Documentary session Q&A: how to make your family's session memorable | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

If you're interested in a family documentary photography session, it's likely that you're looking to capture your family's honest moments, interactions, and connections in a way that you can look back on for years to come. But how do you ensure that your session is “honestly” filled with fun, loving, photographic moments? Can you plan both honest and spontaneous?  I think so.  The goal of planning for a documentary session is to be able to look back on your images and recognize a reflection of this particular season in your life. That may be quiet or chaotic, adventure-filled or low key. The point is that it's you.

Toddler girl in kitchen with mom in Springfield, VA by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

There are two ways to go about “planning” a documentary family session. I put planning on quotations, because it's not so much planning as it is reflecting on what's important to your family and how best to capture that in a session.

A key element of documentary family photography is how flexible it is. Each session is adaptable to the photographer and family working together. Documentary family photographers put families at ease and turn what can be a stressful activity into an opportunity to be fully present with your family, with no expectations except to be yourselves and enjoy being together.

Little girl resting her feet on Dad's legs by Northern Virginia Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

For some families, this may mean planning specific activities in advance. Knowing what's to come (and preparing the rest of your family) can be a good way to set some expectations. For other families, planning itself is stressful and spontaneity rules the day.

Here are a few common questions and answers to put your mind at ease when choosing and preparing for a documentary family session.

What type of activities should we plan? How many things should we do?

The most important aspect to consider when preparing activities for your session is, “Is this something my family would normally do?” Staging a pillow fight or baking cookies makes for lovely photos, but consider what you want to remember (and what you want your kids to remember) when looking back on the images years from now. If baking is not your forte and you spend much of the activity worrying about the giant mess and overconsumption of raw cookie dough, then stress and the moment feeling “forced” is likely what you'll remember when seeing those photos.

If, on the other hand, you have a family tradition of making your grandmother's pancake recipe on Sundays and then piling onto the couch for cartoons, you're on to something. Or maybe you play board games in your pajamas. Or dig for worms in the garden.

There's no shortage of ideas.  Just choose something you enjoy doing together as a family and not just something you think will make for cute photos.  

Girl playing piano with Dad in Northern Virginia by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

No plan, no problem

I used to be a big planner (and a baker, for that matter), but having kids (and a husband resistant to routines and schedules) has left me no choice but to live in the moment a bit more.  Planning can be stressful with so many factors at play that can easily derail a strict itinerary.

For cases like this, it's perfectly fine for the plan to be, “let's go with the flow.” You might have an idea or two in mind of possible activities, but you're ready to adapt to whatever the mood calls for when the time comes. Maybe it's raining and a walk to the park is out of the question, so you build blanket forts inside instead. The point is for everyone to feel at ease with no pressure to perform. Kids especially pick up on stressors like this and will tend to do the exact opposite of what you're going for in a situation like that. If you instead allow them to lead the way or give them a voice in choosing, you'll naturally end up with honest, fun, and loving moments.

LIttle girl nursing in home session in Northern Virginia by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

I hope you enjoyed these images from my session with this Northern Virginia family.  We discussed many options leading up to their session.  Their ultimate decision to have a few activities in mind, but let their daughter lead the way, made for a perfectly relaxed session filled with genuine connection and beautiful, loving moments.

Want to learn how to document your family's everyday?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun guide to documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.

Around Our Clocks - 2pm | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

Warmer weather in Northern Virginia has us out of the house more frequently,  And an increasingly mobile baby makes it more challenging to break out my camera lately.  So I took advantage of some one-on-one time with my oldest son for a recent dental appointment which coincided nicely with the 2pm theme for this month's Around Our Clocks blog circle.

Continue the circle by visiting Camille Arner, Family Photographer in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to see her May image.


Storytellers' Circle - May | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

One of my favorite things about documentary family photography is the challenge of telling a story through pictures.  Ideally, the viewer should be able to look at the picture and understand what is taking place and/or be moved to some emotion.  I love cute pictures of my kids (just check out my Instagram feed!), but my favorite images, and I feel my best images, are the ones I have to work hard for.  A great picture is the result of multiple decisions made by the photographer about how to best show the scene they see and tell the story in a way that emotionally connects with the viewer.  This challenge is what keeps me pulling out my camera on an almost daily basis.

