A few years ago, around 5 years into my career as a family photographer, I found myself becoming dissatisfied with the practice and workflow of digital photography. I was frequently finding myself editing and re-editing wedding and family sessions 2 or 3 times (and still remaining dissatisfied with the final product) and had begun to sense not only that this practice was commercially unsustainable, it was also creatively stifling.
I was spending more and more time at the computer, trying to achieve ‘this’ or ‘that’ look, chasing the latest editing fad (usually one that some other photographer with lots of Facebook likes was using). My back and neck were complaining from the long hours in front of a screen, and I was also finding that I had less time to exercise or play with the kids or get out and about to actually take photographs for pleasure. As the ratio of photography to desk-work increased, my confidence and joy in the photographic process decreased. I resented that my passion for natural photography was being sabotaged by my dissatisfaction with and the need to control the look and feel of the final product. My creative desire to celebrate the beautiful imperfections of family life was being destroyed by my quest for digital perfection.
In 2014 our family took a 3 month trip driving a motorhome from Perth to Darwin. I knew I could potentially return from such a trip with 10,000 raw files, and the thought filled me with dread. I felt seriously enough about the issue to purchase a Contax 645 medium format camera and booked into Jon Canlas’ final FIND workshop in Sydney, determined to give my kids a shoebox of actual photographs, dog eared and creased, much like the ones I treasured from my own childhood.
By the time we flew home to Melbourne from Darwin at the end of that trip, I had a few hundred truly special photographs of our amazing adventure, and I was certain that film photography would be my way forward for both my own photographic memories and my client work, despite the fact that almost no one in Australia was shooting families on film (and my own misgivings about the costs).
I now shoot family clients on the Contax645 with an 80mm Zeiss permanently attached, and a Canon 1V with which I mostly use a 35mm 1.4 L series lens. I generally carry a backup Contax kit, as the particular look of that combination is hard to replicate with any other setup, but I also carry a 50mm f1.2 L series lens, and a 100mm macro for newborn sessions.
This combination offers the creamy dreamy portraits, signature bokeh and highlight handling of the Contax kit, as well as the responsiveness and short focal length of that Canon combination which really allows for the close and personal approach which is a signature of the lifestyle family look.
Family lifestyle photography is all about capturing a family in a natural and personal way, one that represents their personality and focuses more on connection and emotion than classical portraiture might.
As a parent of 4 children in a busy household filled with strong personalities and intense relationships, there is something about the beauty and character of shooting with film that speaks to me more wholistically of my experience of family life: of kids who are comfortable to be themselves, and sibling love and squabbles and dogs jumping and eyes full of sand at the beach. These are the experiences that interest me photographically, and so for me there is some synergy in the film journey, with its slight unpredictability of chemistry and process.
Professional DSLRs ideally produce images that are made for post-production, and while of course, either in the darkroom or as a digital negative after scanning, film images are able to be dodged and burned, contrasts tweaked and tones adjusted, the fact of the physical negative still offers a tangible substance all its own, created at the moment of adjunct between photographer and equipment. It all just feels a bit more real. Regardless of whom I am photoraphing, I am constantly called to invest faith in Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, and have grown more deeply committed to my skills as an artist, than ever I was when shooting digitally, when the ability to increase ISO capability in difficult situations allowed me to circumvent my own creativity and broader skillset.
While most of my clients are not aware that I am shooting film until the day of our session, a handful, most of whom are photographers themselves, seek my services out of consideration of the aesthetics. In general, clients are largely disinterested in the medium, but have connected quite strongly to my style of work instead, an intangible ‘something’ they can’t quite put their finger on. This is a solid advantage to my business in a time of saturation and commodification of the market, and really helps me to define my service offering to prospective clients, before they even connect with me to enquire about pricing or availability.
This connection is something I try to incorporate across my client interactions, and bring into sessions themselves. Film facilitates this hugely; the time spent loading and unloading film, and the slower approach to photograph creation, allows for much more personal interaction with all members of the family.
Rather than being stuck behind a lens, I am chatting and enjoying an experience with my clients, allowing them personal space and fostering and atmosphere of calm and relaxation, and this client feedback illustrates the client experience of this:
“We had an amazing time together as a family at the beach on Wednesday. I felt very proud to be the Mum of those 3 beautiful boys. We both agreed the next day that we felt like spending that time together, facilitated by you felt like so much more than a photo shoot. That we felt like we’d been to a sort of family counselling session and that we felt much stronger as a family having been given those few hours to reconnect and remember things about each other that we love and to just have time to watch each other.”
This interaction becomes a core component of my lifestyle approach, allowing for an atmosphere that encourages clients to be more relaxed in front of the camera, and enabling the development of the family narrative.
I also like to make use of the potential limitations of analogue photography to add layers of meaning and context to my family photography sessions. Lower ISOs require the use of slower shutter speeds and wider apertures, both of which can be used to great effect when capturing families. Using a wide aperture, I can isolate subjects from their background, drawer the attention of the viewer to particular moments, or relationships, and can add a sense of closeness and intimacy to an image. Motion blur, utilising slow shutter speeds, can be used to elaborate, for instance, on the theme of the tiredness of young parents or the busy-ness of toddlers, allowing me to tell a story that aims to go beyond the one-dimensional.
A feature of lifestyle photography is the use of clients’ own homes, requiring a more particular consideration of light than is necessitated by digital photography, once again, requiring high creativity and technical stringency.
Moved to create images that stand alone but which also inform an overall narrative, these constraints have vastly improved my skills as a photographer, elevating a bit of a ‘spray and pray’ approach (something I have only identified in hindsight) to one of careful consideration of story and context, of light and of moment.
This has allowed me to differentiate my work from the crowd in a way that is tangible to my clients. A slower, more characterful approach lends itself to the creation of images which are able to stand alone as artworks in themselves, but also strengthen the narrative that is as the heart of the modern lifestyle family photography approach.
Digital photography has so many positives, and at the end of the day the camera and medium are just tools which we use to tell the stories that mean the most to us, but for me, a return to film photography has provided the shift in perspective which has facilitated my journey from hobbyist to photographer, and I believe have taken my family photography skills beyond the ordinary, and allowed me to create a successful niche in a crowded market. And also provided my kids with that shoebox of photos (and a few beautiful albums) documenting their most wonderful childhood.
About Sarah Black
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Sarah Black is a spirited and curious family photographer, using traditional film photography to capture families all over Australia. After nearly a decade spent mastering digital photography, Sarah is a multi award winning photographer who is now an enthusiastic advocate for the beauty of film on medium format and 35mm cameras. She is also passionate about lifestyle family photography, and strives to create, and capture, meaningful memories for her clients.
When she doesn’t have a camera in her hand, you can also find her sipping coffee, reading books, and trying to hear herself think over the sweet roaring of her family.
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