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.

East-Bay-lifestyle-family-photography-family-of-four-at-hillside-1  East-Bay-lifestyle-family-photography-family-relaxing-on-hillside



East-Bay-lifestyle-children-photography-brothers-sitting-in-parking-lot-BxW  East-Bay-lifestyle-photography-East-Bay-fruit-tree-BxW


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!

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.

BTS-styled-shoot-Crystal-4     BTS-directing-a-styled-shoot-Crystal

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:)

Behind-The-Scenes: Little Princess

As part of my 1 hour Styled Session of my 5-year old’s birthday, Ava changed into her flowy pink dress and wore a handmade glittery gold crown that I ordered from etsy.  (She wanted a Princess theme whereas I wanted The Train Station theme, so we compromised by doing both.  Actually, she had 3 outfits, but that’s another post!)  :)

The fog had rolled in, so the temperature dropped 10 degrees and the wind picked up.  I knew this leg of the shoot needed to be really quick.  It was a time to just “get the shot and go”!  We were there for about 15 minutes, including walking to/from the parking lot.

My oldest daughter held my reflector when I needed it, and she took a couple behind-the-scenes shots with my phone as you can see here.  Thanks, Mia!


Ava’s dress had a gauzy layer that kept getting caught on the prickly wild flowers, so I had her stand on a stool.


I had waited til the end of the day to get the “golden hour” light, but didn’t anticipate the fog that rolled in after we started.  With the dense fog, you can see that we were running out of light quick!

My poor girl was so cold that she used her arms to hug herself to keep warm — which actually looked pretty darn cute, so I shot through it.


What I Shot:

East-Bay-styled-children-photography-princess-with-gold-crown  East-Bay-styled-children-photography-pink-princess-with-crown-looking-down


East-Bay-styled-children-photography-princess-with-gold-crown-looking-down  East-Bay-styled-children-photography-princess-with-gold-crown-shivering-in-cold



You can’t always control every aspect of your shoot, like the weather.  So find ways to make the most of what you have.  Sometimes that means finding an alternate light source.  Sometimes it means shooting through the cold and having artistic “thoughtful” shots of your subject rather than “happy” ones.

Use the resources you have, think quickly, and have fun!

The Secret About BxW


I love BxW images so much that I asked our photographer to shoot Lawrence and my engagement portraits entirely in BxW film.  This was a long time ago, but I remember it vividly.  The photographer responded politely:  “Usually when people come to Hawaii, they want their photos to be in color, so they can see the beauty of the island.”

Hmmmm…he has a point, I thought.  “Alright, take a couple shots in color and the rest in BxW please.”   :D


What does this have to do with my lesson on BxW?  Not much, but it was a funny story.  All true, by the way.

Alright, let’s get to it…. Secret #1:  NOT ALL IMAGES LOOK GOOD IN BxW!

Shocking, right?!!  The problem is, not everyone realizes this bec they are learning with a digital camera.

With digital photography, it becomes easy to adopt the philosophy of shoot-NOW-think-LATER, because it uses technology where you can view your images a second after pressing the shutter and many rely on post-processing to fix something or change a photo to BxW.  All with a few clicks of a button.

This process leaves little reason to need to think very much before you shoot.



When I shot entirely with a film camera, one of the things I learned very quickly was looking out for imagery based on what kind of film was loaded in my camera.  I’d shoot differently with BxW film versus Color film.

If I had a roll of 100 speed color, then I’d bring my camera somewhere sunny and colorful, like a beach boardwalk.  (FYI:  The speed of a roll of film is like a digital camera’s ISO.)  If I had a roll of 800 speed BxW, then I’d look for a shady area or shoot at night… and I’d look for interesting textures, patterns and variations of light.

With BxW images, I think about how light and dark would shape the image.


If you still think “BxW rocks and everything looks great as BxW”, then let me give you an example of why that’s not true…


A few months ago, I took Lawrence’s relaxed, lifestyle-esque headshots in color to be used for color.  So I chose a location that had cool indoor lights for a colorful backdrop and a small window for natural light on his face.  Recently, he needed a BxW headshot for something else.  For the sake of time, I took the existing photos and converted them to BxW.

The Problems:

1. There were too many colors with the same tonality, so when I converted this color image to BxW, my subject no longer stood out as he did in color.

