July 31, 2013

Three tips for getting the most from Department Store Photography Studios

The consensus among enthused photography hobbyist, at least those who express an opinion online, is generally that department store photography studios are not real photography studios. It’s a such a strongly expressed belief, that I stayed away without much of a second thought. Today I announce I am a convert. Kinda.

The photo that’s totally going on my new desk.

When we went to JCPenney’s for the graduation photos, it was actually the second time we had gone. We went back at Christmas time when I was struggling to take a family photo with a smile for our Christmas card. The experience left something to be desired. I ended up with 18 frames, but I really wasn’t happy with any of the family photos. I was so not happy, in fact, that I ended up just using one of my own sans smile.

It’s so hard to get family photos, and I only had a few days before I had to give back the cap and gown, so we decided to try again at graduation. Just to have something.

For the graduation photos, we dressed Nicki up in her Easter dress, Domingo wore a button down shirt and slacks, and I wore a free t-shirt from a company that had gone out of business a few years prior. (Hey, I was wearing the cap and gown after all!) This time our experience was vastly different. I instantly regretted not having dressed up myself, so we could have a non cap and gown family photo. With Nicki’s birthday coming up, however, we had another excuse to go and I can never have too many photos.

Here’s what I learned from our three visits.

1. Find the Right Photographer

I read to request the best baby photographer when scheduling appointments, but I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to offer this kind of opinion. When I asked I kept getting responses like “we’re all good!” You might have better luck asking for the “most requested” photographer.

Here’s the thing, though, I don’t think you need the “best photographer”. The studio has excellent equipment, and standard settings they use. They don’t have to worry about lighting, exposure, depth of field (they avoid shallow depth of field since the risk of the baby moving out of focus is too high). They don’t have to worry about the technical side of photography. They also have a set of standard poses they can fall back on. While good equipment and a list of poses does not a good photographer make, it goes a long way to bootstrapping a novice. What you want is someone who can elicit a smile, someone who your baby will respond well to and someone with a lot of patience.


We wanted to get a few photos of Nicki in her dress during our visit in June, but she was adamantly refusing to be outside of arms reach of mommy and daddy. The photographer sat her down with daddy then slowly started distracting her with toys until Daddy was able to slip away. The end result was this cute reading photo. When an idea wasn’t panning out for our first photographer, he took the shot anyway and skipped on to the next.

If we didn’t already have a photographer we liked, I’d probably try and find one that has been there a while under the assumption that they would at least have a lot of experience. I might even fib when booking an appointment and say that I was looking for someone who took my photos years ago but I couldn’t remember who it was. I’d then describe the traits I’m looking for, and let them make a suggestion. For formal photography I like my photographers to be a little bit on the picky side. I like the mother hen type personality that will jump up and straighten your hair if it’s starting to look a little messy.

Once you have a good photographer, you can keep requesting her/him.

2. Go at the Right Time

Department Store Photography Studios are a volume business. They’re on the clock. You’re going to get about 20 to 25 photos, and then they’re going to move on the next client. Not only did we get whoever was free (and the guy whose free is probably not the highly requested, “best” guy) when we went in December but they were running late and hurrying everyone along to make up time. There was not a lot of time for our photographer to be patient even if he has patience.

We went on a Tuesday morning for the graduation photos. Not only did we get a much better photographer, but there was no one else there, so the second photographer became her assistant. That meant one person making goofy faces and tickling Nicki for a smile, and another actually snapping the photo. Let me tell you it works much better if the tickler is not also behind the camera!

When you call to ask for an appointment, ask what times they have available. If they’re somewhat to fully booked, they’ll list times. If they’re reluctant to list times, they’re probably mostly free. (No one wants to give the impression that business isn’t booming.)

Your best bet will likely be mid mornings on weekdays. There’s usually a small rush right when they open, around lunch time, and just before closing.


3. Go with Your Own Ideas or Props if you want Something Different

As mentioned above, they have a list of standard poses. The good photographers might deviate from the list, but the newbies will probably stick to it. That’s okay, the standard poses are standard because they tend to work for most people. But if you want something different from what they usually offer, help the photographer out.

One way is to go online and look for poses you like. Here’s a word of caution about bringing a photo: Never go thinking ‘this is exactly what I want.’ Instead think ‘this is the kind of style I want.’ It’s very difficult to reproduce a photo with a different subject and a different photographer and not have it look forced. As a corollary, never hire a photographer wanting exactly the same photo he or she has taken of someone else. Instead, go with a photographer because you like his or her overall style.

Another strategy is to bring your own props. Our last trip I went in with Nicki’s knit blocks Grandma had made. I wasn’t sure if the photographer would be able to use them, but they turned out really cute.


(Bonus 4th Tip) Go with the Right Expectations

I always hate the “you get what you pay for” cliche, but it is sometimes true. There’s a reason why independent studios can charge so much more and stay in business. That doesn’t mean going to department store studios is a waste. I like to think of these photos as “filling in the holes” of our family photos. I can’t take nice formal photos of all of us, so these are a nice addition to our family albums.

I plan to continue to use JCPenney’s, although I’m sure from now on it’ll be a once a year thing if that.

Posted in Family Life, Photography



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