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October 2006
Picture Perfect
Calling in a Professional Photographer

by Michele Bush Kimball

Even a professional photographer needs help taking the perfect photo of her family.

Margot Schulman, a photographer from Falls Church, said she hired another photographer to take a portrait of herself with her two daughters. She said she was looking for someone who would capture herself with her girls in a casual, outdoor environment. "I just wanted a picture to kind of create a feeling of me and my girls," Schulman said.

Like many parents, Schulman takes lots of pictures of her children. However, she wanted to preserve a visual memory with her children in a more formal way. She chose Jim Johnson of Picture-Story Studio to create her portrait because she liked his work and she knew she and her family would feel relaxed sitting for him. "He makes people comfortable," Schulman said. "He enjoys it. He enjoys what he does, and that comes through, I think."

Johnson, whose studio is based in Washington, D.C., said he often recommends that families choose professional photography to capture the exact image they want. He said that snapshots at home with digital photography are generally hit-or-miss. Hiring a reputable professional photographer ensures that the portrait will be exactly what the customer has in mind, Johnson said, and a professional can take the time to find the best image of the family. "I'm looking for that little magic moment from them," Johnson said, that subtlety of expression."

Capturing the Portrait with Skill

Jan Carson, whose photography business Images By Jan is based in Ashburn, Va., said that communicating with a photographer is the key to perfect portraits. "I try to be personal with it, rather than just to treat people like a bookend, because we are not all the same," Carson said. "If I can catch the inner self, that's what I'm after."

Carson said a family who uses the services of a professional photographer will be rewarded with the fine attention to detail that comes with education and expertise in the area. For example, a professional photographer will know the best way to translate the customer's idea into reality by using the proper lighting, backdrops and photographic technique, she said.

That kind of understanding and expertise can be lacking at volume photo studios that rush customers through the process. Carson said that often such studios don't change the lighting, pose customers in the same way each time and avoid communicating with customers about what they want. "Most professionals like to give you something personal," Carson said.

Personal attention is a hallmark of Cindy Bertaut's photography business, Glogau Photography Studio, which is based in Bethesda. She said she makes sure that each person has her undivided attention during a session. "When you're with me," Bertaut said, "you are the only person I'm focused on."

That was just the experience Lulu Gonella, of Kensington, was looking for when she hired Bertaut. Gonella had worked with Bertaut previously when Gonella's husband's side of the family had a portrait taken. She knew just who to call when she needed a portrait herself.

Gonella had recently moved into a new home and was organizing family portraits on her wall when she was shocked to realize something was missing. "I had no picture of my mother," Gonella said. She had plenty of snapshots, but she didn't have a professional, formal photograph with her parents. She said she quickly pulled together her parents, sisters and their families and set off to Bertaut's studio.

She told Bertaut she wanted something casual with a formal feel to it. Everyone dressed casually, "but I wanted a more staged look than what you get at a backyard barbecue," Gonella said. The results were just what she was looking for, and now the space on the wall is filled.

Good professional photographers take the time to understand customers, Bertaut said, and then they use their expertise to create the right image.

Relying on a professional photographer means that the customer does not have to keep track of all of the elements that go into the perfect picture. Bertaut said that when she is photographing, she is watching for countless things: whether the lighting is right, whether the poses look natural, whether hair and clothing is in place, whether everyone is relaxed, happy and comfortable. The list seems endless. "There are nuances that people don't even realize make a difference," Bertaut said. Those nuances may seem to multiply when children are involved in a photograph.

Getting the Best From Children

Professional photographers have several tricks up their sleeves for coaxing natural poses out of children. Barry Stelzer, who owns Barry Stelzer Photography in Baltimore, said he tends to work on location with children and families to make the experience more comfortable. He shoots a lot of photos because it helps children forget about the camera. Then he starts to talk to the child. He asks questions, tells stories — anything to engage the child. Eventually, it works. The stiff smile fades. The child relaxes. "Somewhere along the line he forgets to pose and becomes more natural," Stelzer said.

Making children comfortable with the photographic process as it happens around them is a key to producing natural pictures. Johnson said the best way to make sure children are at ease with the process is by engaging them. That might require talking to them to build familiarity or showing them how the camera works to keep their interest. By making the child comfortable, Johnson said, it is easier to capture an image of the child's personality. "Kids don't have to act. I want to reach that inner-person," Johnson said. "My theory is if you can get a person to glow from the inside, you can get a great portrait."

Bertaut said she begins by observing the children being photographed. Are they quick to laugh? Are they shy and withdrawn? Are they high-energy? All of them need to be handled differently, she said. For those children who laugh easily, the photographer needs to time the shots so that everyone is in synch. A shy or withdrawn child needs a more quiet environment and time to warm up and become comfortable with the process. A high-energy child needs more diversions and entertaining from the photographer.

When working with families, Bertaut is constantly thinking of ideas to keep the children happy and make sure the parents are satisfied with the portrait. "My head is a tornado of ideas," she said.

There are times a family photograph can become a juggling act. The photographer needs to be sure the children are at ease and happy, as well as the adults in the photo. If one becomes uncomfortable, it may make the others uncomfortable, too. Bertaut said she tries to think of ideas to keep everyone engaged, no matter the personalities. She wants to keep parents from feeling stressed while encouraging the children to pay attention and enjoy the process. All the while, she is trying to banish stiff postures and goofy smiles.

"I let everyone forget I am taking the picture and enjoy it," Bertaut said. "That's the picture you are looking for."

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer based in Springfield. She holds a Ph.D. in mass communication. She is a stay-at-home mom to a 3-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl.

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