A New Take on Family Photos

Last weekend I had the opportunity to photograph my eighty-seven year old mother-in-law Joan. 

Joan has always been an out-going, life-of-the-party, kind of lady.  And she still is.  But she also has dementia, and some days are better than others.  

The day of the shoot was not a great day for Joan.  She was tired and really just wanted to sit on the couch under some blankets and relax.  She wasn't over excited about being dragged up to the studio.  But we decided to move forward anyway.  We got her ready and sat her on a comfortable stool behind a desk (to give her something to lean on).  I thought perhaps we'd get one or two frames and then let her go back to her comfortable spot on the couch in the lobby.

But as soon as we got her situated and in front of the camera, everything changed.  She sat up straight, talked about her kids (all seven of them), sang songs.... she was herself in a way she hadn't been just minutes before.  Something about the photos brought this out in her, and it was amazing to see and to capture.

Most of my time in the studio is spent photographing newborns and their families.  I love those photos because they capture such a special moment in time. The newness of a relationship that is so unlike anything else.  That sense of wonder and the indescribable love that we all feel for our children. 

But what about the other side of that journey?  When at some point the roles reverse and the child grows into becoming the care giver.  

The love that is there on that end is a different kind of love.  It's the love that has history.  It has a lifetime of stories.  And memories.  And times together.  It's about the love children feel for their parents as well as the love parents feel for their kids.

I think that that was what Joan was responding to the day of our shoot.  

She was there with two of her kids.  They got to sit, with their arms around each other, and talk and laugh and just be.  

Moms and babies.  That is what I photograph.  And as any mother will tell you, your baby is always your baby, no matter how old they are.  And your mom is always your mom.  She's always that person who loved and cared for you, even before she knew who you were.  That relationship is unlike any other we will ever have.  And I'm so honored to be able to capture it at every stage.

Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film
Sandra Coan Photography, Families on Film

Sandra Coan | Film Photographer Spotlight January 2015

Image © Heather Perrera
Image © Heather Perrera

Welcome 2015!  I have a feeling this is going to be THE year for me; and perhaps, for you all as well.  With the start of the new year, I am inspired to set new goals, both life in general and in photography.   Although some of my goals are the same as 2014: print more albums/prints/canvas, I also set some new ones.  For example, I am starting two new projects: "Film Project: 365" and "One Kid One Roll Once a Month".  I am utilizing both projects to perfect one specific photographic technique or artistic vision and voice, using just a few film stocks and a couple of film cameras.

To start the new year off here at Little Bellows, I am turning the spotlight on our very own, Sandra Coan.  Sandra is the co-founder and the Editor in Chief of Little Bellows.  She is the master mind that brought you all the beautiful features, inspiring images and valuable tutorials through out the past year.  Let me tell ya, it's not easy being the one behind one of the most popular photographic blogs!   You all make sure to give her some love!

As we bringing Little Bellows into 2015, Sandra has already planned some exciting new projects for our readers and fans this year.  Let's get to know Sandra a little more and find out what she has for us in 2015:

Joyce: Wow!  What a year Sandra!  You have been working your tush off this year.  So let's take a moment and turn the spotlight on you in 2015.  I am sure our fans are curious to know who is behind this wonderful blog!  First, tell us how you started your photography journey. How did you get into photography? What do you love about being a photographer?

Sandra: For as long as I can remember I've been taking pictures. We actually had a darkroom in my basement growing up  and I was always fascinated by the process. My career as a photographer however was sort of by accident. 

I was a kindergarten teacher and took photos of my friends as a hobby. After shooting a very dear friend’s maternity session, she suggested that I offer my photography services to other pregnant women as a way to bring in extra income. This was way back in 1999, and “Maternity Photography” was not a thing like it is now. So, I followed her advice and started advertising in coffee shops and maternity stores around Seattle. It took off! Two years later I quit my teaching job and launched Sandra Coan Photography. I’ve been doing it ever since. 


What do I love about being a photographer? Where do I start? I love it all... but my favorite thing about what I do is probably knowing that I'm creating a piece of history for the families I work with. This idea is so important to me. I know that the photos I take will be hung on walls and stories will be told about the person in the frame. The baby I take a picture of today will be someone's grandparent someday. And I think about that every time I work.

Joyce:  I understand you shoot both digital and film. In your opinion, what are some of the things you love about each? And since this is a "film photographer" interview, I must ask this: what is it about film that makes you go back to it after switching to digital?

