Home Is Where The Heart Is: How To Take Portraits In It

Home Is Where The Heart Is: How To Take Portraits In It


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I hate nature. There. I said it. It’s like glitter—it seems like such a fun idea but no matter how careful you are, it gets all over you and 7 showers later you still find it in your hair. This is further complicated by the fact that I live in what is known around the planet as one of the most beautiful places in the world. As a photographer, it’s dreamy situation; I could photograph a family in a parking lot (and I have) and the surroundings are more beautiful than many conventional parks in the world. So most of the time I have to suck it up and schedule an immediate shower after to get the nature off me already.

But every once in a while I have a client request to do a shoot in their home. This is usually because I also live in a place where it’s about 30 degrees outside for a couple months of the year. Even if you don’t ever have snow on the ground where you’re at, beyond just avoiding nature there are lots of good reasons to photograph people in their homes.

People are comfortable in their homes, surrounded by their stuff. They know where the bathroom is and that if there is an emergency drink of water or fruit snack situation, it will be handled quickly and with ease. But photographing in a home, especially if you have never seen it before is usually a bit of a gamble. Lighting, space, simplifying………the fact that they neglected to mention they have a mannequin head collection in their living room……all can create hurdles. Here are some basics that will help you jump those mannequin head hurdles.

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Find the Light

In every home, there’s natural light. You need one good window; it can be anywhere and face any direction. Ask to see the whole house, explaining that you aren’t allergic to the inevitable laundry piles that have likely been shoved into the rooms they weren’t planning on you seeing. An entire shoot can take place in a kid’s bedroom, or a kitchen, or even a bathroom (Probably. If it’s a fantastic bathroom. And if it’s that fantastic of a bathroom, by all means you’ll want to see it.)

Often I end up in the master bedroom where there is likely a large window and enough space to work with. Even if you shoot with flash, you’ll need some natural light as it builds the cozy and intimate atmosphere that home shoots are all about.

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Incorporate their Stuff

Even more than their home, people love their stuff. And in their home, you’re surrounded by it. Create beautiful interactions with children by being interested in their beloved treasures and asking questions: “What’s this?”, “How does it work?”, “What do you use it for?”, even if it’s obvious. Ask adults what their favorite thing about their home is.

It could be a fantastic piece of art that easily becomes a backdrop. Or that they always pile on the sofa on Friday nights and watch movies together, giving you a setting and vibe. Use their thoughts and make them into personalized ideas for pictures that will be much more meaningful than them running around a random park.

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Let them Be

In an outdoor setting, a photographer is often having to create moments or push for situations. By photographing someone in their home, they are already more comfortable than they would have been anywhere else. Use this to your advantage by becoming a spectator and seeing what naturally happens. Because you are the guest in this situation, instead of looking to you for direction, they are much more likely to do things they do normally, giving you an amazing opportunity to document everyday life beautifully.

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Creativity: it’s what’s for Breakfast

Because you are likely working with tighter spaces and less options for variety, you’ll have to get creative. The trend of photojournalism in portrait photography lends itself well here. What would they normally be doing if you weren’t there? Ask and work with it. Bake cookies, read books, have a pillow fight. This is what’s going to make your images meaningful portraits and not just snapshots they could have taken themselves.

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Don’t Plan It

Much like portrait photography in general, planning shots beforehand is often nothing more than a lesson in frustration. Even if you know who you are photographing very well, you have no idea what direction the pictures will take. Walk in with a plan and you’ll end up on a dirt road with no map and no expectation of having to rough it back. The image below is my son. He is high-strung, full of obnoxious expressive energy, likes things a certain way, and is just like me.

This shot came from an attempt at getting a sweet and traditional portrait in honor of his 3rd birthday. But he wanted to color and ignore me. So we argued about the finer points of photography, and how quick this would be if he would just work with me already, and how people pay me good money for this and he has no idea how lucky he is that I am creating this documentation of his childhood for him to see later. Or maybe he just screamed no at me and went back to coloring. It’s hard to remember the exact conversation, but the point is: I got this shot. Which I love. And sums up my son at that time in his life better than any perfectly constructed and planned image could have.

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Head Outside

Just because you aren’t at a beautiful and serene park-like setting, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth changing it up and taking everyone out to the yard for some fresh air. You need a few feet—that’s it. You don’t need snowcapped mountains in the background, you don’t need a gorgeous sunset, you don’t need perfect puffy clouds in a perfectly blue sky (though those are really nice if they are available). And 30 degrees or not, people are usually willing to be outside for a shot or two.

Even if they end up with nature all over them.

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Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Lynsey Peterson June 15, 2013 09:15 am

    Thank you so much for all of your kind words!! I'm so glad if this was at all helpful. ;)

  • Web-Betty June 6, 2013 03:43 am

    I read your first paragraph and thought to myself "she either lives in Hawaii or Colorado." Your website confirmed my suspicions, lol!

    Great post. I try to take my own pics at home because we have great windows and light but the results are often disappointing. I think a combo of staging/natural activity may be what I need to do. I'm usually trying to capture to very active boys.

