Life as Momalot: Behind the scenes

My blog readers well know the “couch photos” I take every month. (If not, check out the tag “six on the first” here on the blog. And yes, I’m aware, I need a bigger couch. Please drop a nickel in the box.) I’m hard pressed to find one in that time lapse series that doesn’t have a grimacing child or three in it. And yet all the kids, from 12 to 1/2, seem to cooperate well for a pretty complicated, 9-or 10 person self portrait which involves setup, props, and much more time. Many have expressed interest in how this happens, and now that we’ve reached a baker’s dozen of images in the series I thought I’d take a pause and discuss it.

I really had to think about my process and what it is about this collaboration that works, so I could distill it down into a few points other people might take away from. Here is what I have come up with so far.

Visualize and Discuss

Now that we’ve been doing these a while, we have a running list of ideas. Before even setting up the camera, a few (or all) of us will discuss what the final picture will be like. What’s the concept? How can each character contribute to the image? Sometimes I throw out the title or the idea in passing and then over the course of a few days or weeks the children will think of their own ideas for that image. The children themselves have come up with a few of the initial concepts as well. The photos, despite being posed, are actually based on reality, so we think about things that have actually happened when assigning roles. (Or we assign roles for an upcoming image when something actually happens! 🙂 What image can I use to showcase the spaghetti sauce I found on the top of the doorframe yesterday after my 8 year old made dinner?) Sharing the concept and having the children help me flesh it out makes the shooting process go much more smoothly.

Seize the opportunity

Sometimes I have an idea that requires a clean living room. Other times I have one that requires a messy one. Either way, if I see that some of the elements I need for one of our ideas is present, I’ll push to get the rest of it lined up and just shoot. One Sunday I was trying to take a nap, and the kids just wouldn’t leave me alone. I pitched the idea, they went for it, I grabbed my equipment and we had Afternoon Nap just 30 minutes later. I had the Grocery Shop image in mind since last June. A few weeks ago when we were planning to go to the big box store, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity. I had planned on having another adult with me, to keep an eye on my camera, but my husband was out of town, so I just decided to make it work because enough of the criteria for the image would be met and I’d figure out the rest. I have a plan, but I note when many conditions seem right, and grab the moment when it seems like a good fit. Other times I actually plan and make it happen like an appointment, such as with Trimming the Tree, where we had a limited window where everyone would be available and I purposely bought the tree and lights, etc while the kids were out of town so we could do it the day after they returned. The next photo I’m doing will be hinging on when my husband next shaves, because him looking presentable is one of the key elements of the image. 🙂

Be flexible

For my series, there’s an underlying theme that so many humans in one place means a little bit of chaos, a bit of everyone following his own agenda. That’s me being honest about how things go (not perfectly) so it would be a little ironic or hypocritical if I were to insist that everything be 100% according to my plan for the images themselves. Because of this, I don’t resist resistance. If someone isn’t on board, or decides to have a tantrum, or doesn’t like where they’ve been placed, we incorporate that right in.  Other times, the idea we had doesn’t quite pan out – the composition is wrong, someone’s face is blocked, a pose is not sustainable, or they just don’t like their activity in the frame. In Laundry Day, the children started out doing certain things, but halfway through, I got a couple complaints about their roles so we switched them up accordingly. Sometimes re-thinking and working to get everyone on board with their roles helps jog a new thought that results in an even better idea in the end.

Be prepared with rewards

Sometimes they’re so into the concept that they don’t need much encouragement, but especially if the shoot goes more than a few takes, they might start to get antsy. I
promise them whatever will make them cooperative. Sometimes they eat the props (that was the big motivation for Happy Birthday to Me – they devoured the banana pudding and sprinkles as soon as I called “That’s a wrap!”) Promises of movies, time on the tablet, snacks, money… I’ve used them all. In general, it isn’t what motivates them to get involved, but it definitely helps them stay involved through to the end of the process. Many of the photos involve rewards as part of the activity, which is usually my go-to for the youngest ones. In Trimming the Tree and Trick or Treat, Linus was actually eating the candy. Not a whole lot of convincing required.

Shoot. A lot.

