My Opinion on Porch Portraits

For the past three weeks, I have seen people talk about both sides of the controversial front porch portraits. Even on Photofocus, it’s been discussed a bunch. You can read my friend Bryan’s view on porch portraits here.

I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to share my point of view.

Before I dive in, I want to clearly state that I do not believe that being a photographer is essential business. I have never said and will never say it. Even as a professional photographer, I know my place in the world, and sadly essential is not one of them.

With that said, the front porch sessions I have been doing have been at the request of the families I photograph.

I do them to brighten their days. To make these trying times a bit better. I bit brighter. A bit more enjoyable. They also get to leave this terrible time with a photo to remember it by.

To get started with this, I’ll address what Bryan stated in his article, and share my opinion on it.

There are several risks you take when photographing porch portraits, though you might not think about it.

For one, you’re most likely driving to these people’s homes. If you were to get in a car accident, would your insurance company question you about why you were out doing non-essential travel?

A risk factor shared by Bryan

I doubt a car insurance company would ask why someone was driving. There are groceries to pick up; there are tools to buy when a home needs fixing.  Restaurants are offering curbside pickup, which means you have to get there somehow.   There are so many things that require driving anyway.

I stopped by my brother's house to photograph my family from a distance. That was strange!
I stopped by my brother’s house to photograph my family from a distance. That was strange!

When you arrive at a home, what do you do? Probably knock on the door or ring a doorbell. Coronavirus can live on surfaces.

A risk factor shared by Bryan

If you are upfront with the families, and in clear communication ahead of time, then the entire 10-20 minute session is outlined with detail. For me, I let the family know that I’m on my way. I then text them when I’m outside and getting set up. I am on a tripod, which means I don’t move much. Maybe within a 5-foot range left and right, depending on the property. So once I’m set up, and the family sees me waiting, they come out, and we start making photos immediately.

Finally, some photographers were bringing things like white boards and tablets to help communicate posing and other ideas. Again, you risk contamination.

A risk factor shared by Bryan

I tell the families that if they want props, they must provide them. I will not get close ever.

N95 masks are impossible to find, and so are latex gloves. Sure, you can bring hand sanitizer, but that doesn’t mean you’re making yourself and the family immune to the virus.

A risk factor shared by Bryan

The average person should not be using N95 masks. Those should be reserved for healthcare workers. Homemade masks are ok. I use landscaper pollution masks with filters. With that said, I’m also super far away and never touch anything aside from my camera and tripod. When I get back in my car, I still use hand sanitizer anyway.

Porch portraits the right way

I have already detailed some of how I handle porch portraits in my responses to Bryan’s view on it.

Before I dive in further, I want to say that if the government stated clearly that these are wholly disallowed, then I would tell families I cannot do them anymore. Until then, I’ll continue doing these for local families.

Okay, down to the details – skipping the boring pre-session stuff.

A porch portrait photographed through beautiful bushes
  1. I arrive and text that I’m getting setup.
  2. I set up my tripod.
  3. I start with the 70-200 lens mounted directly to the tripod by the lens collar.
  4. I keep my 2X extension handy in my pocket just in case I need it. By mounting my lens by to the tripod, I can quickly add the extension without putting the camera down.
  5. I frame the porch and get my exposure ready.
  6. I wait for the family to come out.
  7. Once out, we photograph for a few minutes, only moving positions on the porch a little.
  8. I will shift myself left and right by about 5 feet, but never forward.
  9. When done, I say thank you and tell them they’ll have a gallery within a few days.

It’s also worth noting that I am wearing a mask and gloves and a hat. I look creepy, especially to little ones. But that’s what I have to do.  Because they cannot see my mouth moving, I have to yell most often, so they hear me well enough.

I also use a lot of hand motions to direct the family members into different positions.

The downside to being so far away is that you don’t get the engagement you would otherwise while being close to the family.

I have done about a dozen of these in the past few weeks, and I average about 50 feet away, according to Google Earth. My record so far has been 84 feet.  Only once did I deviate from the 5 feet shifting rule I gave myself. But it was safely done. The family stayed at the porch, and I moved to their driveway for a quick re-frame so I could utilize the beautiful bushes that were there.

A Porch Portrait from 84 Feet Away
A Porch Portrait from 84 Feet Away

The last thing I want to mention before wrapping up is that I am only offering these short sessions for local families in a three town radius. These are small 5 minute drives to each family’s home. I am not driving on the highway, or across the state, and not even out of the county.

If you have any questions about how I am doing these or want to share your thoughts otherwise, please comment.

PS. If you’re looking to keep your photo skills up to speed while staying home, try doing product photos of things around your house, or some macro work of plant around your neighborhood. You DO NOT have to do porch sessions, and I DO NOT recommend doing them unless you feel confident you can do it safely and have the right equipment for it. A short lens IS NOT appropriate for these types of family sessions.

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