Why I fell in love with Documentary Family Photography

Feb 9, 2022

I haven’t always worked in the documentary family photography genre, I used to be a family lifestyle photographer. You know the kind of photo where everything is picture perfect. Everyone dressed in pretty outfits, on their best behaviour, in stunning locations and bathed in golden evening sun. But I have to be honest with you, I was bored and unfulfilled. Something definitely wasn’t sitting comfortably within me but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

It began to feel like a factory conveyor belt, taking families to the same places, telling them what to do. All the pictures and all the families started to blend into one. What’s worse the comparison game set in. I would see images like mine but with incredible backdrops of beaches, mountains, forests and deserts. Its hard to compete with Hertfordshire’s famously uninspiring landscape! I would spend lots of time searching for locations, sometimes I would drag my children out just because the light was perfect. I didn’t live in a pretty enough place and started to feel bad about my life and question my work.


My Eureka moment

These negative thoughts were of course complete rubbish. I had to work through them but in doing so it did eventually give me a EUREKA moment – the world is an interesting place BECAUSE we are all different. I adore my family and I’m very lucky. Why can’t I just celebrate our authentic selves, warts and all, and be proud of who we are? Looking back at those photos, where I cajoled my kids away from their play just so I could photograph them at sunset, I have no emotional connection to them because I know they were manufactured moments. On the contrary, the photos that I found I was falling in love with weren’t posed or directed. They were creatively composed to embrace the chaos and tell the story of our real everyday life.

Girls tree climbing documentary child photography with Emma CollinsEnvironmental portrait of girl and space hopper by Emma Collins

Nowadays there is so much pressure to strive for a perfect, desirable lifestyle. If we only photograph the good stuff we are just perpetuating this unhealthy pursuit of an unattainable life. By capturing people’s reality we can show them that what they have may not conform to expectations of perfection, but it is THEIR perfect and actually their life is more colourful and richer because of their own unique experiences. This is documentary family photography.

Working this out was such a magical life lesson for me. Allowing myself to lean into what felt right was like finding my superpower. I let go of what I thought people wanted and started making photos that I wanted to make. What’s more doing my own thing made my work more memorable and unique.

Contemporary portrait of brother and sister Emma Collins photogapherGarden playtime photograph everyday meaningful moments with Emma Collins St Albans

A new approach to family photography

Nowadays I call myself a documentary family photographer or a family photojournalist. It’s an unconventional approach to family photography that jigsaws with the diversity of modern family life. My job is to make sense of the chaos of everyday, carefully observing family life. This allows me to construct uniquely personal images, honouring reality in a sensitive but beautiful way. By taking this modern approach, and relinquishing expectations of what a classical family portrait should look like, I can create results that are both stunning and so much more meaningful.

Tree climbing children family photoshoot Emma Collins St Albans

I use long form sessions lasting several hours (the longer the better!). This means that I really get time to see first hand what makes people tick. Slowing down and watching how families interact with their surroundings and each other means that I can make beautiful, unusual photos. The resulting images are infused with details that celebrate the uniqueness of each family. 

If you think a documentary family photoshoot might be for you, or are interested in finding out more about how it works, contact me to schedule a call.






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Reading upside down quirky kids portraits full of character by Emma Collins


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