This post is part of the Storytellers blog circle, a group of documentary family photographers from all over the world, who come together monthly to post one image and explain the choices they made that take it from a simple snapshot to more profound storytelling. Continue the circle by checking out Rebecca Hunnicut Farren’s May image.

There's a short period in babyhood (aren't they all short periods?), where you can plop a baby down with minimal interference (and a few toys or pots and pans) and he'll entertain himself for some time. This times comes when he's safely sitting up on his own but hasn't quite learned that he can go places with those little legs and arms. This picture is that time. In pretty light. 😁

When I'm considering making an image, I have three key elements in mind: light, composition, and moment.

Light - I love the afternoon light that comes through our front windows. It casts beautiful shapes on the floor that stretch and very in intensity as the sun sets. I exposed for those highlights here, resulting in deep shadows around the rest of the frame. This technique is useful to minimize any clutter that's lying around your subject. Always a hazard with kids in the house.

Composition - I stood on my tippy toes to shoot from this perspective. I knew I was shooting for deep contrast and I wanted to incorporate the patterns on the rug to add visual interest. I also used the lines of the light/shadow to lead to my subject.

Moment - Once I was positioned, I only had time for a few frames before my son crawled away. This one was my favorite because it shows movement and I love how his hand and legs are touched by the light.

What would make this image more successful? Part of improving the skill of making storytelling images is noticing what could be better and factoring that into future situations.  In this case, I would have liked to bring in a chair so I could get higher and shoot directly down. Or alternately, I would have liked to see more of his face as part of this moment.

I look forward to sharing more of my process behind making storytelling images next month!

Want to learn how to document your family's everyday?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun guide to documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.


April 365 Project Faves | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

Looking back over my April 365 images makes me appreciate how fast life is changing.  A month ago, I was taking pictures of my youngest son pulling up for the first time.  Now he's starting to cruise and even try to stand unassisted.  These are small milestones among the bigger ones like crawling or walking and they tend to get forgotten as children grow and move on to even more milestones.  Looking back on these later, I likely won't remember exactly how old he was when he pulled up for the first time (judging from my memory with this brother!), but I do hope I'll remember the little moments of them interacting together and how, even though the baby has been standing for a month now, my oldest still exclaims, "Look, he's standing!" every time he sees it.

Around Our Clocks - 11am | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

Every month, I seem to comment about how back and forth the weather has been in Northern Virginia. April was more of the same, though fewer cool days mixed in with the warm. For our April Around Our Clocks blog circle, we documented 11am.

Swimming has taken over our Saturday mornings lately. Even the baby is taking lessons at our local Fairfax County RECenter. :-) Both boys love the water.  The baby is a big splasher and my older son is quicky growing more confident swimming. It's so much fun watching him play with my husband after his lesson.

Continue the circle by visiting Heather Tully Photography to see her April image.

Swimming at Fairfax County RECenter by Northern Virginia Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

Print Your Photos - For the Fridge | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

I'm often annoyed by the paid advertisements on my social media feeds. Some of them are so far off their targeted market that it's comical. But sometimes, they get me. And I'm actually appreciative. Chatbooks is a great example with their encouragement to get moms in the picture.

Recently, I saw a Shutterfly ad for unlimited free prints through their mobile app. It had been awhile since I'd ordered prints through my usual lab and we had no pictures of our youngest on the fridge (he's eight months old now!) so I thought, why not? I was also curious to see how the quality compared to my professional lab.

The free prints are for their 4x6 and 4x4 square images.  The process from my phone was simple. I upload my favorite images at full resolution to Flickr as I edit them, so it's easy for me to download therm from the Flickr app to my phone and then pull them from my phone's gallery into the Shutterfly app. Once I picked the ones I wanted, I paid for shopping and was done. It took less than ten minutes.

My prints arrived in a little over a week. It was immediately apparent that my monitors are not calibrated to their printers (meaning the color looks off - this is why it's a good idea to check with your photographer before making prints from a professional session), but for the cost and effort that went into getting them printed, I'm satisfied.  And now I finally have updated prints for my fridge!  We have stainless steel fridge doors, so magnets aren't an option, but I love these durable and removeable sticky frames.  