2. Some of the colors blended into each other, like his shoulders and hair.  EEK.

3. In BxW, the lines in the background became irritably distracting.  One line even cut through his head — Oy!

This photo did NOT translate well into BxW.


The Solution:

We did another shoot — but this time, it was intended for BxW images.  (I shot as if I had a roll of BxW film in my camera.)

To prepare, I had to pick a good location.  I knew my subject has dark hair and would be wearing a black suit (because I picked his outfit!), so I chose a location that would provide contrast to my subject.  In other words, no dark backgrounds!

First stop was a garden for a textured backdrop.


Now there is definition between my subject and his background!

Below is another image taken at the same place.  I angled the camera slightly downward to give less emphasis to his jaw.  (I also made him laugh, so this image is my favorite.)


Before leaving this location, I found a giant cream-colored door.  Voila, the “clean” light backdrop!

The thin lines, in this shot, provide context to my subject without being distracting and makes the headshot feel more lifestyle than studio.  The fact that the door was cream translated to a light grey, which works perfectly because a white-white would be too stark.


Nearby, there was a garage.  I like the industrial feel of the cement and hard lines of the building.  So now I have a texturally interesting background for BxW!



~ Not all color photos should be changed into BxW; and not all BxW photos should be color.  Some images look best only one way.

~ There are different things to look out for when you are shooting in color versus BxW.

~ With BxW portraits, you need a background that will be contrasting to the person.  (Sometimes you can’t control this, like if it’s a Lifestyle session with children, but it’s something to look out for.)

~ You also have to consider tonality of colors (e.g., medium shades of red and green may look great together in color, but when changed to BxW, they will both look like a medium grey).  Things with similar tonality will blend together in BxW.

~ Especially with BxW images, you can use light and shadows to shape or define your subject.


Is my husband lucky to have a photographer for a wife, so he can get free photoshoots — OR — is he UNlucky because it also means I get to blog about him?!!  :)


If you have a DSLR, change your setting to “BxW”.  (Most cameras will have that option.)  Then go out there and shoot with intent to create a good BxW image.  You will end up training your eyes to notice the background, tones, etc.

If you have access to a film camera, even better.  So leap in the air and cheer “HOORAY”!  heh heh.  Afterwards, shoot two rolls of film, one in color and one in BxW.  Use both rolls in the same location and same time of day, so that most factors are equal.  Shooting with film, even for just one day, will improve your photography skills.  I guarantee it.

Photography Projects for Kids

I love kids.  I just love ‘em!  A child’s laughter is THE best sound ever.  (Ocean waves come in #2.)  I love how kids are real with you, which makes “I hate (fill in the blank)” sting a little and “You are my best friend in the universe” mean so much.  I love running around with them, playing games, and making jokes.  My husband rolls his eyes when I show my kids “see-food” during meals, but it makes them laugh so hard!  I just tell them they can only do that with mom and that other people may think it’s impolite.  Fingers crossed that they’ll remember it.

So I probably don’t need to say this, but…  I love photographing kids and families because it combines two things I love so much:  kids and photography.

I also think it’s important that kids exercise their creativity, so I always encourage my kids to draw, paint, build, tell stories, write books, and now, experiment with photography.  My two youngest (they are 4 and 7) have children’s camera.  They’re more like a toy, but they practice composition and put thought into what they want to photograph.  My oldest (she is 9) has a digital camera, and she takes a lot of artistic photos with it.  We also have an instant camera (one that prints each image onto a small 2×3″ print) and we bring it on trips, so the kids can stick it into their journals.

The point is, kids can learn photography at an early age.  This doesn’t mean you should give them an expensive DSLR and pray they don’t break/lose/throw/sit on/drop it.  There are activities you can do together that can help them appreciate photography as an Art and a storytelling tool.

Here’s an example…

This past weekend, I had a “mommy date” with my son, Ian, who is 7 years old.  We bought…er, I mean, adopted a monster, named Domo, who looks like a furry chocolate bar.  My kids love him, as do I, admittedly.  (He’s especially cute in a mini Cal shirt!)

During our date, Ian and I got yummy drinks and then took Domo on a photoshoot.  Ian calls it a “Domo-shoot”!  Ian directed Domo and I pressed the shutter.  We laughed and laughed at all the things Domo could do.  (He apparently isn’t great at jumping, but he is super adventurous with tree-climbing and hiking up a hill.)  We had such a great time.

