a peek inside the fishbowl

04 May, 2009

The hows and whys of the photographs of our lives

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Photography

Subtitled: Why there are 15,000 photos in our iPhoto library

I received a very very nice email a couple of weeks ago from the father of two young girls in Wellington Village.

Not only was his email immensely kind, flattering and complimentary towards me and my photography (!), but he also asked me if I would consider writing a few words about photographing kids… Why do I take the photos I do? Which are the photos I love and why are they special, who takes the photos in our house etc.

Little did he know that I was going to say YES, and that he had just opened the door to an immense topic I love to talk about.

I did a really fun photo shoot for our local paper last week, and as I poured over the photos I came home with, it got me thinking about this topic again.

Does everyone have it in them to take a good photo? I’m still mulling that one over. I think everyone has the ability to snap a decent photo, just like everyone has the ability to write a letter. But not every photo is a *great* photo, just like every letter isn’t a great letter.

Some people have a better handle on lighting and are more creative with timing and composition, I think that’s the big difference between pros and amateurs.

If you want to take some good photos you need to (a) know what makes a good photo and (b) try to remember it next time you have a camera in your hand. :)

It’s not like I’m revealing any secrets here… just my opinions on the matter. But if this is a topic which interests you, please read on.

1) Why do I take the photos I do
Why indeed? Because I love it. I looooooove taking photos. Sarah refers to my Nikon D70 as my “best friend.” She’s right. I love capturing my perspective of a particular moment in time, not just the Christmases and birthdays, (in fact those occasions aren’t my best) but all those ordinary moments in between. So much can be revealed in that blink of an eye: love, fear, joy, sorrow. I love it even more when all the elements come together. Which leads me to…

2) What makes a good photograph?
You probably already know the answer to this one already. A great photograph tells a story.

As I look over my library of photos I realize I’m not taking many still-life portraits of arty stuff anymore. I used to, but they’re boring to me now. It’s not something I’ve given up on entirely. I’ll still happily take a photo of a flower or a regal-looking tree, but the photo must be part of a larger story otherwise it’s not worth the time. I don’t take photos every day. Sometimes there’s just nothing worth taking a photo of. A forced photo isn’t a good photo.

When the girls are weilding a camera (that is, any camera that is not mine) I tell them to take photos of things that are meaningful. The picture should be able to do all the talking.

You know what makes a really great photo? Emotion. And PEOPLE. Especially kids. Kids are just natural hams. My favourite photos have that unspoken something that forces your eye to dwell a second longer, and makes your mind linger on the subject as if you were turning a chewy caramel over in your mouth.


Wow. That’s profound!

3) What about composition? 
Personally I like to get close and fill up the frame. That’s when the best stories are told. Before I release the shutter I make sure that what I’m looking at is actually the picture I want to capture. It’s interesting how many people skip this step, and how easy it is to focus on the subject of the photo and ignore everything else. But take a couple seconds to ask yourself a few questions. Is there too much room around the head? Are the feet or hands cut off in a weird way?

When I’m not getting in close I’m taking a step back. Is there something else in my field of view that might add to the photo? What is the person looking at? Will the setting add to the story or detract from it? Is there anything weird happening with hair, zippers, boogers? In-camera editing will save you time and heartache later.

Once I took a photo of a bridesmaid and didn’t notice she was sitting in front of a giant orange extension cord. When I got the photos back it looked like it was coming out of her butt. *sigh*

Some general rules:

  • A great photo isn’t necessarily a “posed” photo. I have my camera set to take multiple exposures if I keep my finger on the shutter. It’s ideal for squirmy kids, who tend to move around a lot and do goofy things with their faces. I might take five photos in a row, and then I keep the best two.
  • A great photo isn’t necessarily centred in the middle. Think of your viewfinder divided into thirds and position your subject off-centre to one side and see what happens.
  • Don’t forget about post-processing. Photoshop is your friend!
  • Consider turning off the flash. A flash is likely to wash out your photo. You’ll lose the emotion and the drama that natural light provides. Only a flashmaster can make it look good using a flash.

As for who takes the photos in our house? I do. The Nikon is my camera, well, we bought it for me when I started getting photos published here and there. It was worth every penny. Mark is a very good photographer in his own right. He just doesn’t get to use the camera as much!

Where do our photos end up?
Well, this is where my best intentions start to slide. The switch to digital was supposed to change what our photo albums looked like. The old way: rolls of 24 or 36-exposure film stuck into albums. The new way: select/best photos for a scrapbook. But it hasn’t really happened. 99.9% of our photos are on Mark’s computer.  I’ve recently been given the opportunity to print more photos (which I’ll be blogging about later) so I hope to change this very soon. It’s nice to have thousands of digital photos floating by on our screensavers. The girls love it – every once in awhile a random photo will tweak a fun memory of a family holiday or a special event. But it doesn’t quite beat the tactile hands-on feeling of a paper album. I’ll be exploring more of this topic later.

