It’s All About the Light…

So, this is a blog post I’ve been wanting to write for at least 2 years.  Every time I try to explain to a client why I prefer to shoot in the evening, I always think “this would be SO much easier if I had photos to help describe what I’m meaning!”.  Quite honestly as someone who has loved photography for a long time, I forget that what I’m talking about might not be intuitive and I *might* sound a little crazy when I ask a client to bring their toddler out past their bedtime <gasp> and strive for some happy photos.  But after 8 years in the business, I’m really taking a strong stance on choosing to only shoot at the “golden hour” whenever possible.  I’ve lived and learn, done loads of trial and error (mostly errors!) and time and time again, the late day sun provides the best lighting for my clients.  Think about this…. back in the good ‘ol days, when we all just walked into JC Penny portraits… did you notice where the big umbrella light was?  I can promise you it wasn’t ever directly OVER your head.  Even the peeps at JC Penny’s know that is a terrible way to light someone (similar to an interrogation room!).  Instead the light is always off to a side, or two sides, but never above.  SO- since midday sun is directly over our heads- yep, it’s a bad idea.  Truly yuck and the kind of light that makes photographers shiver and lose sleep.

Instead of just reading me blab on and on… here are some photos to actually SHOW you what I mean.  And for any of you mom-tograpers out there, here are some great tips for photographing your own kiddos!

This week when we actually had a sunny day (hallelujah Chicago!) I told Alita she needed to help me with a photo project.  She was more than happy to model for me as long as she could wear her new rain boots.  Whatever kid.  She’s four and she’s cute- so she got the modeling job.  I chose a spot in my backyard that faces East and gets direct sun all day long.  I had her stand in the same spot (give or take a few inches) and I stood in the same direction as well.  These photos are STRAIGHT OUT OF MY CAMERA.  For the sake of this experiment I wanted you to know that nothing was edited (even though that makes the photographer in me cringe a bit).

So, we started first thing in the morning at 8:30.  Obviously she was facing directly into the sun and extremely squinty.  Since she couldn’t look up into the camera, there wasn’t any possibility to get any “catch lights” in her eyes (that pretty little light that shines out of our eyes and really makes a photo come alive!).  Ideally I would have switched spots with her so the sun was behind her back, but since we were sticking to the same spot for this experiment, here it is!  I do have some locations I like to shoot in where I can make morning sunshine work.  It has to allow clients to face the West and have a pretty background behind them, something I make sure to think about before arriving to a location.  For this reason, morning sessions often won’t work in someone’s yard where I can’t predict what direction we will need to face in relation to the sun.blogpic1 Next up was our midday sun.  This is THE. WORST. LIGHT. EVER.  And yes, I’m feeling a little dramatic about it.  But seriously, no bueno.  Midday light leaves very harsh shadows, dark circles under eyes, no catch lights, and just general ick.  If you ever hire a photographer and they suggest shooting in the middle of the day- run far, far away.  It’s bad.  I think we all understand now.  blogpic2

Next up is late afternoon sun.  This is certainly loads better than the midday light.  We can finally see some “catch lights” in Alita’s eyes, she is able to look up into the camera because the sun is at her back.  I always shoot with the sun behind my subject to help them avoid squinting and I love the soft backlight in their hair that gives them a halo look.  However, you can see the grass is still pretty spotty and has some “hot spots” where the green looks a little neon, and we all know neon only really worked in the 80’s.  Normally I would edit that in Photoshop to help tone that down a bit, but it isn’t my very favorite look.  You can see this was taken at 5:30, so even though it’s getting “late”, there is still a little too much light.

After I took this shot, I headed out to the door to meet my sister and her family for their session at 6:30.  Since the sunset time that day was 7:48, I knew that gave me about an hour to get that perfect light and since we were using an open field setting, I knew it would be perfect.  Of course my nieces are ridiculously adorable, so that helps too.  🙂 This shot was taken at 6:45 and you can see that soft, golden light is at their back.  I loooove this light.  I lay in bed and dream about this light.  It’s delicious.  Even without any editing, this shot is frame worthy.  My sister was a little worried about her youngest, who is normally in bed at this time.  I get it, I really do.  I have five kids, I’m fully aware of the horrors of an over-tired child.  But here’s the thing… once kids are outside and allowed to play, they rally!  When they have my goofy face making them giggle, they continue to rally!  It’s amazing.  Yes, you’ll have a cranky kid on the way home.  But hey- maybe they’ll sleep in a bit the next day (one can dream) and it’s only one night.  They’ll survive and it is truly worth it.


