Photographer Sarah Thayer – Capturing Those Special Family Moments

With so many of us armed with smart phones that take better than average photos, why hire a professional photographer? A quick review of Sarah Thayer’s website, where she displays many of her photos, will answer that question. Sarah, a talented, experienced photographer knows how to capture those very special family moments, whether a couple celebrating an engagement, parents enjoying time with their small children, or a special holiday with the entire family, pets included.

What also sets Sarah apart from amateurs is the amount of preparation she does before a shoot, working with the client to ensure that the experience is positive and the photos memorable. Now that more people are reclaiming their lives, Sarah’s business is busier than ever. She took time to answer questions about her career.

Have you always been interested in photography?

I have, yes – my dad first let me borrow his camera on trips, and I started with nature and travel photography. I wanted to capture where I was and moments to remember – from the Roman Colosseum to the interesting light glowing from a lamp, to the spider on a hiking trail. My portrait photography is a relatively recent love, and I have a blast with it. I get to witness – capture – such special moments. It truly is amazing.

How did you learn what you needed to know to become a professional photographer?

I just started! Honestly, it was mostly learning by doing – start an LLC, register for an EIN – which I did sitting on my living room floor one night in March 2018. OK, that means I’m registered in Virginia, now I have to see what Arlington requires. One thing I did do early on is make an appointment with my local SCORE group, and my advisor spent about half an hour explaining some steps and things to think about. Setting up a separate bank account for the business, all the backend stuff that non-entrepreneurs don’t really think about. Taxes, insurance, website, social media, an email address, a contact form. Researching and applying for photography permits. I easily spend as much time on the backend as I do taking photos and editing, much more if you count client and project communication. 

It’s important to capture the classic portraits, plus the fun, to keep as memories.

In a way, the photography itself is not that dissimilar in the sense that you just have to do it. Well, and practice, and practice, and try again. You can’t get better, get into the professional realm, without just doing it, all the time. Practice your settings so you get it right in camera. Take your camera everywhere, learn all the ins and outs of what it can do in any situation. How fast can you adjust? How much can you guess proper settings without a test shot. (Always take a test shot, but from there it should be small tweaks). I love this part of the learning, and it’s a constant education. The more I get right in camera, the less editing I have to do. Simple – in theory. It’s also why I am comfortable showing my clients the back of my camera during our time together. Plus, posing can feel awkward and it helps to see some immediate results and why my posing system helps people look natural. So much of being a professional photographer is in the client experience from start to finish. You have to get the photos right, but that’s a given. How people feel during initial communication, your rapport during the shoot itself: it’s all critical, and it will make or break your final gallery, and your customer satisfaction, and in turn your referrals and the next client.

And the close-up!

Did you take courses, either in person or online, or are you self-taught?

Both but much of my base knowledge came from several courses. The first was a basic DSLR course, offered for adults at the local high school. I’d bought my first kit camera in preparation for a safari trip in Kenya and Tanzania and was determined to nail my photos from the trip. That was a great starter, and helped focus my eye for how to get my camera to do what I envisioned. I quickly shifted to people photography after being the “friend with a camera” for dear friends’ engagement photos, and took a quick succession of three courses from a husband-wife photography team focused on shooting and editing, posing, and finally a business course for photographers. And those are great, but you really have to get out and shoot to put it into practice, to make any of it translate. That’s how I got better, how I got to be consistent with my photos so clients know what they are getting. 

Do you shoot with film or digital, or both? Favorite pieces of equipment?

I’m all digital. And I have a love affair with my 85mm lens. My camera body, a Nikon D750, grounds me but I use my 85 any chance I get. It’s dreamy and has tack-sharp focus with stunning bokeh, and I just love the images I can create with it!

What a radiant mama at this maternity session!

Your work focuses on “capturing people’s deep love for each other in timeless cherished photographs.” Why have you been drawn to this type of photography?

I think of professional photos as memories to pass down through the family. I shoot for the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren. I think it’s so important to capture images of people loving each other, laughing, enjoying this moment. I want the future memory, “Grandma, this was you and Grandpa? And that’s Mom, so little? Wow, I love that I have this photo of you.” Of course, hanging those up in the here and now is important, too. Moments, especially with young children, absolutely fly by and so that’s why I love to give clients a snapshot to hold onto: this month, this year, this stage of life we were in. I have the best job: I get to see people just being together, enjoying each other, being goofy to get the one-year-old to laugh. The thing about photo sessions is, I think you get a chance to breathe and be present with each other, which feels a rare gift these days. And so my gift back is to capture that moment.

Your website is very personal, telling people details about yourself. Does that help to create a bond with your clients so that you are not just a stranger behind a camera?

Yes I think it does and it’s why I include it. People buy from a person, a story they can connect with. One of my courses had an expression, “my second favorite color is yellow.” People like to form connections and bond – and maybe it isn’t immediate – maybe it’s not your first fact, but it’s the second. We’ll be spending a lot of time together, from emails to the day of the shoot, so feeling like we know each other already helps ease the day-of jitters, resulting in more natural-looking photos. It all ties together.

