The Photography Of Laura Cantrell: A Pro In The Child Photography Field

Jill Rahn's picture
Mobile, Alabama-based photographer Laura Cantrell says, “Mothers trust me to capture and preserve the magic in childhood.” Her photography business in Mobile was inherited from her father who sent his 17-year-old daughter on her first assignment to photograph a train wreck with a 4x5 Speed Graphic. By assisting her dad at weddings and shooting portraits she learned lighting, posing, and how to please clients.

All Photos © Laura Cantrell

When her father retired, Laura modernized the studio and began specializing in children and teens. Today the 3000 square foot studio occupies a two-story building that evolved after Hurricane Katrina tore off its roof in 2005. Laura’s positive personality puts children and teens at ease, and her sister Lisa handles the business end and neat postcard promotions. She says, “Portraiture is a team effort. I discuss sessions with parents, and point out various photos I’ve taken to help mothers make choices of costumes.”

Here are the important aspects of Laura’s studio that help fuel her success:
Costumes: Laura uses intriguing costumes and backgrounds to delight children who like to dress up and poses them according to their attention span and willingness to cooperate. She likes parents who listen to her during the shoot, and her assistant is well trained.

Posing: “You have to make 2-year-olds comfortable. I often seat a child in a chair and invent a reason why he should look in the direction of the light. Using my Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens I start at full body and zoom to a close-up. Or I hand the child a silver cup and he looks down at it. My assistant may walk toward the child at an angle so his face is in profile, or the child may look up at her behind me and hopefully smile. My assistant plays peek-a-boo with the child for smiles as well. Rather than give directions, I ask children questions, but none that a child could possibly answer ‘no’ to. I may ask ‘Do you see any birds flying outside?’

“Teenagers can make up poses, but some require almost as much direction as children, and a lot more flattery for natural expressions.”

Session Moods: “I ask parents to make sessions fun for children and themselves. I get satisfaction from the ‘thrill of the hunt’ for perfect expressions. It is rewarding to watch a mother’s face as she sees her child’s enlarged portrait for the first time.”

Lighting: “Flash blends easily with natural light in our shooting areas,” Laura says. “Three studios have south light from 9-foot windows that can be diffused by curtains. A large softbox becomes my main light, and I may add a small bare bulb to the side of the camera. Depending on the subject, I use hair and background lights. I like 4x6 reversible gold/white reflectors that are easy to take on location, and we may use them for fill in the studios and courtyard.”

Props: She uses props such as miniature furniture that boost the look of portraits. Laura says, “Props can help you capture a child’s attention. A 6-month-old baby will laugh at a puppet, a 1-year-old may reach out for a toy and cry until he or she gets it. Even a 3-month-old baby will respond to a soft voice and a smiling face.”

Gear: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS,Canon 85mm f/1.2, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 [favorite for seniors], and Canon 17-40mm f/1.4. She recently acquired a Canon 70-200mm f/1.4 IS.

In the studios are up to eight Photogenic power heads with various softboxes or reflectors. In one studio two flash units are mounted to the ceiling and trained on the background for high-key backgrounds.

In natural light sets the main light comes from floor-to-ceiling windows facing south. In winter when the sun is low Laura uses a large reflector to help fill shadows. There is a Canon 580 flash unit on a stand with a 14” softbox. Lights are triggered with radio slaves.

Sets: For children 8 months to 2 years in traditional outfits she uses a green needlepoint chair. She notes that in natural light children can be more animated and move around freely. In one set for teens sits an antique chest with traditional dark curtains as a background.

Before a session Laura encourages parents to choose several favorite sets. Most popular are the courtyard behind the studio with its variety of iron and wicker chairs, plus chairs from Denny’s. Children also like the second-floor window setting to see the skyline and watch birds and traffic. They talk about what they see, which often results in attractive expressions.

Laura says, “I train my assistants to engage the child’s attention. They also try to keep children animated. An enthusiastic parent can also be a good assistant, though some don’t always follow my directions, and it’s awkward if a parent can’t produce a smile. I prefer soft smiles because big grins distort features. I shoot multiple expressions, especially when pictures will be gifts to grandparents.”

Sell-through: Selected images are posted online, though customers must attend a portrait viewing to make selections. They can purchase the DVD slide show they have seen, and Lisa handles presentations using Photodex’s ProShow Producer. After the screening, customers narrow their selections and many place orders, but some make a deposit and e-mail their choices. When Lisa has worked with clients previously she may narrow down selections for those who find it inconvenient to return to the studio.

Laura notes that inkjet prints on watercolor stock look best with feminine subjects on high-key backgrounds. She says, “I’m learning new methods every week, and I still attend training camps and classes. We have added Facebook to our marketing efforts and employ a full-time person to manage our two pages.”

To see more of Laura Cantrell’s work, please visit her websites at: www.lauracantrellphotography.com and www.facebook.com/lauracantrellportraitgallery.

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