Shooting for Story: How to Make Your Portrait Sessions Tell a Complete Story by Katie Botel

I love shooting for, designing and selling albums to my family portrait clients (and then visiting their homes and seeing them proudly displayed on their coffee tables.)  In my third year in business, over half of my clients opted for an album and many ordered “bundles” – multiple copies to gift relatives and/or leave at the office – and I anticipate those numbers growing.

I’ve been told that what made my albums such a hit is that they tell a story. As a former television writer, my scripts had a clear structure, bookended by “Fade In” and “Fade Out.” When I transitioned into portrait photography and found myself producing album after album, I realized that I needed to shoot like I wrote, and approach each session like a day on a television set to ensure that a clear, beautiful and loving story would be told.

I constantly hear from clients how much their children love their albums and how proud they are to show them off (with clean hands). Being able to look back on their session in story form not only gives my little subjects ownership of the session, but it makes them excited for our “next time” and the fun surprises it may bring and even allows us to start that next session where the previous one left off.

We all learn at a young age that stories start with “Once Upon a Time” and end with “The End” – but it’s the in between that makes a story unique, and makes it sing. The same holds true for session albums.

The Set Up: “Once upon a time, in a far away place, there was a princess who…” Most successful stories start with that sentiment and I start each album with a cover image and first page that establishes and introduces the family, all together in a big group shot, in their setting.

The Characters:  Next, I go deeper into each subject, with each child getting his or her own two page spread, showcasing their individual personalities. Kids love this and take pride in “their pages.”

The Story:  Once the characters have been established, their story “takes off.” We dive right into the fun of the session with images upon images (and pages upon pages) of play, laughter, loving and doting.

The Dramatic Midpoint: In a script, this is the high point that drives the rest of the story. With session albums, I have found that a single image spread over two pages has that “wow” factor and is a great midpoint. I always try to build to at least one into each album.

The Third Act: After that “point of no return,” I typically wind down with photographs representing the heart of the family. Loving moments of siblings together and/or Mom and Dad that leave the “reader” perhaps a little teary eyed, and definitely yearning for more, which leads us into…

The Conclusion: Whether it’s that final jump, swing or the family walking off into the proverbial sunset, I aim for “The Ends” to also imply “To be Continued…” I have built my business on repeat clients, so this sentiment rings true with clients who turned their session albums into a yearly tradition…

Lessons Learned and Additional Tips for Successful Album Design:

Shoot the Details: While parents may never purchase a 16×24 print of their child’s finger, toe, bow, curl, tear or drip of drool, these details are perfect for an album and define their children in the exact moment in time you have captured then. Go Wide: I love wide establishing shots and including negative space in a group shot that I know can be turned into a kick-ass two page spread in an album. Count Before they Do: I learned very quickly in my script writing days that actors count lines, and the same holds true with kids and pages.  I always take that burden off my clients and make sure that each child is equally represented in the album. Date It:  With the first “second” album I did for a family, I started putting the year on the back cover. When the latest album takes over the coffee table, last year’s hits the bookcase and before you know it, you’ll have an entire shelf dedicated to your albums!

The Reviews are In:

I love hearing from families and gift recipients of albums. Here’s a selection of emails I’ve gotten from families enjoying these heirlooms:

“We’ve had several opportunities to sit down with people and go through the album you made, and it’s a home run! I’m finding new things I love about it every time I go through it.  Thank you for so thoughtfully and artfully putting together such wonderful pictures.”

“Tears are falling as I look at these beautiful children that you were able to photograph so exquisitely. I wish I could see them more than once or twice a year but I pull out my photo book and revisit each image, nearly every day. Thanks so much for utilizing your talents and sharing with Grammies everywhere.”

“The book is AMAZING! My parents and husband have no idea what they are  getting.  I can’t wait to see their faces ”

About the Author

Katie Botel moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia to pursue a dream of writing for television.  She did that, for many years, and then transitioned to telling more personal stories through still photographs.  Going on her fourth year of Katie B. Photography, Katie celebrates her growing cast of characters’ everyday joys (and sometimes pitiful sorrows). Instead of ending her stories with her previously celebrated “Fade Out,” Katie prefers “To Be Continued” –as she looks forward to seeing her little “stars” for next year’s photos and capturing their ever-evolving stories.

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How to Make One Kid’s Year by Just Taking a Picture by Jeff Inglis

Jane Goodrich has a simple question: “Can I actually make one kid’s year just by taking a picture?”

