WPPI Preview: Kirsten Lewis on Shooting Families, Having Fun and Being Different

by Jacqueline Tobin

Kirsten Lewis

February 08, 2013

We sat down with this unique photographer who has redefined family portraits (and who will be speaking at WPPI in the seminar “Give White and Khaki The Finger: A Documentary Approach To Family Sessions”), to find out why her beach portraits are so successful, how she maintains her individuality while growing her business, and why reading the fun facts on her website is so addictive.

Jacqueline Tobin: Can you explain your approach to beach portraits?

Kirsten Lewis: To start with, I send out three separate e-mails asking that no one wear white and khaki, and that I don’t want everyone matching one another. I explain that in order for me to get the best photos possible, I want everyone to look their best in clothes that they feel great in. Although I have had a few families disregard this request, for the most part this is exactly the kind of look my clients are hoping for. In regards to the shoot itself, every hour that I’m with a family, I only allow about ten minutes of formal portraits, and even those are extremely relaxed, encouraging the family to talk and interact, snuggle and laugh. I like to backlight, if possible, and always make my subjects the dominant focal point [versus the ocean or dunes]. Also, I always shoot the formal portraits first, because children have a very short shelf life before their attentions are lost in the waves. After the formal photos are finished, and we all sigh a big sigh of relief, I just tell the family to have fun. I do encourage bringing sand toys, buckets, Boogie and skim boards, bubbles and kites down with them so they have plenty of tools for interaction. Really, it’s not about what they are doing—it’s about providing an environment for my families to relax and naturally enjoy their time with each other and my camera. I am a techie’s worst enemy in terms of equipment treatment, rolling around in the sand and shooting in the ocean up to my chest, risking thousands of dollars of gear to get the shot.

JT: What are some of the topics you plan to cover in the seminar?

KL: I’m going to talk a lot about relating to and interacting with families, as well as how to gain trust in a small amount of time. Two points are, in my opinion, the most important tools needed to photograph people in a documentary way. I’m also going to reveal a couple of my “secrets” I’ve learned along the way, while teaching elementary school, when working with children, especially the uncooperative and unhappy ones. We are going to go through several different types of sessions, including newborn and births, and how documentary photography is the very best way to capture these very fleeting times in a parent’s life. We’re going to talk some about gear and post-processing, as well as how to find clients who are looking for this style of photography. Finally, we’re going to have the opportunity to photograph a couple of families. Probably the most vulnerable and valuable lesson I’m going to share will come from going through all of my own RAW files from the second day of WPPI, to show my students A) I don’t nail the shot every time I press down on my shutter, that I too can take some truly sucky photos; B) that perfect photos require a recipe of THREE essential ingredients; and C) the need to shoot through a moment and talk about what that actually means.

JT: You are a unique and intriguing individual, as I found out just from researching you online and viewing a video clip of your 2011 Photographer’s Ignite presentation. What is it about you that clients are most attracted to?

KL: Ha! Thanks so much! Sometimes I consider myself to be rather boring when in the company of just my dog and iMac, which is a great big slice of my “Time I Spend In Life” pie chart. I do love to make people laugh—it’s been that way since I was in middle school—but I didn’t accept that I was funny until a couple of years ago. Honestly, most times my inquiries start off with, “I just really love how real your pictures are.” However, they are many times followed by, “And I totally hate the word ‘moist’ too!” or “The Goonies is MY favorite movie as well!” I do feel like the people who look at my work and then read all of my fun facts [three of which are highlighted on these pages] feel a sense of knowing me, like a friend they haven’t seen in a long time. My work sets me apart from my peers at the beach, in terms of style, but it’s also about personality and who clients think they will feel comfortable spending some time with.

JT: When you moved your business to the Outer Banks, how did you carve out a niche and distinguish yourself from the “52 photographers all shooting the same portraits on the beach?”

