Setting Up Families for a Lifestyle Shoot


Michael F. asked me a fabulous question after reading my latest Behind-The-Scenes post, so I wanted to share the Q and A!

His Q:

I thoroughly enjoy your images, and your comments are wonderful. But I’ve always wanted to ask how you “stage/setup” your models/families. You mention in this blog using stories to create an atmosphere, but is that also how you have your lifestyle families work? Do you mind sharing how you interact with your families to create the powerful images you share on your blog? What do you say, how do you direct them, etc.? Thanks so much.


My A:

How I structure a Styled Shoot is vastly different than a Lifestyle Shoot.  The main reason for that is a Styled Shoot requires my subjects to look relaxed, but their poses don’t have to appear “natural”, whereas in a Lifestyle Shoot, I want my subjects to FEEL comfortable, LOOK relaxed, and HAVE natural poses.

For this reason, I limit how often I direct them and am careful with how I word my directions.  (If you give them too many directions, it usually results in stiff poses and forced expressions.)

What I do is direct them to “hang out” in areas that I know will photograph well — such as, areas with nice light and areas with an interesting backdrop.  What they do there is up to them.  That way, the result is nicely lit, interesting images with natural expressions and real interactions.

Every child, family, person…they are all different and unique, so there isn’t one magic thing you can do or say to get powerful images.  Instead, you have to understand whom you’re photographing, and work with their personality to get the images you want.  I do this by communicating a lot with my clients.

Here’s an example.  Let’s say there is a family with a toddler and a preschooler.  The parents are nervous about their first professional shoot, so they stand around and look stiff.  In this case, I may tell them to pretend I’m not there, and just play with their kids like it’s a regular weekend morning.  Usually that’s all I need to do to get things flowing.  In rare instances, the parents may still not know what to do with their children, so I may give them some ideas.  Such as, “Does your children like playing _____?  Have you ever done this _____?  Maybe you can _____?”

Usually that sparks ideas for my clients, and they remember how Little Nancy loves to twirl when there’s music or how Baby Joe laughs whenever they throw him up in the air.  The key is to not tell them what to do, but rather, offer suggestions, so their actions are natural.

My end goal is to create beautiful images of my subjects in their natural element.  I want their expressions to be real and want them to be sooo comfortable that they reveal their personalities and even emotions.  <3


Does Location Really Matter?

You can spend countless hours coming up with the photoshoot location, but let’s be honest.  Does the location REALLY matter?

This is one of those questions where different photographers may have different answers.  Here is my opinion as a Lifestyle Photographer.  (This answer would be different if I were a traditional portrait photographer or a landscape photographer, for instance.)

The answer:  It does and it doesn’t.  I know, I hate it when people say that (haha), but it’s true.  Let me explain.

When location MATTERS:

  • You want a meaningful spot (ie, where you got engaged, your home, your neighborhood park).
  • You want “good light”.
  • It makes the subjects relaxed (ie, a newborn will be more comfortable in their warm home, a family with young children may be happier at a quiet playground than in a city).
  • It provides you with activities (ie, you have a toddler who loves to pick flowers, so you choose a garden or you have a couple who loves dining out, so you choose a chic restaurant).

When location DOESN’T MATTER:

  • You want someplace “pretty”.

Here are examples of the last point.  I took these images this weekend with long-time clients whom I know very well.  We started at a park near their home, and towards the end, I took them to the parking lot next to an open field.  Though it may look picturesque, I guarantee that 98% of people who drive to the parking lot don’t stop to look at this.  Then we walked over to our cars, and I captured a few sweet hugging shots right in the middle of the lot.

Point is, parking lots aren’t usually considered “pretty” areas, but you can get great shots just about anywhere.

So don’t just look for “pretty” when you are deciding on a shoot location.

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Shooting in the parking lot and other interesting places is not foreign to me.  You should check out my blog post part one  and part two!

Seeing The Light in People

Mateo and Anea are the same ages as my first two kids, so watching them grow up is like being in a parallel world in many ways.  I adore these children and their parents, and seeing them every year is one of the blessings in my photography career.  During their shoot, there is talking and reflecting with some playing and gentle laughing.  Our time together is soothing to my soul, like drinking hot chocolate with mini marshmallows on a cold Winter day.  Niiiiice.

Something happened during their shoot that is rare:  I sat down, put down my camera (I know, right?!!), and chatted about their latest worldwide journey and shared funny stories about rat attacks.  No kidding.  An aggressive rat leaping at you is never good.  Just ask Joe — haha.  At that moment, it felt more like we were friends reuniting and I happened to bring my camera.  :)

While I was editing their photos the following day, I felt a wash of comfort and love.  Then I remembered what another client said to me once….

She told me that I “see their love” and therefore, only I can photograph their family’s special bond because “you can capture something only if you can see it.  And you can see it!”  She went on to explain:  “Not every photographer spends the time to know their clients enough to SEE what makes their family special.  And some can spend a lot of time, but still not see it.  You have a gift — not just in photography, but in how you see people’s light and the uniqueness of each family.”

I love that.