Turns out she can – and you can help too, by supporting her work and sick children who need us.

Jane loves photographing children so much, she’s made a career of it. She specializes in portraiture of newborns and children. And as an identical twin herself, she particularly enjoys making images of twins. (Turns out parents of twins are often reluctant to have a photo session, fearing it’ll be twice as crazy as regular studio appointments; Jane makes house calls to help simplify things for families.)

Lately, though, she’s engaged in a project that has become almost as dear to her heart as her DNA-matching sister.

Jane had known for years that her grandmother (and namesake) died of lymphoma in the 1950s. (It’s a type of blood cancer.) In the late 1990s, the daughter of a …

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Giving Families a Slice of History: Make a Wish Foundation by Katie Botel

I didn’t get into photography for the art of it; nor did I get into photography for the passion of it (which isn’t to say I’m not passionate about my art).  I got into photography because after moving to Los Angeles to write for television, and doing that (and then not), I needed a job.  A steady one.  That I was in control of.  I chose photography, because I am passionate about family.  And about family history.  And about leaving a legacy.

I live and work in the entertainment capital of the world – where everyone is beautiful, where if the sun doesn’t shine every day of the year, it can be painted in, and where even the unglamorous seems glamorous.  I have delivered chicken soup to Aaron Spelling’s house as a gesture from his writing staff in hopes he would get better (and approve their scripts); I have dressed in black tie …

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How to Tailor Your Business to Newborn Photography by Stephanie Robin

Who doesn’t love sweet, cuddly newborn babies? It seems more and more popular to specialize in newborn photography, but how do you truly tailor your business to the newborn client? Read on for tips and tricks to do just that!

Show What You Love : My first tip is to show what you love. If you’re currently working with multiple markets but deep down want to specialize on one, begin by showing only work relevant to your specific target market (i.e. newborns). From your website to your business card and blog, your clients will hire you based on the content you show. If weddings and older kids just aren’t your thing, take them down and focus on your true passion instead. Building a strong brand in your chosen niche is the first step in attracting your target market and showing what you love is a big part of that. Build a Specialized Working …

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How to Stand Out In A Crowd of Child Photographers by Mandy Johnson

For a child photographer, it’s all about finding your way, finding your unique passion and running with it!

You can’t be everything to everyone. I chose to stand out in a number of ways, starting with offering a higher-end experience and a full-service studio in a beautifully historic, affluent part of town. At the studio, we pride ourselves on awesome customer service, catering to each client and their needs. From the first phone call, we are set up to ask prospective clients what they want from their session, and to identify their real needs. It’s high-touch throughout the entire process, from the initial inquiry to the moment when we deliver and install their finished pieces.

We also offer the best product line, and we do a lot of extras. I am always looking for fun little ways to make my clients smile! We host creative activities at our studio for kids and …

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A Lesson for Portrait Photographers: Keeping Clients for the Long Haul by Justine Ungaro

We all know that the world of wedding and portrait photography has become more competitive than ever. So how do we create a business that continues to thrive even in periods of economic downturn and industry turmoil? How do we win lifetime portrait clients by collecting and keeping them for the long haul? Not by continuing to beat the pavement year after year, constantly analyzing ROI based on old school advertising and traditional marketing, struggling for every new lead that comes our way!

This, my friends, is not how I want to live, not how I want to run my business. I believe there is a simpler way, one that I have been living for years. It sounds simple and it is.

Our businesses can thrive by collecting and keeping clients for the long haul.

Now if you specialize too much, this isn’t quite possible. If you say, “I only shoot weddings,” well then …

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The Story Behind Millie Holloman’s “Shoots & Ladders” Sessions by Millie Holloman

It’s happened to all of us.

You log in to Facebook and there is a status update from friends (who were once clients) saying they’ve added to their family with the arrival of a new child. To your surprise and sadness, they are posting photos of their little one taken by a large retail chain. Washed backdrops and cheesy props don’t match the quality of their wedding photos.

What’s a couple to do when the cost of living is significantly increased by the arrival of a new mouth to feed, future plans for college, and don’t forget diapers! Grandma & Grandpa aren’t footing the bill for the rest of their lives; they gave up that luxury at the altar.

Children grow fast, so it would be difficult to pay our usual session fee each few months to capture their constantly-changing expressions and sweet stages of life. To my amazement, I discovered many of …

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Lifestyle Baby Photography Part Three: Overcoming Insecurity by Amber Holritz

Real life is beautiful.