My interval timer has been my best friend. I set it up to take 10 shots every 4-5 seconds (to give my flash time to recycle) with a few second delay to start. Then we call ready, set and everyone starts acting. I usually have to eliminate most of the images right off the bat due to someone’s face being covered, someone being out of frame or too close to the edge, and then I go through and cull again for my expression.  I prefer to get it all in one shot rather than head swapping, but usually since I use a tripod if I do need to composite, it isn’t too hairy.


I use a flash to get enough light in the room, because I shoot really stopped down (f/9-f/13). Most of them are shot at 17mm and I usually crop in some after the fact but I
like to do this for 2 reasons – first it gives me more room to make sure people are in the frame, and second the distortion is most noticeable around the edges so I generally
have people closer to the middle rather than right on the edge and all warpy. In the Baking Day shot someone pointed out Christina’s foot is about 2 feet long 🙂 and there were some outtakes from the Morning Coffee shoot where Soren had scooted to the edge of the frame and was very two dimensional looking. 🙂

Print the results

I have printed and framed our series so the children can enjoy them all the time. I often find them looking at the pictures and pointing and laughing at each person. Having something physical to show for it really seems to help keep them excited about the series. The act of looking at it frequently reinforces the positive aspects of camera-derie (see what I did there?) and fun that the photo displays, even if that particular child wasn’t so wild about the photo shoot itself at the time. Plus, they have a fun conversation piece to strike up interesting discussions with visitors.

Here’s an interview with a few of the children so you can hear more about this from their own perspective.

Please, ask any questions you like in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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7 Responses to Life as Momalot: Behind the scenes

  1. Elizabeth says:

    how do you get the colors to be so bold? They literally “pop”.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Elizabeth! I usually add some contrast (deepen the darks and raise the lights) which can add some intensity to colors. ❤

  2. I’ve just started working with flash and find it quite challenging. I have a manual flash. Do you use a manual flash? If so, how do you figure your settings to get such a nice even illumination in the room? Thanks!

    • Sarah says:

      Honestly, I mainly rely on trial and error. The evenness of the illumination is a result of the flash placement. Even light usually means I’m bouncing off the seam of the ceiling/wall behind the camera (flat light). I also use off camera for some of them if it’s a tricky area like the kitchen. My rule of thumb is not to use full power on the flash if I can help it, due to recycle time and battery life (I don’t want the flash to die mid-shoot) so if I’m using flash on manual, I’ll usually start at 1/4 power plus 1/3 stop or so, and then figure in my ISO from there to add or subtract light. I use my histogram to ensure I’m not badly under or overexposing. I definitely get it all set up with settings and placement before I invite the children to the scene, so nobody gets too tired of waiting for me to fiddle!
      Flash is a whole new set of skills and in my (very limited!) experience there’s no substitute for frequent/consistent practice and assessment! In the beginning it helps to write down where you’re bouncing and what settings you used so you can compare it later, since it doesn’t show up on the EXIF.

    • I really appreciate you taking the time to reply! That is a great tip to bounce off the ceiling/wall. I’m going to try that. Thanks for all the other tips as well. I’m definitely going to start taking notes

  3. Rachel Wells says:

    Hi Sarah I just love your ideas and how you get your kids involved and the humor you have injected into your images mothers can relate too!! Can you tell me the Supermarket image how did you set that up? didn’t you feel awkward with you tripod there and everything and all the people going past ? lol.

    • Sarah says:

      Oh, goodness, Rachel! It was nerve wracking! The stares, the weird looks! Upon first entering the store I went to the customer service desk and asked if they had any policy about taking photos. I explained I’d be taking photos of our family shopping. I didn’t really go into detail 🙂 and I had my tripod sort of hidden under a blanket! lol! but I did feel better knowing that if anyone said something that I could tell them I had cleared it with the front desk. I postponed the shot so long (notice both carts are pretty much full!) until I finally decided to work up the nerve to just do it. I also tried to find the least busy area near the back – it was one of the final aisles, so there was a place for me to set up my tripod without shopper traffic going past it, sort of on the way into the stock room. Of course, as soon as I set it up, twelve shoppers came down the aisle out of nowhere. 😉
      It feels really good to have gone through with it even though it definitely took some courage pushing past the awkwardness.
      Thank you for the comment!

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