Alex Friendly, Alexandra Friendly Photography
Hiya! My name is Alex and I’ll be your substitute teacher today! When the lovely ladies here at The Kindred Path asked me to write this article, I was completely honored. Because standing out as a family photographer is something I’ve been working on for years now.
And to be honest, probably something I’ll continue to work on for the rest of my life.
The moment I got the invitation, I started thinking about all the little ways that I’m different from other family photographers, but then it dawned on me, you don’t need to know how I stand out. You need to know how you can stand out, and if you just copy what works for me….well that kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Because the truth is, the best way to stand out as a family photographer is to make your work and your business as unique as you are. Easier said than done though, right? No worries, I’m here to help. 😉
Before we get into the nitty gritty, as that wise old Greek guy says, "know thyself." The first big hurdle. Because as women, we’re taught to be kind and generous and courteous and considerate, which are all different ways of saying your own opinions and interests aren’t as important as everyone else’s. So after years and years of ignoring what you like in order to do what everyone else wants to do, it can be kinda hard to remember what it is that actually lights you up! Especially if you’re a big ole’ nerd like me and you can feel a twinge embarrassed bringing up your lifelong passion for Star Wars…
But that, honestly, is the secret sauce of your business.
Brené Brown pointed out that "fitting in is the opposite of belonging," and man oh man, this applies to family photography, too. It’s oh so easy to see the beautiful art others are making with their family clients and think, "That! I want to make THAT. I’ll just make that with my own clients and everyone will want to work with me!" Of course, that’s not actually how it works. Because a copy is just never as good as the original. Not unless the copy isn’t so much a copy as a reinterpretation, a “copy” that brings something new to the table.
The good news is everything you need to stand out is already within you. Including the impulse you had to mimic that other photographer you love! It’s not about cutting out other photographers’ styles until all that’s left is "your style". It’s about taking in everything you like, whisking that magic together, and coming up with something totally you.
So, step one? Figure out who you are and what you like as a human being. And go BIG on this. Cast the widest net you can find. Don’t just stick to photography, look at painting, sculpture, music, dance, rock concerts, novels, TV shows, fashion, architecture, nature, comedy, interior decor, documentaries, textiles. Anything that anyone has ever called beautiful is up for consideration. Once you’ve collected everything that really lights you up, that makes you sigh in contentment, or jump up and down with excitement, or cry tears of joy, you’ve got your base ingredients.
Now that you know what makes you feel all the things, it’s time to figure out why they make you feel all the things. What are the through lines? What are the elements that cross genres? For me, the recurring themes are grace & elegance, strength, laughter, the unexpected, connection to the past, joyful chaos, breathtaking beauty, and above all, love.
If the thought of doing all that is totally overwhelming (I get it, it’s a lot of work), I have a friend with a secret shortcut that almost works like magic. Emma Natter, founder of the Emma Natter School of Creative Entrepreneurship, offers a free training on finding what she has dubbed your "heart story" - a memory from your life that is powerful and meaningful, and use that as the foundation for building up a signature style. For me, that meant I stopped trying to shoot light and airy like every other film photographer I’d encountered. I started pushing my film and working in darker spaces. I asked my clients to wear vibrant colors. And I highlighted the moments of magic and surprise that made me feel the way I did in my heart story. Best of all - I stopped trying to copy all the minimalist photographers out there, and embraced the chaos. Because, for me, that’s where the juicy, love-heart soul of family lives, not in a perfectly clean house with perfectly coiffed hair, in perfectly matching clothes (though that work is exactly right for others!!).
If you want to find your heart story, you can take Emma’s training here: https://emmanatter.com/findmyheartstory
On to step two.
This is where the "family" part of family photography comes in. Because so often, we put SO MUCH FOCUS on what our work looks like on the surface, we forget that true art is about so much more than looking pretty; it’s about what it makes us feel. And here’s the thing - the word "family" means something different to every single human being out there. So…what do you have to say about family? What do you hear yourself saying over and over again? Maybe family means adventures together because you always went camping as a child. Maybe it means one-on-one cuddle time because you’re an only child of a single parent. Maybe it means building forts, or playing dress-up, or family game nights. Figure out what you have to say about family, and then come up with a myriad of ways to visually represent those ideas.
This can sound tricky, but is easier than you might think. If family for you means that parents are wildly in love, get all those gushy romantic moments! If it means the kids being curious, document them exploring their world. And as you get more abstract, it makes space for more creativity. For instance, how do I show the strength of mothers? Every single session I have a photo of mom looking directly at the camera. Sometimes she’s smiling softly, sometimes she’s looking defiant. But she’s always represented as the strong woman she is.
Be ready for a lot of trial and error, but when something works, it really works.
Step three: find the through-line among the people you love to work with most, and really highlight it. Because as family photographers, we’re not just any kind of artist who can make the work that pleases US alone. We work on commission, and commissioned art needs to take into account the needs of our clients. If you end up working with messy people with wild kids, and all you want to create is peaceful moments of serenity in minimalist settings, you’re gonna have a hard time.
But the more you share the images that speak to YOU, the more you’ll find the people that share elements of your unique aesthetic. Lean in to the moments in your sessions that take your breath away. Linger on the details that delight you. Get the shots you know your clients will love, and then get even more just for yourself. Because trust me, NOTHING feels better than when you get an inquiry from someone who feels so totally seen that they’re ready to hire you right then and there.
Bringing it all together
One thing that’s not obvious when you first start a family photography business: you have to do WAY MORE than just photography. Marketing is it’s own full time job, in and of itself. So in the end, all of that stuff from before is just the foundation work you’ve gotta get through. Because to really stand out as a family photographer, you’ve got to be ready to stand up, to put yourself out there, to throw your name in the hat. You’ve got to share your work even if you’re not sure how it will be received. You can be the most unique and interesting family photographer that’s ever existed, but if you’re not IN the crowd, you’re never going to stand out among them.
But the good news is, part of standing out means that you get to put yourself in the ring however you want to. Maybe that means posting on Instagram every day, maybe it means approaching a gallery to hang some of your photographs, maybe it means taking the school photos for your kids’ school. You get to decide where the ring is.
And the more "you" you can be, the more you’ll stand out. If your captions sound like every other caption out there, people aren’t going to stop the scroll to read more. If your blog posts are the same "this family was so beautiful", you’re not getting any good SEO. Look back through your conversations with your best friends, and try to sound like you do with them. Think about what made the family you’re blogging about different and write about that. Or better yet, blog about your through lines! Write about the elements that set YOU apart and why they’re so meaningful for you. Write about why you watch "Clueless" over and over again, and how that obsession has helped shape you as an artist.
Because the key to standing out always comes back to the exact same thing - there’s only one you. And while it’s 100% scary to put yourself out there, to show your inner weirdo, to sound like a huge dork, (because, let’s face it, as kids we learned that showing those parts of ourselves was a sure-fire way of being rejected), it’s also 100% worth the risk. Plus, we’re adults now, so the mean kids at school don’t get to say what is and isn’t "cool" any more.
When in doubt? Ask yourself: "What would I do?"
Alex Friendly, Alexandra Friendly Photography