Behind the scenes of an 8 hour family portrait session…

Today was an amazing day, as it marked the official opening of my new photography studio, which was so exciting.  It seems like it’s been coming for so long, and to finally cut the metaphorical ribbon and welcome our first real customer.   Fortunately, it was an amazing family session, with two couples and two kids, and they were probably one of the sweetest groups I’ve photographed.  Everyone was right on the same page….get the pics with the baby first, while he’s smiling, then we’ll do this group, then that group, etc., and it all was innovative, adaptable and most importantly it was fun, even though it was 9AM on a Sunday morning, which isn’t usually my prime time of day.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in just what goes on behind the scenes, of the so called “One Hour Photo Shoot” that I have so far spent at least five hours on, and which has so much yet to go.  In many ways, it’s much like my real estate business, where so few realize just what goes on behind the scenes. The good news is that at least the client was only there for one hour of it!

So todays shoot was at 9AM….. at 8:00, I was in the studio setting up, picking out the appropriate backdrops, laying the turf, and setting up the lights.  By 8:30, it was time for equipment testing, and making notes of settings, so that when the family arrived we were ready to jump right in while the baby was smiling, without any fidgeting around on my part.

Fortunately for me the folks were running a tad behind, which meant I could have another cup of coffee and get ready. I think we finally got rolling around 9:45, and it was a solid hour of shooting, perhaps a tad more.  We swapped out backgrounds, props, and did a host of different groups and outfit changes.  Really I should realize that coming with “two families” really takes twice as long, so I should schedule, and probably bill, accordingly, but as I said these guys were just so fantastic that I was in no hurry for it to end, and I was having fun experimenting with some new techniques that I now know I’ll use again.

By the time they left, I had taken over 400 Photos, a few of which I deleted on the spot, but I still had 350 to work with.  Try and imagine for a moment what 350 pictures means.  That is a LOT of photos.  Of course, as the clients headed home to spend a relaxing day together, the photographers work begins.

The first step is to import all of the photos into a temporary storage file on the computer, and begin doing a “first culling.”  At this point, you go through and eliminate all the ones that might be out of focus, or where someone moved during the shot, and that whittles it down to 300.   Next, you enlarge the viewer to 50%, and go through a second culling, picking out any that have weird facial expressions, eyes going the wrong way, perhaps some glare, and deleting those, and not we have it down to only 175, which is far less onerous.

At this point, it’s time to move from the basic folder into a true photo processing system, which in this case was Apple’s Aperture program.  It’s at this point, with a few hours behind me, that it starts to become challenging. Imagine that you’re looking at 7 photos of the same group of six people, and what you need to do is pick which one is the best, examining each persons eyes, knowing that in each shot, one person may be looking off center while the others are all great, flipping back and forth like an optometrist… THIS better, or is THIS better….and then gradually getting it down in this case to 81 really nice photos.

Next comes a very quick retouching of all 81 in Aperture, fixing the color balance, maybe a few shadows, the overall exposure, and most importantly cropping them to the best possible dimensions like a diamond cutter.  Some will be square, others in a 4 :5 ratio (8 x 10, 16 x 20) and others will look best as a 3:4 ration, such as 8 x 12, 16 x 24.   Still others are going to be panoramic, 10 x 20, 20 x 40 shots, and so on.

Finally, we’re getting close to the halfway point of our photo shoot day.  Those last 81 images are now moved into Adobe Lightroom, where they are modified further, and then a sampling of those are moved into Adobe Photoshop and edited with a pricey Portrait Retouching program that can do everything from shrink your pores, to turn your eyes blue, and everything in between.  Each image that you do a real retouch on takes about 20 minutes, as it moves from Lightroom to Photoshop to Portrait Professional and then back to Photoshop and back to Lightroom where it lives in the file system.

At last we are getting close to the end, of the beginning, as Churchill said.  Having spent about four or five hours on them so far today, and with my neck sore from staring at the screen, the 81 photos, 5 or 6 of which have been retouched, are then watermarked, and uploaded to the online system for the client to review. Once they pick the images that are of interest to them, it will be time to go back and retouch those by hand with a dose of love, something that most photographers outsource to an offsite “retoucher.”  I choose to do it myself, because in the end, it’s my name on the print, and my reputation on the line.

Next it’s time to meet with the client again to review their choices, and go over the many different options available from the printer, in terms of size, and the various mediums from canvas, metal to custom gallery wraps and so much more, and then get order in to the lab itself for printing.  Of course, the best moment will be when they arrive, a few days later, I get to hand deliver them to my client and hopefully see a huge smile on their faces. To a photographer, that is the greatest joy of all.

So next time someone asks why the photo session was over $100, and “only took an hour” (which mind you nobody has ever asked),  I will be able to share with them this story of the other 8 hours that go into it all behind the scenes.

Thanks again to today’s wonderful family.   I can’t wait for the next.  Perhaps that’ll be you?   Feel free to email me at and let’s chat.