Special moments and special locations, like this recent grad and his family at the U.S. Capitol.

Do clients know what they want when they engage you for a shoot? Or do you sit down with them and explore possibilities?

It varies, but typically they know they want fresh photos and nice lighting, and we explore what the possibilities are together. By the time we get to chatting, they’ve seen my gallery or social media posts and like the style. Some know the location or preferences, especially if it’s meaningful to them – the U.S. Capitol or Marine Corps Memorial, even inside a museum once. A lot comes down to location and time of day: cityscape versus forest or gardens, and we winnow down from there. I take time to educate clients about lighting and session start time: pre-sunset is gorgeous but more often we revolve around kids’ naptime and avoid high noon sun. If the kids are happy, everyone’s happy – don’t mess with naptime.

Some of the cherry blossom sessions at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.

You’re based in the Washington, D.C. area. What are some of your favorite places to shoot in the city? 

I love love love the Tidal Basin, mainly for the cherry blossoms in the Spring. I’m kind of obsessed, and have done cherry blossom mini sessions there for a few years now – hoping to pick up again soon! I tend to prefer nature parks and most of my photos have this feel. I have also shot by the Capitol a couple times and it’s just a stunning building and backdrop. Fair warning, though, almost every place in D.C. requires some kind of permit, and most have a fee. 

With so many amateur photographers using their smart phones for photos, what can a professional photographer offer that is a cut above?

It’s all about the experience, how people feel while you’re taking photos. Professional photographers offer the expertise to get the right images, with the right posing, to make everyone look their best (pro tip: many of the “natural” or candid photos you love are posed). It takes experience and continuous education to get to that level, and preparation before the session even starts. I know many photographers like me offer styling tips and outfit suggestions, too. 

Now that restrictions are lessening, are people more eager to hire you for a professional shoot?

I’ve definitely seen an increase in clients this year versus last, though some of that was by my own comfort choice. Lots of people missed out on newborn photos and now want me to capture year one with their first or second child. Plus lessened restrictions and vaccines, and the spring weather, has given a lot of hope, I think. People are more ready to smile in front of a camera and capture the moment now than a year ago.

Sarah says one of her superpowers is getting kids to smile – including teens.

What are some tips you give clients to help relax them and pose better?

One of them is that they may feel weird but they will look fantastic. It tends to get a laugh and helps them to know it’s okay to breathe and follow my guidance – that my goal is to make them look their best. So much of it is about the immediate relationship you build, from email to greeting them at our location, to enthusiasm you show. I keep up a running conversation as best I can. (I’m also re-learning how to be a social human this year, like all of us.) That way we’re just talking and laughing and sharing, and I happen to be getting photos, versus silence while you are required to smile at me. That’s not natural!

Sarah captures families and the laughter they share together.

Any tricks for photographing children or pets?

Toys! I bring toys to every family session. My old Beanie Babies finally have a purpose! My go-to for very young kids is a wand with ribbons and a bell that I wave in one hand, with my camera in the other. I will say this, it seems hardest to photograph your own children from what I hear. It’s another reason to hire someone else, kids sometimes feel like they’ve got to be on better behavior for a stranger (as long as they’re nice, and fun!). Also, since it’s a special event, it’s easier to get on their level and say, “This is really important to [parent]. It’ll make them really happy if you can give me a few smiles, and then you can run around.” This is part of why I plan my sessions to go up to two hours long. We have plenty of time for the kids to let off some steam and play, then come back for another round. In fact, this is when I take the opportunity to give the parents a short couple’s shoot, or individual photos with each child. Toys and funny noises are great for little ones, cracking jokes for older kids. Occasionally sarcasm or reverse psychology (“no laughing, zero, it’s not allowed!”) works on the above 11 crowd…but it can also backfire, so use with caution. For pets, similar tricks apply: a toy or squeaky to get them to look up at me. The one thing I recommend for all my clients who want to include fur-family is to bring along a friend or caregiver who can a) help me get their attention during the shoot and b) take them for a walk or run while we get some shots without the pet. It’s very hard for dogs to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, and they’re adorably distracting to the kids, too, so it’s good to give everyone breaks.

What would getting your business to the next level look like?

This is an especially interesting question right now because I’ve just spent a few weeks working in a mastermind group to clarify this very thing. That has helped give me the courage to begin discovery calls with branding strategists – something I’ve never done before! There are small things, like building all permit costs into my price so it’s one less thing to worry about. A magazine-style printed Style Guide I’d mail to clients is also something I’ve contemplated – I have an online version now but something you can hold and flip through is another level. To me, it’s mostly about elevating the client experience and making sure my website really reflects what they get from me – again, the whole experience and brand.

For more information about Sarah, go to her website.

All photos courtesy of Sarah Thayer.