  • Tessa June 2, 2013 03:59 pm

    Thank you! Not only are your photography tips helpful, but I appreciate your light-hearted sense of humour as evidenced in your well-written article. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and talents with us - I think you're amazing.

  • Rachael June 1, 2013 06:31 pm

    Nice article. I rather enjoyed the whole not-liking-nature segue. To be taken with a pinch of salt, obviously, as your tone suggests. ;). These days, the high ISO performance of new DSLRs makes this kind of informal indoor portraiture so much more do-able. Also, the trend, as you mention, for documentary-style compositions helps - a little imperfection often enhances the image. Nice job.

  • Tim Harding June 1, 2013 03:19 pm

    Thanks Lynsey. I so laughed when I read the problem people have with your article. How people struggle with a different perspective to their own. Nature is all around us, indoors and out. You just need be in the moment to see it. People are nature after all. I live in Sri Lanka and therefore, as you can imagine, have great opportunities to get interesting and powerful images. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult for reasons of too much heat or monsoon rains, though these can be fabulous subjects as well, if you're brave. I'm a passionate but always learning photographer and I love using natural window light and the home as a studio. I'm not professional but recently did a series of my wife at home as well as my family when back in New Zealand. They turned ourt fantastically. Thanks to your article, I'm now inspired to do more inside photography. Cheers. The shot of your son is priceless, LOVE IT!

  • Yasmin June 1, 2013 02:54 pm

    Thanks. These are great pictures. I usually take pictures of wild life but I am now tempted to take a shot at family photographs. Usually, when people thrust their family albums at me, I wish the earth would swallow me up whole and spit me out in Alaska, far from the family.

  • Mike Harris June 1, 2013 12:55 pm

    Such great photos and a great article too. Find the Light+Incorporate their Stuff...very, very good advice to remember.

  • Kate May 31, 2013 11:13 am

    Great shots Lynsey! When I first took up photography I wasn't interested in doing portraits, but I've found that since I discovered the amazing results (and joy!) I get from taking the more candid shots, I absolutely love it! Putting kids into their own environment usually results in pics that make people smile. Really enjoyed your article!

  • Michelle May 31, 2013 09:48 am

    Thank you for the reminder this article brings. I love nature but I live in a dry desert in a border town where everything outdoors pokes you, stings you, bites you, or bakes you! I also happen to live with my husband and 3 children in our RV right now. I have learned to take some great shots in our bahtroom (as that is my best light source)! So no I do not believe you have to have a perfectly manicured, beautiful home to make this work...just a little more creativity!

  • David Merrell May 31, 2013 09:13 am

    After reading the first three paragraphs I could not go any farther. I have no idea where this lady lives, but if she doesn't like "nature," with no explantion as to what that means, then why not move to somewhere that has no "nature?" Weird. Really weird. Where does she live that is so horrible that she prefers to stay inside all the time?

  • Rhonda May 31, 2013 02:17 am

    I really liked your article. We forget that much of our life is at home and capturing it special to look back on in years to come. I wish I had portraits taken of my family at home when they were little and we were all younger and prettier. Having said that it is a trick to go into someone's home and not have enough light, but it is so much more real than a studio and a boring background to preserve your memories. I have those and I am grateful for the documentation they represent, but portraits at home would have been much cooler. And of course we would have gone outdoors too. We do go outdoors when my whole gang is collected from around the country for family portraits. Outdoors is part of life too in addition to better light... in the late afternoon of course.

  • Theresa May 31, 2013 01:50 am

    Do you 'declutter' the area you decide to photograph in? Lovely shots, by the way!

  • Andy May 31, 2013 01:08 am

    Eileen, surely that's where the skill lies?

    Most of Lynsey's shots in this article don't have an awful lot of the "environment" in frame.

    I am with you on the nature thing though! :-)

  • Paula May 31, 2013 12:37 am

    Thanks for the article. I would agree in a sense that those shots do look like they came out of an architectural digest! My home is way beyond cluttered but I think they key you mentioned (even though it was in the outdoor photo comments) about only needing a few feet would be useful even in a cluttery home. I've gotten some good ones of my grand-daughter and just used the bokeh to "hide" the clutter. :-) But I do like the general thoughts you put forth and ideas shared. Thank you! There's some good things to consider.

  • Barbara May 29, 2013 02:01 pm

    I love nature. I particularly like to look at it through my car windshield as I drive through it en route to someplace else with indoor plumbing, no bugs or dirt, and adequate wi-fi. And electrical outlets. If I didn't have a dog, it's possible I would never go outside.

    Good tips on interacting with children. Also with adults, asking them what they would normally be doing. Love the photo of your son.

  • Eileen May 27, 2013 02:22 am

    Most people don't have homes that look like they come out of architectural digest. I would rather be in nature.

  • Mridula May 25, 2013 04:07 pm

    For a nature lover like me it is a first to read that someone would not like nature :D