As I drove home from their session (we ended around 7:20) I wondered if I’d make it home in time to catch one more shot of Alita.  Since the official sunset time was 7:48, I knew I’d be cutting it close.  But yep- I made it home just as the sun went down and Alita was ready for her final photo!   Once again, soft beautiful light and warm color tones.  She was a happy girl having her mama home and getting to be a star again.  🙂


O.K., so here’s the thing.  Your photo session is YOUR photo session and I really try to cater to what you’d like.  After all, these photos will be hanging up in your home, not mine and I want you to love them.  So I struggle a bit with forcing anyone to do anything, and yet last summer I had an experience that changed my way of thinking.  When I was 8.5 months pregnant with Mia, my assistant got an email from a woman frantic to get her family in for a session with me, and she needed a Saturday late morning.  I did have an opening that day at that time since I don’t normally book sessions at 11:00.  It was July and I was leaving on maternity leave for a couple months, so I agreed to squeeze her in before I took a break.  She told my assistant she had plenty of shade at her house and insisted on having the session in her yard (which I hadn’t ever seen).  This is where I made a big, gigantic mistake.  I should have known better, I should have said “thank you, but no thank you… can’t do it”.  But my desire to make it work for her, I agreed.  I showed up on a blazing hot day, with bright sun and did the very best I could.  We crowded under the small amount of shade we could find (there really wasn’t much) and I got creative using the side of the house, swing set, anything I could find to get out of that harsh light.  I finished up editing her session in a week so I could start my maternity leave and felt OK about what I was able to do in the editing process to make it the best it could be.  And then, the photographer’s worst nightmare came to be.  She hated her pictures.  Hated them.  Said she actually cried while she viewed her gallery.  In retrospect we weren’t a good fit from the start.  She was hoping for more of a “Portrait Innovations” look, lots of planned poses and when I work with a 2-year-old, that just doesn’t happen.  I like playful, silly, and authentic moments, which was not what my client wanted.  I was crushed.   I hate failing and disappointing a client left me feeling devastated.  She demanded a full refund and my assistant kindly told her we don’t offer refunds since I showed up on time, spent the full time shooting, edited the session a week early and fulfilled my part of the deal.  Then, the day I gave birth to Mia, she emailed me to say she was ready to take me to court and would sue me for the refund.  My assistant called me right away to beg me NOT to read my emails.  She knew I would be so upset and needed to just be fully present with our new baby.  I listened and was happy to oblige, and instead held my sweet girl and soaked in all the joy a new baby brings.  But once I got home and re-entered reality, Jenny called me to say we needed to make a decision.  After thought and prayer, I knew I didn’t have it in me to go through a court battle.  I knew I would win, without a doubt, but I knew… and I’m sure the client knew, she hit me when I was down.  I had just given birth to my fifth daughter and didn’t have an ounce of time or energy to dedicate to a court case.  So, I handed over a full refund and had to swallow that loss.  I was mad.  Like really really really mad.  But the truth is- I’m glad it happened.  It was a kick in the pants for myself and helped me to be very strong in my decision to stick with what I know- shooting in bad light is never a good idea.  Even if the client tries to insist.  Even if the client swears they don’t care.  I care, and I will never risk putting myself in that position again.

So there you have it!  The story-you-never-asked-to-hear about how important lighting is for photography.  🙂  I know evenings can be tough with little ones.  Trust me, if I could pick a time of day that is most convenient to be away from my family, I certainly wouldn’t choose dinner time. But it’s worth it.  I love my job, I adore my clients, and I want the very best images for you!  Ya with me!?



P.S.- If you are wanting to learn lots more about how to get great photos of your own kids, I have the PERFECT online class for you!  The class starts May 8th (Mother’s Day, woo hoo!) and it is all on-line.  You work at your own pace, logging in once a week at whatever time works for you to get the new material for the week.  Class is 8 weeks long and has 7 different teachers showing you all they know.  I’m excited to teach a break out session on iPhone photography and you’re going to LOVE learning how to use your DSLR cameras on manual settings with Tracy Joy Photography.  Seriously, don’t miss it- it’s worth every penny and it’s going to be so fun!

Here is the link if you’d like to learn more and sign up!  Click Here