Children’s Photography With Shannon Sewell | Advice, Tips, & Thought Processes
In this day and age when so many people are photographing children as part of their professional business offerings,I think much of the work is just more of the same. It’s usually a cute kid, looking at the camera while having an outdoor background behind them. It is not terrible, but it isn’t anything interesting. Children’s photography that kicks the genre up a notch, while not being kitschy, is a rare bird in this industry, and Shannon Sewell’s work is an oasis in this desert. I may be biased, as Shannon and I go quite a ways back, though that was unknown to me, until about 11 years ago. I was interested in photography and my mother’s co-worker had a daughter that was starting to take off as a photographer. She also informed me I was in her wedding.
I have watched Shannon’s work develop, as well as Shannon herself. When I first learned that Shannon was a photographer, she was starting to break into the children’s photography arena and do it for the non-commercial sector on a fairly successful level. She has been able to transition that into significantly larger and impressive commercial and editorial work, and has done this by being true-to-self and engaging and creating atypical “traditional” children’s photography. Her work can be described as bold and creative, while remaining genuine, and has done commercial and editorial work for Urban Outfitters, Baby Couture Magazine, InStyle, Kardashian Kids, Mischka Aoki, and many more, and taught with Creative Live.
BP: When did you first pick up a camera? How long have you been shooting professionally?
SS: I’ve done “styled” shoots since I can remember. I actually just came across a picture I had done of my sister in the late 80’s where I had dressed her up, posed her – pretty much exactly what I do now… we were just kids! LOL I started my actual business around 2004/05 though. (I tried to get this photo, but it is on the wall at friends house that is not local)
BP: I know you got your start photographing your own children. How did that lead into paid shooting?
SS: Again, I think the whole styling and shooting thing has always been a part of me so I, naturally, did it with my own kids. When they resembled the Baby Gap ad I was trying to emulate enough, I would print them and hang them in my house. Friends and family that came to my house asked me to do the same for them and it exploded from there rather quickly.
BP: I know you say that you are a just a mom with a camera, however, that is extremely modest. How have you been able to leverage “average/normal” paying gigs into editorial and commercial style paid work? Was it planned or did it just kind of happen?
SS: It was obviously something I always thought would be cool to do. I never knew I could actually do commercial photography as a career though, without going to school for it, interning in LA/NYC, etc. It was the type of photography I loved though so I was constantly trying to create that look. Blogs were just kind of taking off when I was pretty new into my business so I think I really lucked out in the timing. I was able to share the kind of work I was doing to an audience that wasn’t bombarded by social media like it is today… clothing lines saw my work and reached out asking me to do the same for them.
BP: What has your marketing strategy looked like?
SS: My marketing has always been very organic; I just share what I do on the platforms available to us- Facebook, Instagram, etc. I tag everyone involved in the images and find it reciprocated most times. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to be interviewed and featured on well known site, magazines and such… can’t ask for better marketing than that (thank you!!).
BP: What is your brand and what makes it that way? How have you developed your brand and has it changed from how it began?
SS: That is a good question…I don’t think I’ve ever set out to create a “brand” per se. I’ve always stayed very true to what interests me and makes me excited to create. I tend to stay away from online photography hang outs so I am not influenced by what is trendy or what my peers are expecting me to do. I think that has made my portfolio a really, really accurate depiction of me. So, I guess my brand is me! Haha There were a couple years in the beginning where I was still very green and unsure of myself and I did follow the industry closely and try to do everything everyone else was doing. I don’t think you could have called my portfolio at that time a very well branded look.
BP: What do you find most difficult in working with children? How do you overcome that?
SS: That they are kids? Haha Really though, kids don’t fake it. If they don’t want to be there, they tell you. If they are having a bad day, you know. While you don’t get the grace that comes with an age group that knows how to fake happy to get the job done, I do appreciate the authenticity of it. I am much more comfortable with a kid that is in a bad mood and telling me about it than I am with an adult that I can feel isn’t being genuine.
I am not a believer that all photos have to be full of smiles and happiness. Sometimes those pensive or more melancholy looks can be exactly what I need to create. That isn’t to say that I don’t try to have fun and make sure my kids are happy to be there; We play games, we put the camera down and just play or chat for a bit and sometimes we just reschedule!
BP: Something I know that sets you apart from the rest is your concept and “prop” (for lack of a better term) usage in many of your shoots. Where do you come up with the ideas and creativity for the shoots?
