Three Secrets to Photographing Families on Film by Brooke Schultz


When people hear that I shoot film on old cameras for all my family sessions I get a lotta raised eyebrows, mostly from digital shooters who come home from family sessions with hundreds, if not thousands of images. Let’s talk about the things peeps are thinking behind those sky-high brows and my top tips for successfully shooting families on film.

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1. Stopping down isn’t gonna look hideous
Coming from a digital background, my first instinct with film was to shoot wide open alllll the time as much as humanly possible. My main concern was stopping down to f4 or 5…because let’s face it–portraits at f4 or 5.6 on a digital body look like pure garbage. Not so on a medium format camera! Lovely bokeh is easily achieved at f4 AND subjects are in focus! Stopping down to f4, especially when shooting manually, could save many a money shot. My rule of thumb: You’ve got two or more people who are on an even slightly different plane, f4 it is. Of course, for big group shots you’ll need to stop down even more, but the bottom line is to get unscared of numbers higher than 2.8.

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2. Don’t worry about “missing” the moment
The biggest fear I hear among photographers who balk at the fact that I shoot film for family work is that they’ll miss the shot. Kids move fast, and they are treasure troves of authenticity, fun, humor, and sweetness–so it makes sense that we would want to use gear that’s even faster than they are to truly capture all of those things. But. If you’re a digital family shooter you’ve had the experience of shooting an entire gigantic memory card of photos at a family session and delivering maybe 40-100 final images. What was going on with those hundreds and hundreds of rejects? Weren’t there “moments” happening?

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Film forces you to tell a selective story, instead of trying to capture it all and then piecing “the story” together after the fact. Film forces you to wait, to watch, and to find the one shot you want to take of a particular moment. Do I “miss” moments? Absolutely. Cuteness happens while I’m loading and unloading film every time. But letting go of the moments I’ll inevitably miss allows me to focus on the core of what I really want to say through my photos, instead of culling through images realizing that all I got was a bunch of fluff that was half-mindlessly shot and no meat. This means I’m directing more, not following kids around and waiting for them to give me what I want. This means more tricks, games, and yes, candy bribes, but it’s incredibly freeing to know what you want to say as a photographer and find ways to accomplish it instead of passively letting a shoot happen to you.

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3. I’m a slaaave…to the light
I shoot families in their homes, and the number one thing I’m looking for is great light. I’ve shot entire sessions scrunched up next to one window, and while I’ll admit that’s not ideal, the biggest tip for shooting families on film indoors is to let yourself be a slave to the light. I’ve moved furniture, cropped things out of backgrounds, shot on front porches and floors and through windows for the sole purpose of utilizing the available light. With digital you can get away with positioning a family away from a window, but with film, I’m snuggling them together next to the light source and side or front lighting the subjects when possible. Digital is so versatile that it runs the risk of making us lazy with light use, so if you’re not willing to choose light first over any other factor, shooting film in a family’s home might not be the best fit for you.

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To make the most of the glory of family and the beauty of film, the best thing you can do is get crystal clear on your vision of what you want to create during a family photo session. When you take the reins and make the magic happen instead of waiting for the stars to align, kids to listen and wind to die down, you’ll be free to make the photos your heart really longs to make.

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