In the meantime I am gearing up for a super-intensive professional photo lighting course at Algonquin which starts tomorrow. I am nervous and excited about it. I know it will take my photography to the next level. As many of you know I am getting into family-related photography. (That is, families other than my own!) I haven’t made a formal announcement (my photo site is still under construction) because I want to make sure my ducks are in in a row before I venture much farther. So far it’s been a soft launch into the photo biz. :)

I can write about this all day, but I am cutting this post short for the time being. I would like to dwell on this topic some more in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts about photography and what it takes to snap a good photo.

Maybe you can start by filling in the blank: “My favourite photos are…  “

13 Responses to "The hows and whys of the photographs of our lives"

1 | Harry Nowell

May 4th, 2009 at 10:25 am


“A great photograph tells a story.”
You’re right on the money! You have many good points.

How you use the camera is far more important than the camera you use. Our photo students often hear: “You cannot ask them to smile – you must make them smile!” Candid photos with genuine smiles light up your album… and make you look good!

Andrea, be sure you back up your photos on a second hard drive. They are cheap an easy to use. Losing family photos because of a faulty hard drive is a tragedy!

2 | Mom on the Go

May 4th, 2009 at 10:37 am


bursting with emotion, mood or moment. They don’t need smiles or even faces to convey what they folks in the photo – or I – was feeling.

3 | DaniGirl

May 4th, 2009 at 11:10 am


Oooo, my new favourite topic!! *grin*

Great tips, and I’m so jealous of your professional lighting course. I’m not a fan of my flash at all, but I think if I had a fancy (erm, expensive) one that would help. One of these days.

My only quibble is with the idea that a forced photo isn’t a good photo. I can’t believe the difference in my own photography skills, just from doing exactly that — forcing myself to take pictures and to find pictures where I wouldn’t have done so before. My photo-a-day project has moved me to snap every “moment”, which is likely overkill and may in fact kill me in the end :) but is so much better than what I was doing, which is waiting for great photo opportunities to happen.

I totally agree, not every photo is a great photo, but every moment has a great photo hiding in it — you just have to have the right combination of skill, opportunity and dumb luck to catch it!

To answer your question – my favourite photos are the ones that make me smile. Sometimes, it’s a moment captured, sometimes it’s a memory evoked, sometimes it’s something I worked hard to achieve, sometimes it’s just darn purty.

Chewy caramels for the mind, indeed!

4 | andrea

May 4th, 2009 at 1:20 pm


Harry: The backup issue is something we’ve agonized over. I used to live in fear that we were one surge away from losing everything, but we do now have an external hard drive. The thought of losing stuff still makes me queasy.

Mom on the go: Agreed. No smiles necessary!

Dani: Whatever floats your boat! If your project is giving you practice, just keep doing what you’re doing! But does every moment have a great photo in it? Maybe, maybe not.

Related … Mark and I agreed not to photograph school concerts years ago. Sometimes it’s best to sit back and enjoy the moment without your nose in the back of a camera! :)

To all photo buffs following along: I’d love to hear how you organize your photo libraries.

5 | Harry Nowell

May 4th, 2009 at 4:32 pm


“… forcing myself to take pictures and to find pictures where I wouldn’t have done so before.”
That is the way to progress. This is different than a photo whereby you ‘force’ unwilling people to participate and smile. Keep it up!

On organizing photo libraries… We keep our work on two mirrored external hard drives – the photos are kept in at least two locations. Ideally, one hard drive is kept in a separate home or office. Film acts as a third much better archival medium.

An interesting thread,

6 | BeachMama

May 4th, 2009 at 5:21 pm


Ah yes, one of my favourite subjects.

Some of my favourite photographs are when the kids are making funny faces or spiraling through the air. I don’t feel I have to force them for photos as they are so used to me having a camera in my hand.

When I upgraded to my d700 Hubby told the kids they had to behave, I ended up with lots more smiles than usual but, they are slowly going back to being silly.

As for storage, I have two external hard drives that I am using at the moment. I used to keep a copy offsite, but have slacked off in that area. I will be doing that again this summer.

I think we could sit and chat about photography for a very long time, you and I. :)

my site is: AnnaEppPhotography.com

7 | Lee

May 4th, 2009 at 6:46 pm


Looking forward to hearing more about this photo site of yours … when the time is right, of course!

