like a bombshell went off in it (cough- my bedroom), just don't go in there! 

Myth #3: "My family never does anything interesting." 

When Sue visited my house, we didn't plan anything special. She came just after dinner, which was about 5:30 and stayed till the bedtime routine was over- about 7:45. We start getting ready for bed around 7, so that means that between 5:30 and 7, we had nothing planned. Dinner was over. Bedtime wasn't for an hour and half. But trust me, we weren't bored. As most families with younger kids, we did what we do every night: try to find the balance between letting them play without causing damage and structuring their last little bit of awake time so they don't kill each other. We let them choose what we did for the first half of that hour and half (they danced, then flew around in their super hero capes, then started "flying" from three steps up in their super hero capes). Yup - pretty much a regular evening. 

At that point, we feared for the safety of our household lamps, so we made popcorn- another Moffatt-family staple. After that, we headed up to the attic for some stories and a card game before bed. We didn't know we would do any of that before Sue came. We just followed the kid's lead. 

But if your kids are a bit older and you think it could get awkward if no one wants to hang out, you should feel free to make plans for the night. Decide ahead of time that you'll have a game night, or do a fire pit evening, or go on a walk, or play a game of whiffle ball. Don't say: "The photographer is coming tonight so we are GOING to have fun and this is how we'll do it." (Ha! Yeah, I know how it goes.) Say: "I have a special night planned on Thursday- Fire pit followed with a game of whiffle ball. You get to pick the snack! And because we are having such a fun night, I invited my photographer friend over to capture it for us." 


So there you have it. The above 3 family documentary photography myths debunked! And by someone who has been on the other side of the documentarian's camera, no less. The beauty of the Story of a Day session is that it is real. Or at least, as real as it can be with an extra person in the house as you go about your normal life. By confining your pictures to well lit rooms or outdoor fields, performing a deep clean that includes a rented dumpster, or by choreographing your family's daily reality, your resulting pictures will be LESS REAL and feel LESS TRUE.

Take it from me. I've been there.