KL: To begin with, I moved to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, in 2005 because it was one of the top destination wedding locations in the U.S. that also had a very large family portrait market from June to October. I found, however, that almost every photographer (there are over 50 on the small island) was shooting the same scene, just different families. Everyone in the pictures was wearing white and khaki, kneeling and smiling in the sand dunes with the most unflattering lighting conditions imaginable. The pictures were the antithesis of what I consider to be families having fun on a beach vacation. I decided I did NOT want to provide this type of service to clients, so if they wanted to hire me, they were going to be the photograph, not make the photograph. It took a really long time for me to build a clientele; the first year I think I only worked with five trusting families. Interestingly enough, I found that in the beginning it was the nontraditional families who were hiring me: single dads, same-sex parents and international travelers. It’s hard to convince the social “norm” to buck tradition. I reached out to the local property management companies, offering photos of their clients to use for advertisement in exchange for suggesting me to their vacationers. In the beginning, only two, Paramount Destinations and Village Realty, trusted me enough to take a chance; However things changed quickly when the Sun Sentinel contacted me about a picture I had taken and asked if they could run it on the front page for the whole season. Last summer, I photographed 80-plus families, and am now a featured photographer with six different property management companies. I really feel like I have helped change the minds of not only the guests of the Outer Banks, but also the local businesses and fellow photographers, who now all really support more honest, sincere and real moments.

JT: Your branding on kirstenlewisphoto.com centers around the fact that you are obsessed with strange facts, especially about yourself. How do you use that in your marketing? Do you ever get kids and clients to share their own strange facts to break the ice?

KL: With over 50 photographers within a 100-mile drive, it’s important to get your potential clients to spend just one minute longer on your site than on anyone else’s. When I first started brainstorming about my new branding, I knew that I had to be 100 percent myself because that is how I tend to stand out in life. I need to snort- laugh, ponder about life’s oddities, trip over something low to the ground, and feel anxiety at least once a day, and I think that is why the people closest to me love me. I’m wrong a lot, I’m really terrible about misidentifying celebrities, and I’m the worst water skier on the planet, BUT I’m also a philanthropist at heart, can do five tongue tricks and can bake the best carrot cake cupcakes known to man. By sharing these types of facts, along with super funny photos of myself, my potential clients have something they can personally connect to, giggle at, and they’ll spend time reading about me to see if we are alike in any way. Although I do trade random facts with five-year-olds from time to time, the coolest thing is when clients want to talk to me about my facts because I know that they read them and felt like we could relate to each other. This is a way of gaining access, of making them feel comfortable with me.

JT: How are you able to relate to different families? Do you have any war stories to share on that front?

KL: Well, I promise you there are no two families that are the same. And photographing each one comes down to a matter of reading body language, exchanging smiles, interacting with the children. I do have a pretty funny story that happened this year while I was working with two families vacationing together. There was an enormous difference in dynamics and personality: the first family was super affectionate, the children were laughing and were exceptionally respectful of their parents; the second family was struggling a bit, the boys were so mad they would barely look at me and at one point were both refusing to get their pictures taken. As I was finishing up the second family’s portraits, I turned around to find the first family totally submerged in the water, kicking and splashing around. I began shooting them, but overheard Mom #2 yell to her kids, “Why can’t we pretend to have fun like they are? You can all forget about donuts cause that ain’t happening!”

JT: Any fast and hard “rules” about shooting family sessions you care to share?

KL: Throw your fear out the window, be willing to make mistakes and really submerse yourself in the action. You HAVE to be present in order to capture real moments. You need to be close while still avoiding interfering with what is naturally taking place. Lastly, you have to be patient and wait for that perfect picture when everything comes together on its own and you’re just lucky enough to capture it.

JT: You also shoot weddings, right? Do you follow the same approach?

KL: Yes, I do, and for the most part, I shoot with my head, heart and ears equally. I’m less directive when it comes to weddings but still interact with everyone at the event to gain trust and become a true part of the day. No matter what I’m shooting, I’m working super-hard to capture moments in good light with strong composition.

JT: What are your “Day in the Life” sessions about?

KL: “Day in the Life” sessions are my favorites, and are what I believe will end up becoming the only family sessions I offer in the future. I usually arrive around suppertime at a client’s home and photograph the night routine including dessert, pajama-wearing, book-reading and nighttime snuggles. I then sleep over and wake up with the kids first thing in the morning. I spend the entire day documenting the routine of a family, so that when edited, there is a 24-hour span of time preserved. More and more families are desiring this type of session, and what I am encouraging is that they book one yearly, order an album, and begin an annual tradition of documenting the growth and changes of their family to look back on years later. I have been overwhelmed with the number of fellow professional photographers that I admire the most, hiring me to photograph their families. It’s truly been an honor.   

Kirsten Lewis will present her two-day WPPI 2013 Plus Class, “Give White and Khaki The Finger: A Documentary Approach To Family Sessions” on Thursday, March 7 and Friday March 8 from 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

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