The Best Photographs Happen in Real Life

kingston family documentary photographer

If you’re not already aware of the massive appeal (read: magic) of photographs of your real life, then let me lay it all out:

  • why documentary photography is by far the best way to capture family memories,

  • why traditional studio photographs only have so much lasting power, and

  • why - above all - you need to be investing in family photographs that grip you, that make you FEEL like it felt exactly in that moment that the photograph was taken.

My curiosity for photography started before I left academia, before I ever dreamed of opening up a photography business, and long before I even had children.

But once my three kids were born, one by one (thankfully...), I began to get more serious about photographing them grow. I had picked up this notion that interesting photographs needed to be properly composed, and so my initial focus with those photographs was just to make them visually compelling. Here are a couple of examples from 2011.

kingston family photographer
kingston family photographer

Random aside: the second photograph was taken at a farm we used to visit in Dundas, ON. I used to imagine what it would have been like if the kids had grown up on a farm. Just a few years later, we made that a reality.

I am not saying that to boast. Moreso, to emphasize that our dreams can become our goals. We live in a time and place where many of us are lucky enough to be able to make different types of living possible. Was it always easy? No. Is every day on the farm a lovely joy? NOPE. (But maybe ask me when I’m not trampling over frozen duck poop on my way to the car).

The photograph was a good reminder for me, because - as you probably well know - we take so many things for granted. The years of wishing to live rurally finally paid off - so I will remind myself to truly appreciate that fact more often.

Going back to photography, though… You can probably tell from those two photographs that I was not posing my kids. Rather, I was waiting until they were in the middle of it, lost in the moment, and THEN I would take a photograph. Of the photos where they are looking at the camera, only once or twice did I ever ask them to pose for it, or smile. Say, for instance, on Halloween:

kingston family photographer

Actually that’s me in the photo, and my husband taking the photograph. Photo Cred: Fritz Seitz.

It seems, looking back, that I have always been drawn to the real life moments.

Alright, so WHY?

WHY is documentary photography the best way to capture family memories?

The answer is simple: because there is CONTEXT. You have the richness of emotion and environment on your side. In the first photograph above, I immediately remember that summer storm, when the kids grabbed a giant umbrella, and when my son refused to wear a raincoat, and they headed out to the driveway to play amid the raindrops.

In the second photograph, I remember that shortly after that bout on the swings at that farm in Dundas, my daughter proceeded to pee on their lawn. I was mortified, but also had a good chuckle.

Photographs like this trigger memories. They provide cues to our brains, full of colour and texture. These cues trigger even more memories - things that happened outside the scope of a particular photograph.

You are filled with a rush of remembering, and it is sweet.

These are storytelling photographs! They tell a story of your life, your day, or just that moment. They guide you visually and help you flesh out the details of that story.


There is also a SECRET reason why documentary photography appealed to me and it might to you as well - Because you don’t have to figure out what to do with your FACE!

Seriously - every time someone tries to take a posed photograph of me, I wig out. I start pulling weird expressions, flexing muscles I shouldn’t be flexing all over the place (but mostly on my face), and it just ends up in hilarity. Like this:

photo cred (and patience cred): Liz cooper, who stuck it out and finally got a straight face from me… long after this jim carrey moment had passed.

photo cred (and patience cred): Liz cooper, who stuck it out and finally got a straight face from me… long after this jim carrey moment had passed.



Why are traditional studio portraits limited in their lasting power?

I have an old studio photograph of me in a white dress and pigtails, aged about 5. I couldn’t find the photograph to show you today, but one day I will dig it up. That photograph is cute. I am smiling and look pretty. My grandmother - who took me to the studio - loves that photograph. It is nice to look at, for sure. My grandmother might remember something about that day that she took me - she might remember whether it war rainy or sunny out, whether it was winter or summer, perhaps even what day of the week it was. She has an uncanny quality like that, to remember all those little details.

Yet there are no details in the photograph itself. You cannot tell by my white summer dress, whether the weather outside the studio was cold or warm. It is possible I wore snow pants to the shoot and removed them at the studio.

You cannot tell what phase of my life I was really into. Was I playing with dolls or trains? (Both, I think). Was I a quiet kid, or loud and boisterous? What were my pastimes?

None of this information is available from a photograph like that. There is NO STORY.


Why do I believe it’s so important to invest in family photographs that grip you, that make you FEEL exactly what it felt like in the moment that the photograph was taken?

Because, my friends, our lives are meant for living. And reliving. You live in the moment. And then you look back and relive - the same emotions that you have when you are living things the first time, those same emotions come back to you when you are looking at the photographs.

And because life has so much beauty and joy and laughter and hope - as well as some grief and tears - it is important to capture all that context along with the faces of the people we love, to recreate all those feelings, so that we can turn to them at any occasion should we wish to revisit.

That is why I am in love with documentary family photography.

Should you ditch traditional portraits altogether? Absolutely not! If they bring you joy, visit a studio as often as you like!

But I AM asking you to remember to also flesh out those details of your real life now, with photographs of real everyday moments and emotions. Those are the photographs that you will pause on for decades to come.

I hope I have convinced you of the beautiful and raw power of real life photographs of your everyday moments. It is what I specialize in, and taking and sharing those photographs brings me immense joy.

If you would like to try out a session with me and you live in the Kingston - Toronto - Ottawa area, I’d love to chat. Help me create your own family story through photographs.

If you would like to stay up to date with future blogs, where I will be writing tons about my passion for documentary family photography, tips on how to photograph your own kids with any camera you have, and much much more, then simply SUBSCRIBE by leaving me your email below and I’ll send you new content very soon!