Want to learn how to document your family's everyday?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun guide to documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.

A Birth Story | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

Birth is such a personal and revelatory experience, whether you're experiencing it yourself or are present for it. I understood this on some level, but didn't fully realize it until I gave birth to my first baby.  After that, I was in awe of the birth community - the amazing people who so lovingly support women and their partners in bringing forth new life.  When I discovered that birth photography was “a thing,” it immediately resonated with both the mother and documentary photographer in me.  

Woman in labor at Inova Loudoun in Northern Virginia by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

While birth isn't part of the everyday for the average woman, it is very much a natural, beautiful part of life that is being experienced somewhere at every moment of every day.  It is, at once, both routine and normal, and at the same time earth-shattering and full of the unexpected.

In many ways, birth photography is the epitome of the documentary approach - being on call, being ready for the unexpected, and being comfortable simply watching it all unfold through the lens. It's a beautiful process and represents a profoundly transformative time in life, whether it's your first born or your fifth. Once you hop on the ride, there's no getting off and life will never be the same afterward.  In this sense, what better experience in life is there to document? :-)

Woman in labor holding hands with husband in Leesburg, Virginia hospital by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

As a mother and photographer, I feel particularly compelled to tell the stories of motherhood and family. I hoped to one day be able to preserve this piece of a woman's story -  of a family's story. Many women and their partners are left with gaps of memory or knowledge after a birth. So much happens in such a short period of time and its amazing how quickly you forget details (especially during the wonderful, but potentially sleep-deprived, first months). Doulas and caregivers are wonderful resources in piecing together a birth story, but having pictures or video can pull all the fragments together in such a meaningful way. Documenting a birth is a wonderful way to preserve such a eventful piece of a family's story. And what a beautiful gift to a new life as well, who will have their arrival and first moments on this earth, surrounded with love, documented.

Woman laboring in tub with husband in Northern Virginia Hospital by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

Given all the variables of timing, work, and family, I didn't know if I'd ever make it happen. But the stars aligned in March of this year, thanks to the wonderful ladies at Arrow Birth, who are working hard on a revolutionary approach to education and support surrounding childbirth.  I was able to support them in documenting not one, but two births (in the span of a week, no less!). My mama and photographer hearts were on cloud nine. :-)

I also got to dive into film work. My primary focus for both of these births was not my usual still images, but video. I'll share the resulting films soon, but for now, these are some of my favorite images from my first birth with this wonderful family welcoming their rainbow baby girl at the Birthing Inn at Inova Loudoun Hospital in Northern Virginia.

Mother holding newborn baby by Northern Virginia Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

Want to learn how to document your family's everyday?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun guide to documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.

March 365 Project Faves | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

Despite a last minute resurgence of winter, spring seems to have finally arrived in Northern Virginia.  We are happy to be enjoying longer days and spending more time outside. As usual, many of my March 365 project images were taken in the morning.  I'd love to have a bit more variety, but I also adore these moments with my family and am glad to have captured them.

Want to learn how to document your own family's day-to-day?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun plan for documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.

Around Our Clocks: 9AM | Northern Virginia Family Photographer

Sometimes I have the luxury of an extended moment to shoot a scene. While telling a story in a single image is wonderful in its own way, I also love the variety that comes with a series. I can find different angles/perspectives and choose different elements of the story to focus on.

Here is a typical morning at 9am in our house (no surprise, we're still in our pajamas). My son enjoys feeding our hamster by hand (despite being bitten a couple of times!) And I wanted to capture this part of our routine.

This post is part of a collaborative documentary photography blog circle called Around Our Clocks. We're documenting a day in our life over the course of one year.  Continue the circle by visiting Fort Collins Family Photographer Betty Berg.

Boy waiting to feed pet hamster by Northern Virginia Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez
Boy feeding pet hamster by hand in Alexandria, VA by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez
Boy feeding pet hamster in Northern Virginia by Family Photographer Nicole Sanchez

Want to learn how to document your own family's day-to-day?  Check out 4 Steps to Stop Time and Savor the Moment with Your Family.  It's a simple and fun plan for documenting your family's life with beautiful photographs.