It’s not just about seeing THE LIGHT at a location, but it’s also about seeing THE LIGHT in people!


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The M Family’s last two photoshoots were so different than this one!  Last year’s was at a hiking area that had a farm (The Impossible), and the year before that, it was at a Japanese Garden (How Do I Love Thee?)  No matter where they are and what year it is, I can see their family’s light.  <3

Made With Love

Rachad and Priti look at each other in such a way that I swear I see cartoon hearts come out of their eyeballs while loud horns sound!  Okay, so maybe I’ve been watching too many cartoons.  ;)  They have these two adorable kids who hug each other for no reason, play “choo choo train” with sticks, and can do a mean dance to “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” that resulted in me singing the chorus without a care in the World while dog-walkers and joggers moved behind me!

Maya was like my shadow that day as she kept finding interesting things to tell me, and she’d hold my hand periodically during the shoot as if she had forgotten I was there to photograph them.  :)  At the end, little Samir, whom I’ve known for three years (I did his Newborn Shoot!), gave me this squeeze-like hug that made my heart swell.

The entire shoot — including the beautiful picnic spread with yogurt parfait in personalized mason jars and fruit kabobs — was made with love.  Love was everywhere.  Not even the dense fog that blocked our view of the Bay and the morning’s surprise running event could spoil the great morning we had together.

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Growing Up Boo

I call my boy BubbaBooBoo Bear.  He is my favorite boy in the World.  And the World is a very big place, so that is saying a lot!

Boo turned eight, so I had his birthday photoshoot recently.  It was an hour where we got to spend quality time together doing whatever he wanted.  For this year’s birthday shoot, he chose his own outfit and decided to go to a playground to run around, so that’s what we did.

Boo has grown so much over the past year.  Just look at his face from last year’s shoot at a library!  He had missing teeth, no glasses, and rounder cheeks.  He still likes to tell me details about his day at school and appreciates a good joke.  He never turns down an opportunity to have a race or play Monopoly.  He still thinks I’m the coolest person in the World (YESSSS!!!) and is determined to live next door to me when he’s an adult.  :)  He still holds my doors open and carries my bags when we are out.  He tells me I look good in something, even when I am sure I don’t.

My Boo makes me proud to be his mommy, and these annual photoshoots are more than just capturing photos.  <3



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Breathing at the Beach

I met The L Family for the first time over Labor Day weekend.  During our half mile stroll to the beach, Julie told me how they haven’t had a photoshoot since Brandon and Drew were 6 and 4 years old!

We have all been there before — work, meetings, never ending task lists, smart phones, a calendar packed with events.  They fill our days.  But what’s cool is, it’s always okay to stop what we’re doing, take a cleansing breath, and be in the moment.  Forget about yesterday and tomorrow.  Right now, what do you see and smell and hear?  How do you feel?

I’m not a guru at this being-in-the-moment stuff, but from time to time, I make a point in breathing intently and ‘taking it all in’.

I am so glad that Julie and Rob didn’t get stuck on how much time had passed, and instead, took their boys (including their furry baby, Bodie) to the beach to have me capture their family moments.  <3

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It was a beautiful sunny day…the sky was true blue and there was a gentle breeze…we could see two whales spouting water through their blowhole…the sand felt coarse under my feet…and the salty air was filled with sounds of giant waves crashing, music, and laughter.



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IS UNCERTAIN.    ~unknown


First Birthday Cake

Luke may have turned one year old the very day of his photoshoot, but as some say, age is only a number because Luke can walk, run, dance, escape (haha), and eat his first birthday cake like a pro!

Fun fact:  Luke’s mommy and daddy — Kelley and Oren — got married five years ago, and I not only witnessed their union on a gorgeous beach at sunset, but also, I was their photographer!  (Lucky me!)  We’ve been friends since then, so it was such a delight to see them again and photograph their newest addition, this handsome and courageous boy whose fuzzy golden head I HAD to rub!  :)

Happy birthday, Luke!  And congratulations, Kelley and Oren, for reaching the first year of drooly kisses and cuddles that melt your heart.  <3


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I Can’t

It seemed like a lifetime ago when I had to drag myself out of bed to go into an office, and at the end of the day, I’d go home feeling glad I did a good job, but my zest was dimmed and my passion for creativity was collecting cobwebs in the recesses of my soul.

Let me clarify.  I’m not saying a corporate job is bad in any way and it certainly wasn’t like that for me every day because I made some great friends, learned A TON about business, and grew personally.  In fact, I know that I couldn’t have leaped out of the Corporate World had I not “put in my dues” to learn about marketing and small business.  Having managers who believed in me was a confidence booster that didn’t go away either when I left.  I am eternally grateful for my opportunities.

But now, wow.

Now I get to run a business doing all the things I love.  We’re talking the kind of love that makes me excited to get up in the morning, passionate to create Art and tell stories, and an all around happier person.  I have the kind of job that, even eight years later, makes me want to pinch myself.  Am I really doing what I love, every day?!!

My Lifestyle Shoot this weekend reminded me of all this.