SS: Most of my ideas come from the kids themselves. I really try to play off what goes on in a child’s mind- what their world looks like when they are inside their own imaginations. That comes from actually chatting with the kids about who they are and what they like. It also comes from day to day life; movies, books, songs, landscape, design… I can create a whole story on something as simple as a color. I think it just comes from being open to the idea that anything that catches your eye can be the inspiration for your next session. If my ideas are based off a specific child then I will talk to them before I even start prepping so that I am sure to be going in a direction that accurately reflects what I get from them.
BP: Could you give us a quick idea how you would create from something as simple as a color? What does that process look like?
SS: An example would be something like a yellow dress. What does the color make me feel? Happy, uplifted, free… Then what do those words make me think of? Sunshine, nature, open space. How do I show those things in an image? A beautiful spring day in a field full of yellow blooms… a girl with hair that will blow in the gentle winds in the yellow dress that started the whole train of thought. It goes from one item to a whole shoot concept.
BP: What has been the driving force behind your success? Is it hard work, perseverance, skill level, networking, etc.?
SS: I really think it all boils down to the passion I have for what I do. I’ve said it so many times… if I didn’t absolutely love what I do and get lost in it on a regular basis, I could never do it. It is way too much work. I have shoots that the prep time is ten times what the actual shoot takes. A lot of the work I do is just for me (meaning: free). If it wasn’t passion play, I could never keep up the pace I have needed these past ten plus years to build the business that I have.
BP: The shoots that have prep time 10x longer than the shoot itself, do you factor that time into the price you quote the client?
SS: I do. I have day rates and I charge for the prep days as well as the shoot days.
BP: The work you do for free, is that ever done in favor of the client (simply to get a job, exposure, or have the opportunity to work on something great)? Or is it just for you in the sense to bolster your portfolio and keep it fresh?
SS: All of the above. If it is a client that will add something new and unique to my portfolio then I am much more excited to work for free or little compensation. I’m also very easily bored so when I have down time, I am always looking for something challenging to keep me occupied. I try to make sure it updates my portfolio, too!
BP: What does it take to continually be hired for the commercial or editorial jobs?
SS: A good portfolio is key. I think the fact that I am passionate enough about it to continually create new work with or without being hired for it, has given me a portfolio that is constantly changing and updating so that I can keep attracting new eyes.
BP: Can you tell us what is in your camera bag and what are your staples for your style photography?
SS: I primarily shoot two cameras- a Canon 5D MKIII and a Canon 5D MKII. One has the 85 1.2L on it and the other has the 35 1.4L. Most shoots that is all I use. I do have other lenses that I can play with when the desire strikes (a Lensbaby, for example) and different types of lighting (a couple of Alien Bees, a ring flash, etc.) so that I can change it up when I want. I also carry my non-pro Fuji or old film Canon SLR when I do personal shoots so I can get out of “work-mode” while still creating. I try to travel very light though and you’ll only find whatever I can minimally get away with carrying to get the job done.
BP: I do know that you only shoot children. What has led to that decision? Have you tried anything else, and what are your thoughts on the photographers who try and do 3-6 different types of photography?
SS: I have photographed almost every portrait genre; weddings, seniors, families, newborns. What I found, though, was that I just didn’t enjoy it like I do kids. I wasn’t finding the inspiration to tap into my creative side and bored of it very quickly. I think concentrating on one genre has allowed me to be better at it. Ultimately, that is what is important… are you doing what inspires you to work harder and be more creative? If that means you focus on one thing, great! If it means you constantly want to be changing it up, that is great, too!
BP: Do you do your own post production work or is that farmed out?
SS: I do my own (unless the companies I am hired by have their own editing staff) and I average about two hours editing for every hour I shoot.
BP: What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you were first moving into commercial/editorial work?
SS: How much commercial/editorial work is about collaboration. I always thought that if I worked hard and gained expertise, it would be good enough. The truth is that these shoots take whole teams and knowing how to work well with others and create a fun and creative atmosphere is just as important as what I can bring to the table.
Thank you to the lovely Shannon Sewell for taking time out of her very busy schedule, to offer some insight into her success. I am sure you will want to check out more of her work and you can see that on here site www.shannonsewell.com.
If you are truly interested in taking your childrens photography to the next level, Shannon has a couple of spots left in her workshop. All that info. can be found at http://eastcoastwestcoast.us.
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