We established that in Part One of this series. But although this philosophy sounds wonderful, it can be hard to follow through with, particularly when it’s personal. In my last installment in this series, I explained that I believe there are two major barriers to overcome in Lifestyle Photography – ignorance and insecurity. I outlined ways that I work to combat ignorance by cultivating true relationships with my clients. Once the barrier of ignorance has been removed, and people become aware of Lifestyle Baby Photography, we are still left with their insecurities. Even if my potential clients embrace the concept that Real Life is beautiful, in a global sense, they have probably not truly grasped that their Real Life is beautiful. My job is to prove this to them. I have to help them see beauty in their own everyday experiences.

My clients are amazing customer evangelists. (Side note: If you haven’t yet read the book Creating Customer Evangelists, pause your reading of this post and go buy that book. It’s that important.) When I photograph a session, I try to share that session with my clients as quickly as I can via Facebook and my blog. I want them to have the images while they are still feeling emotional about the experience. I am always amazed to watch what happens after I share the images. My clients immediately begin the evangelization process. They share with their networks on a large scale. They single out the mostly likely potential candidates for me, and then they push those people to connect with me. They transform from my clients/friends into my personal sales representatives. It’s a foolproof technique, because they are sincere in their pursuits. They have no reason to push their friends towards me, because I offer no incentives for their doing so. They do it because they believe in me, and because they believe in Lifestyle Photography.

Even with all of this encouragement, many of these potential clients remain resistant to Lifestyle Photography for one simple reason. They fear that their Real Life isn’t beautiful. This insecurity remains as the greatest barrier to my ability to gain new clients, even though I am surrounded by amazing customer evangelists.

There are two points at which I have the ability to combat this insecurity. The first situation is one in which the potential clients are intrigued by their friends’ images and excitement, and they contact me. I hear various excuses for why their life isn’t currently beautiful enough to be photographed.

“I have to lose this baby weight first.”

“We need to finish decorating/unpacking/renovating our home.”

“Newborns don’t really do anything interesting. Maybe when he’s older”

They never come out and say “No,” but rather, they inevitably say “Let’s do this later.” They are waiting for that day when suddenly their Real Life seems worthy of being photographed. (Just in case you are wondering, that day will never come for these people. If you let them fall prey to the ‘Later disease,’ they’ll always find reasons to wait. Their Real Life will never be perfect enough unless someone intervenes.)

I love the challenge of these opportunities. Whenever I am met with “maybe later” responses, I try to bring the focus back to the real point of these sessions. I assure them (often in a sweetly sarcastic manner) that I am not going to be taking closeups of their dirt or their clutter. I ask them to look at session after session on my blog, and then ask if they really noticed any baby weight. I ask them if they really think that their newborn is uninteresting, or if they are, in truth, fascinated by the smallness and perfectness of them as they sleep. I tell them that the point of these sessions is not to document their inadequacies, but that the point is to document their love.

I ask, “Do you love your family, regardless of their imperfectness? Sometimes because of their imperfectness?” The answer to this is invariably, “Yes, of course!”

I respond, “Then let me capture that. Trust me to capture that. I promise that your Real Life is beautiful. Just give me one chance to prove that to you.” If this conversation doesn’t completely seal the deal (and sometimes it doesn’t. Why would they trust me? They don’t know me yet.), I ask them to go back to that referring friend and discuss their doubts. This strategy almost always brings me to the second scenario in which I need to work to combat this insecurity.

My clients amaze me with their persuasiveness. Often, they’re so persistent with their friends that they convince them to book a trial session with me. They don’t try to sell them on a full baby’s first year collection, they just convince them of the importance of booking a simple newborn session. I’ve even had clients pool resources and purchase a newborn session as a gift for a particularly insecure mom. (This has actually happened more than once. Seriously, my clients are amazing!) When this happens, I am entrusted with a true gift. My clients are trusting me to take care of their friend. They believe that Real Life is beautiful, and they are giving me the opportunity to share that belief with someone they care about.

If I fail to follow through, I am not only losing the opportunity to create a new and amazing client relationship, I am causing damage to current client relationships. I have to show them that I truly mean it when I say that Real Life is beautiful. They must see that I’m not talking about other people, but that this philosophy also applies to their Real Life. In these situations, I have to prove myself. I have to listen to my new clients. I have to learn about their insecurities and doubts prior to our session. I have to work to instill a sense of trust and relaxation during our session. I have to deliver images of their Real Life captured beautifully soon after our session. I have to do everything in my power to prove that their perception of their life as inadequate is wrong.

