Epilogue: Behind the Shot with Melissa Ortendahl and Kristen Ryan
It's funny how things work out sometimes. I "met" Kristen Ryan for the first time when I interviewed her for the Hello Storyteller podcast in April of 2018. During that podcast I found out that she lived in Oklahoma. It just so happened that I was traveling to Oklahoma with my family to visit my sister-in-law in July of 2018. As we got closer to our trip, I really wanted to have a session while I was out there. I decided to summon my bravery and reach out to Kristen to see if she might be willing to do a session with me while I was there.
To my delight and honor, she said yes. And you know what else I found out? That she had never had a family session done with her family (outside of self-portraits). I was flabbergasted. And super excited. And then INCREDIBLY nervous. I mean, it was the first time that I would be photographing another photographer. Talk about feeling the pressure. And it was Kristen Ryan! You can go right ahead and triple that pressure. And it would be their first family session. Yup, I was about ready to throw up when I pulled into the parking lot of where we decided to meet for our session.
While I am confident in my skills, photographing another photographer is nerve wracking and weirdly calming all at the same time. You want to do right by them. You want them to LOVE LOVE LOVE their images. And honestly, I'll admit it, you want a little validation from another photographer that you actually know what you're doing. But there is a sense of ease that also comes with photographing another photographer. Especially when your styles are similar. You know that you can stop and take a moment to assess the situation, the lighting and they aren't going to ask questions or wonder what you're doing. They pick out great outfits for their family. They know the good spots to go to. And there's a sense of implicit trust that you will be able to capture their family well and authentically.
Not that this is any surprise at all, but Kristen is legitimately one of the sweetest and most down-to-earth people I have ever met. And her husband and her children are amazing. Ya'll, it was 104 degrees the day of our session. With a heat index of 107. And it was 7pm. My kids would have melted down in the parking lot in about 2.7 seconds. Not hers. They were happy as clams.
We walked and talked and just hung out and played (and sweat. a lot. or at least I did). We were hoping for Oklahoma to put on a show with it's summer sunsets. It didn't, but we still found the most beautiful pocket of light in this park that we were walking through. They dealt with the heat, the bugs, the humidity and laughed the whole time. I decided to take some video during their session and I also decided to try to shoot some film as well, in addition to my normal digital work. I don't usually tell my clients when I switch from pictures to video. I don't like to pull them out of the moment or the connection. So I flipped back and forth between the two and once we got to our final stop, I pulled out the film camera too.
It was a great learning experience for me as well. About putting nerves aside and focusing on the job at hand. I'm not usually nervous before a client session. I know what I'm doing and I know that I'll be able to produce amazing images for my clients. But as extroverted as I may seem on the Hello Storyteller podcast or in my instagram stories, I'm actually much more of an introvert. Meeting new people, making small talk, none of those things are in my comfort zone. I push through it for my job, but it doesn't really come naturally to me.
I am also a mess of contradictions. While I just said that meeting new people is not in my comfort zone, I am 100% more comfortable taking pictures of people I don't know. Put me in a session with a family member or close friend and I am more nervous than I have ever been. The stakes are higher, or it feels that way to me. I'm gonna see these people again. I need to be able to hold my head up. I think some of it might stem from a bit of the imposter syndrome. It has taken me almost three years of being in business full time, to call myself a photographer. I've been a Click Pro for over a year, I've been published in photography magazines, I've held several workshops, I have a growing a successful business, I AM DOING THE DAMN THING and still, every time someone asks me what I do for a living, there is a tiny bit of hesitation and butterflies before I say "I'm a photographer". It's something I'm working on. It's hard when your passion is also what you do to make your living to not feel incredibly vulnerable every time I share an image. It's my hearts work. I love that I get to do what I love, I truly do. It's a dream I never thought would actually come true. But taking that leap to taking on clients requires you to build up a tough outer shell to be prepared when what you love may or may not be loved by the client.
As I was writing about this experience, I thought to myself that I would really like to hear Kristen's perspective on the session. It's not often that you get to hear from both the photographer and the client, and even rarer when the client also happens to be a photographer. So I asked Kristen if she would be willing to to share her feelings on it; what went well, what may have been hard or challenging, what could have gone better. I asked her to be honest. I'm still learning and growing. Here is what she had to say:
As a photographer I know the importance of getting yourself and your family in front of the frame. But even knowing this fact, I had never had professional photos taken of myself and family. So I was absolutely thrilled to get the opportunity to work with Melissa and watch how she creates! I was also excited to see what it was like to be on the other side. I don’t take on many clients myself but being able to know first hand what it feels like to be the subject helps so much when I do take photos of friends and family.
Even though I had never met Melissa in real life until the day we took the photos, she was so warm and welcoming and I felt like I had known her much longer. I am a very reserved person so having someone so warm and open to conversation helped me relax and just enjoy the time together. Plus I was thrilled to finally get to meet her after following her for so long on Instagram! The day we met was probably one of the hottest days of the year. We were all sweating the moment we got out of the car which worried me a bit with my littles and the complaining that might come with the heat. But Melissa kept them busy and they were so excited to run around that they didn’t notice one bit. I felt like she balanced the posing versus natural movements so well. She let the kids just do their thing but would chime in when she needed us to shift or stand in certain light etc. I didn’t feel awkward or unnatural at all I could just talk and love on my family and know she was doing what she does best.
I cannot tell you the feeling I had when she sent us the gallery she created! I had never had photos like this of my family together. I have tried the self portrait family photos and while it can be done, there is just a different feel of having someone else take your photos. You can just relax and be yourself and love on your kids without worrying whether they are still in the frame or you focused correctly etc. It was a wonderful experience and I am so happy to have these beautiful moments with my family. Thank you Melissa!!"
~ Kristen Ryan
Wow. *wipes tears off my face*. I am honestly blown away by what Kristen shared about her experience. It's so incredibly helpful to have her perspective as I think about and share about this session. It helps me to see that the things I was worried about or stressing about while, potentially helpful for my creative process during this session (feeling like I didn't have them in the best light or that I wasn't capturing the best/most creative perspectives) was not what stood out to her, even as another photographer. My biggest priority when I'm working with clients is for their session to be a time where they can connect with their family. And just have fun and play together. To hear from Kristen that she was able to relax and do just that just makes my heart so very happy.
I want to close with this. Trust in your skills. But be open to feedback and constructive criticism. I don't nail every session. Even if my client is happy, I'm always going over the session, looking at the images, making notes about what I could do better, or differently. I ask for feedback from my clients. I share with trusted and honest photography colleagues. I understand that I'm still learning. Still growing. Still have room for improvement. And I encourage to take risks. Take one step outside of what feels comfortable. There's beauty beyond the boundaries we give ourselves. Don't be afraid to go see it.