I’ve been photographing The T Family since Kate was a baby and they lived in L.A.  I photographed Ellie when Michele was pregnant and the day she came home from the hospital!  I have watched Ellie grow into this walking, talking little person with a big personality.  And Kate… what a bright, shining star she is!  They both have these magnetic smiles that melt my heart.  And every time I see them, I feel like THE luckiest person ever.  <3

Alright, that’s enough sappiness and over-sharing for today.  You have to see some of their images.  I dare you to look at these and not smile!

I can’t:)




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Behind-The-Scenes: Crystal

Styled Shoots involve more directing of subjects, which is a fun contrast to my regular shoots (Lifestyle Photography) that are more natural-flowing.

In this shoot with Crystal, for instance, I took her into a deserted building and a cemetery ==> NOT your typical photography locations.  Some of that occurred on a whim because the other areas were occupied by another photographer.  Instead of leaving altogether, I got more creative!  It feels amazing to still achieve the quality of images I had visualized beforehand, even with the unplanned changes.  Boo-yah!

Before diving into the behind-the-scenes (BTS) images, I’d like to share a phone selfie of me and Crystal taken before the shoot, so you can see what she looks like on a “normal” day.  She is stylish, cute and gorgeous, right?!!


And, I know you’re thinking it, so I’m just gonna come out and say it for you… I need a tan!  ;)  Alright, let’s get to it!

Behind-the-Scenes #1

I chose this area because I liked how the green in her top (it was a silk scarf!) matched the leaves in the tree, so I placed her here.  Since she has never done a professional shoot before, I gave her a branch to hold, so her hands had something to do.

(PHOTOGRAPHY TIP:  Sometimes hands can look awkward. They need to have “a purpose”.  Don’t just let them fall to the side.  I call that “a dead arm”.)

I also love her muscular arms and back, so finding ways to curve and bend her body highlighted those areas.  It also makes the image more editorial than headshot-y.  (Do you like my formal terms?!!)


What I Shot


[Specs:  ISO 400, 1/1000 sec, f/1.4, shade.]

Behind-the-Scenes #2

I started shooting her in different angles (straight on with the cemetery behind her, through the trees, etc), but none of those gave me the “wow” effect that I wanted.  I ended up moving closer and closer, and shot her from the side, as you see below.

I found the side view more flattering.  It showed off her arms in a feminine way and created a harder line around her jaw, which I liked.

Also, from this side view, I can see her wrist tattoos, which offers a visual detail that I find interesting.


What I Shot


[Specs:  ISO 400, 1/400 sec, f/1.8, open shade]

Behind-the-Scenes #3

I could see that the sun was hitting the bush with the flowers, so I knew I wanted to shoot through that for a cool foreground bokeh.  To get into position, I am looking through the viewfinder the entire time, so I guess I ended up in a funky legs-all-twisted kind of position!  haha.

The other image (below right) shows me giving Crystal posing direction.

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What I Shot

I love this shot of Crystal.  She looks flirty and fun!  Her stance also shows off her athletic build.  (She is a volleyball athlete!)


[Specs:  ISO 400, 1/1250 sec, f/1.4, speckled light]

Behind-the-Scenes #4

So at the end of the shoot, I looked around for a strip of light.  I visualized a dark environment with a tiny bit of light, so I could create more of an emotional, storytelling image than just “a pretty” one.

I found this strip of light inside a deserted building that worked great, however, based on how the sunlight streamed in, the light was very low to the ground.  I gave Crystal directions to sit, kick off her shoes, and bend forward into the light.  I painted a story for her so she would have “activities”, so that the image would have a story…

She was a girl at a party who stepped away from it to be alone for awhile so she could think.  The rest was up to her.  Was she sad?  Pensive?


What I Shot


[Specs:  ISO 250, 1/4000 sec, f/1.4,  super bright stream of light]

Then I walked up to her to get a close-up.

I wanted to highlight the shapes from the light and shadows on her face and body, so I had her body produce even more shapes by making her limbs bend and her body asymmetric.


[Specs:  ISO 320, 1/5000 sec, f/1.8, bright stream of light]


If you want to see more Behind-the-Scenes posts, check out this one.  And this one.  And don’t forget this one:)

Music, Flowers and Funnies

Sophia and Isabella crack me up.  I can’t imagine them in the same room without talking with each other or laughing or making a funny noise with their mouths.  Combine this dynamic duo with an interesting location and some props — like instruments, leaves on the ground and long-stemmed flowers — and you have a photoshoot full of fun and silliness!

[Fun Fact:  Their dad, Tim, used to play in a band I listened to when I lived in San Francisco!  No wonder their kids are musically inclined too!]

As they grow older, make new friends, have breakups with boyfriends (they’ll be heartbreakers, I’m sure), I know Izzie and Sophia will always be there for each other and will recognize they have an unbreakable bond that allows them to feel safe to be themselves.  These lyrics make me think of them…

Everybody wants me to be who they want me to be except you
All I wanna do is be with you
~Michael Franti, “I’m Alive”

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They got rained out last year, but if you want to see their artsy urban shoot from 2013, click here!