My first task is to learn what they are afraid of. Most clients aren’t going to offer up this information. It’s not easy to talk about fears and insecurities, particularly with a stranger. I have to ask them questions. I have to get them talking. Most importantly, I have to listen not just to what they say, but also to what they don’t say. If their referring friend has any information to share, I make sure to listen to that as well. If I know this mom is concerned about her weight, I need to make sure I never share any images with her in which she looks even slightly heavy. I need to be sure to shoot her from flattering angles and to compose my shots in ways that hide her trouble areas. If I know she’s worried about clutter and disarray in her post-baby home, I need to make sure to stay focused on her and her new family. Many times I shoot a few pull back shots that showcase the clutter and craziness, but with a mom who’s already paranoid about that part of her life, I make sure not to include these in the blog or on Facebook. Instead, I’ll save them for a Pictage gallery. By the time she sees them there, she’ll already have embraced the fact that her life really is beautiful, and those images will just be amusing reminders of how crazy (wonderful) everything really is. (This works, I promise. I’ve seen it a million times.) I have to really really listen to what she does and does not say, and I have to make sure that the photographs I take work to combat those fears and insecurities. I can’t assume that I know how she feels. I have to listen. (By the way, sometimes just giving this potential client/new mom the opportunity to talk about herself is the key to gaining her trust.)

After I feel I have some sort of grasp on what my new client’s fears and insecurities are, I then have to show up at the session prepared to fight them. When I show up at her house (newborn gift in hand, as explained in my last article), I always greet her with a giant hug and some sort of compliment. I have driven to their house with the client’s insecurities rolling around in my head, and I’m prepared for the worst. Because of this, I don’t have to work to create some sort of compliment. Without fail, my thoughts go something like this: “Are you kidding me? You were worried about being in front of the camera? You’re adorable! This will be a piece of cake!”, and since I struggle with my verbal filter, those thoughts are usually exactly what comes out of my mouth.

New moms, in general, are exhausted and overwhelmed and need encouragement. (I also try to bring my new moms some sort of a physical pick me up, usually in the form of Starbucks.) Hearing me say, enthusiastically, that I think her session will be a piece of cake, is usually just what she needs to relax and enjoy herself. I encourage her throughout the session. I compliment specific aspects about her home, I ooh and aah over her baby, I heckle and joke with the dad, and I lavish the mom with compliments relating to things happening during our session. I make sure they never feel like they’re taking up too much of my time. I assure them that if the baby needs to nap/eat/scream/etc, all of that is beautiful and all of that is photo worthy. I never stop photographing, unless it is to offer a hand. I try to never leave the session during a stressful time, even if we were basically done with the session when the stress begins. I work to make sure our sessions end on a peaceful note, but there are times when that isn’t possible. Sometimes the baby really is having a terrible horrible day, and sometimes it feels like she cries for the entire session. I know that when it feels like that to me, that feeling is magnified intensely for my client. When this happens, no words from me are going to assuage her fears. I will promise her, as I leave, that we captured beautiful images, but she will not believe me. It’s understandable. She just experienced the same stressful time that I experienced, and for her it is personal. She will not be able to see anything beautiful about it. In these situations, she doesn’t need words. She needs proof. From this point on, the images have to be that proof. The images have to prove that her Real Life (even the horrible part that she just experienced) really is beautiful.

Once the shoot has ended, the hard work is done. If I’ve done my job, I’ve listened to my clients fears, and I’ve worked to combat those fears during the shoot. All that’s left is to process images and share them with as quickly as possible. I choose as many amazing images as I can, focusing on the happiest moments, but not avoiding the difficult ones. I’m not going to convince my client that her Real Life is beautiful by only showing her the traditionally beautiful parts. I have to show her all of it, and I have to showcase it beautifully.  When the images are culled and edited, I am left with a story. The story these images tell might have messy moments and stressful moments and sad moments, but the overwhelming theme of the story will be love. In every image, love should resonate. That’s what makes Real Life beautiful, after all. If I have done my job correctly, this story will change things a little for my new client. It will be impossible for my client to walk away from this experience without thinking, “Wow. My Real Life is beautiful.”


Written by Amber Holritz the lifestyle baby photographer Amber is a wife, mom, and photographer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can see more posts by Amber in the coming weeks here on the Pictage blog as well as at

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