8 | Loukia

May 4th, 2009 at 10:30 pm


Thanks Andrea, great post with a lot of great suggestions! You’re a terrific photographer. Can I seriously hire you for a weekend shoot with my boys? My favourite photographs are of my children. I have so many favourites of them it’s safe to say there is not a picture of my kids I don’t love. Candid or posed – they always make me smile!

9 | Trea

May 4th, 2009 at 10:34 pm


Photography is a passion of mine as well. It started with a manual Canon AE135 circa 1970’s and now it’s on to the digital age (though I still am a big fan of taking slide photography). One of the things I used to be afraid of was the flash … I’m working on overcoming it (I prefer natural lighting, so am trying to find a balance.

Re: backing photos up, it is so important. We lost a friend to a skiing accident a few years ago, and just before he died he and his fiance lost their pictures … she was devastated facing the reality that all the photos of the life they shared were gone. It really hit home.

I love picture of children, but I don’t like it when they ham it up and get all pose-y. Photos of children concentrating over their art work, play time, or writing are the best.

Great post!

10 | Trea

May 4th, 2009 at 10:35 pm


By the way, for fun effects has anyone else dabbled in FotoFlexer?

11 | mrsgryphon

May 5th, 2009 at 12:08 am


Thanks for a great post! I am definitely an amateur photographer, with no aspirations to the professional realm, but I do love reading about photography and learning as much as I can along the way!

My favourite photos are the ones where I somehow manage to get the lighting/focus right the first time… without having to make any edits in Photoshop! I love it when I upload my files to the computer, and scan through them the first time – the ones that pop out at me on that first look are usually my favourites, often because my daughter’s eyes are bright and sparkly or the landscape has been captured the way I remember it looking at that moment.

As for how I organize my library, I use a PC with Vista, so in the Windows Photo Gallery I have everything saved in a folder for each month and tagged with names/event details. I have backups on an external hard drive, and upload my favourites to my flickr feed. I also print every 3 months or so, and scrapbook those printed photos (I’m only 18 months behind! haha!)

12 | Porter

May 5th, 2009 at 11:29 am


I enjoyed this post even though I had to rush through reading it (must come back to read when I have more than a few mins!).

I’m not a good photographer at all, and I’m okay with that. Thank goodness for digital because it allows me to take loads of pics until I manage to get one or two that I love. My favourite pictures are the ones that trigger a memory, you know the ones that you look at and you can remember vividly so many things from that moment/day/whatever?

Three things that I need to do more of

1) take more pictures of other people/places/things besides my kids…even if these people/places/things are in the shots with my kids it would be nice! i’m forever taking close up shots of my kids which means we have few of them with the dog or them in the backyard where the backyard is also captured. i fear that i will regret not having more for them to remember in the pictures, they aren’t all about me and how the pics make me feel! one day i hope they will trigger memories for my kids too.

2) have more pics taken of me and also of us as a family. pictures of me with the kids or with bert are rare around here. i’m the person who takes 99% of all the pictures.

3) process and display more pictures. i am ashamed to admit that i haven’t got many current pictures in our home. there are many of mouse as a baby and very few of bug since she was a baby…it bothers me but i’ve been lazy.

13 | Par8

May 5th, 2009 at 9:25 pm


Great subject!

Digital photograhy changed everything. You can learn so much, so fast by playing with the various camera features/settings and seeing right then and there what they do (at no cost) and how to use them to make nice pics.

I have a few point-and-shoots (more advanced models by Canon that let you go fully manual) and a Digital SLR. The small p-a-s cameras take the majority of my photos because they are in my pocket whereas the DSLR is for “special” times when I’m going to take a special photo. It’s so big and conspicuous. The smaller p-a-s camera allows me to get photos from interesting/ incredible angles. I take many many photos (more than 75,000 after 8 years of digital….and boxes of b&w negatives) and have never tired of the thrill and magic of photography.

I photograph my kids/wife mostly but also snap shots of my life (projects, nature, places, gardens, etc). Some of my best photos are good mainly because of the composition, angle, themes, etc but some are as others have mentioned, golden – because of the memories. A day, a split-second, a period in my life. Sometimes I stop at an older photo and think omg…how lucky I am to have captured that, forever.

I used to be on top of all my photos. Cropped, edited, triaged (dump the dups and slightly fuzzies) but have fallen behind in the last year or so. I continue to pull out the best and send them to folks (here’s my life these days) so the creme-de-la-creme is available on-line. I also make a point of printing photos every few months. I bought some nice big frames at Ikea and swap in my favourites every year….so they can be seen. It works well. It also forces me to take a good hard look at my work and pull out the beauties….photos that I am proud to say were captured by moi.

Why do I take photos? Because I love it. I really really love it. And I have to. No different I suppose than why artists paint and poets pour out strings of beautiful words.

Thanks for the blog Andrea. I admire your work.


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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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