What kind of photography-related activities do you do with your kids?


“Um, how do I get down?”

San-Francisco-Bay-Area-children-photography-domo-climbing-a-tree  San-Francisco-Bay-Area-children-photography-domo-by-daffodills

*sniiiffff*  “Ahhhh, that’s nice.  WAAA-CHOOOOOOO!”


“I need to work on my tan.”



San-Francisco-Bay-Area-children-photography-domo-about-to-jump  San-Francisco-Bay-Area-children-photography-domo-falling

“Hike, 1, 2, 3…”


“Weeeee, this is fun!”


Photographing Images With More Pizzazz

DPS just published my latest article, and I am excited to share it with you!

I’ve been doing this lesson for decades.  Yes, THAT long!  :)  It has helped me see plain, everyday things differently.  Does this translate to my Lifestyle Photography?  Yes, indeed.  And now I’m sharing my secret lesson with you!

[NOTE:  You do not have to be a Professional Photographer to gain from this 10-minute lesson.  I was doing this well before starting my own business.  You can be at any level, be any age and have any type of equipment.]


Improve Your Portrait Photography in 5 Minutes

Here is a short article with tips to consider the next time you are photographing people…


How To Photograph Shy Adults

Here is an article I wrote for some of my readers who read How To Photograph Shy Children and asked for tips on photographing adults!  See?!!  I listen!  :)

This article was published on DPS barely a day ago, so I am happy there are 4900+ shares already.  I love when my tips can help others.


Food Photography Tips


Does this photo make you want to eat it?

Food Photographers think this way.

Food Photography can be simple to quite complicated where there are Stylists involved to glaze and spray and even use tweezers to carefully place each crumb!

I admit I can never be a Food Stylist because I find the natural crumbs and even sauce splatters appetizingly beautiful.  I also can’t be a full-time Food Photographer because I don’t have the self-control to walk away without tasting it!  (I love Food, what can I say?!!)

Here are a few basic tips to get you started with Food Photography…



1.  Watch your angles.

Take a top view then a side view.  Variety is the spice of life.  (Spice, get it?)

2.  Minimize what’s in the frame.

You don’t have to get too fancy with what is under, behind and next to the food item.  Let the food be the star.

3.  Use natural light.

Food looks better in natural light, so take the shot during the day and set the food near a window.  Make sure you turn off the indoor lights, so there isn’t mixed lighting on the food.

4.  Prepare it to be eaten. 

When you are photographing food, it can help to prepare the food like you are ABOUT to eat it.  Sometimes seeing a piece on a fork or a heaping spoonful makes the food look more scrumptious!

5.  Consider the ingredients.



I recently baked banana blueberry bread.  Instead of photographing it as a fully baked loaf, I sliced it to cool (photographed it) and then plated it (and photographed it again).  I also photographed some of the ingredients, like the locally grown blueberries right after I washed them and the two perfect organic brown eggs.  The dough mixture even looked good to me because it had chunks of fruit, so I photographed that too.

Do any of these images make you want to eat it?  I know MY answer!  Mmmmmmmm….






Bay-Area-food-photography-Banana-Blueberry-Bread-cooling-and-cut  Bay-Area-food-photography-Banana-Blueberry-Bread-cooling-topview


Ready for a Bite


As a reward for reading this far (haha), here is my recipe.  It is seriously delicious!

Annie’s Blueberry-nana Bread


Butter, for greasing the loaf pan
1 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting the loaf pan
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 ripe bananas, peeled and coarsely mashed to yield about 1 cup
1 cup of fresh blueberries


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter and flour a 9 x 5 x 3″ loaf pan.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, baking powder, cinnamon).  In a large bowl, beat the wet ingredients (sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla) until blended.  Add the dry ingredients and stir until blended.  Gently fold in the bananas and blueberries at the end.  Careful not to over-blend.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.  Bake for 55 minutes (times may vary slightly depending on your oven).  You can check by using a toothpick and inserting it into the middle of the loaf.  If it comes out clean, then the loaf is done.  Set the pan aside to cool.  Then remove the loaf from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack, about 2 hours.

Enjoy with your favorite beverage!  And don’t forget to share.  :P