Sandra: I do shoot both digital and film and I think they both have their place. Digital is great when you need something fast. It also has a very slick, perfect look to it and sometimes that is what you want. I use it when shooting corporate events, or company headshot for example. But when I'm shooting family work, I lean toward film. Again, family work is important to me. I love the history of it and so I want to shoot it in a way that makes it super special. 

I also love the process of shooting film. It slows me down and makes me really think about each shot. Film shooters say this all the time, about how shooting film makes you a better photographer, and it's absolutely true. 

I know for example when I shoot a family on my digital camera I will come away from the session with 500 images to cull and over half of them will be duplicate shots, or just plain boring photographs. When I shoot a family on film however, I only shoot 3 to 4 rolls (of 120 film) so I'll come away with 48 to 64 images, and honesty, most of them will be keepers. Why? because I slloooowww down! I really think about each and every shot. My photographs are better as a result. And I should say, that I've tried slowing down when shooting digital, but it's not the same... I can't explain it. 

I also really love the look of film. When you shoot it right it is just stunning. I have tried to get my digital images to look like my film and I just can't... film is so rich. Reds on film blow my mind, as do blacks and whites... I could talk about this all day, so I'll just stop... all I can say is that film is really, really pretty!


Joyce:  While "lifestyle" and story-telling photography flooding the Pinterest boards, social media and most photographers' websites, you have differentiated yourself by offering in-studio classic style portraits. What is it about in-studio work that made you say "this is what I want to do"? Why not "go with the flow" and do what is "hot" at the moment?

Sandra:  You can not sell what you don't believe in. I feel like I could write a book about this! I spent four years at the beginning of my career trying to be a "photo journalistic" wedding photographer. Why? Because that's what was trendy at the time and I thought that was what I needed to do to be successful. I booked plenty of weddings, but I was stressed out and super unhappy. When my twins were born I knew I couldn't do it any more. I didn't want to... the money wasn't worth it. So I took a huge risk and pulled all my advertising and took wedding off my website. I went back to my roots, traditional portraiture, and my business took off! 

Now I say it loud and proud, I'm a traditional studio portrait photographer! That is what I love! It makes my heart beat fast! And it's what sets me apart from all the other photographers in my market. If I tried to shoot lifestyle, or newborns sleeping in baskets, or anything that I'm not drawn to I'd probably suck at it. It's not what I do. I wouldn't be able to sell it and my business would suffer.  There is a lot of power in being true to your voice as an artist. When you are passionate about what you do, it shines through. Do what you love and your people will find you.

I just completed the busiest year of my career and my style is very tradition and not on trend at all. But I put it out there because I love it, and my people find me.


Joyce:  More and more photographers are "trying out" film these days. I can see that it's gaining popularity and momentum since I picked it back up a few years ago. Why do you think people are drawn to the process of film? Why is it so attractive and addictive?

Sandra:  Shooting film is what photography has been about for hundreds of years! It's the chemical process of light hitting emulation. It's science and art and history and magic all rolled into one. And when you shoot it you can't help but feel that. It's also just damn pretty.

Joyce:  I have been enjoying your lighting and business tutorials on Little Bellows blog lately. Can you tell our readers what are some of the ideas and future blog direction you have planned for 2015? What will our readers expect on Little Bellows?

Sandra:  Haha! I'm so glad to hear you like them. I feel a little silly every time I turn the camera on myself!  Studio lighting has changed my life! Seriously! I feel like I am no longer at the mercy of the weather. I can shoot film when ever I want to based on an artistic choice! I love it!  And when I love something, I want to share it with the world!! I feel the same way about business. I'm on so many photography forums and I hear people saying the same thing over and over... they are great at their art, but the can't seem to make any money doing it.  Hearing things like that breaks my heart... especially when I feel like all it really takes to have a successful business is a good understanding of what marketing is and how to do it.  So in 2015, my hope is to incorporate more tutorials and trainings on photography and business. I'm super excited about it!! Woohoo!!!


Joyce: Congratulations on your success with the "Film for the Studio Photographer" Workshops! The seats are selling out as we speak! What an amazing accomplishment Sandra! What ignited the idea for this particular workshop topic?

Sandra:  Thank you!  We are super excited about it. The workshop was born out of three years of telephone conversations between Cat and I.  Even though we live on opposite coasts, we talk on the phone almost daily. We help each other problem solve all sorts of things, but when we both started incorporating film into our workflow our conversations quickly turned to learning about how film works when shooting inside.  The more we researched, the more we learned that most of the film workshops and tutorials out there are geared toward the wedding industry and toward shooting outside. We couldn't find one workshop that focused on portrait photography or on shooting film in studio, and so we decided to teach one ourselves. 

Joyce:  What makes this workshop different from the others? What can the attendees expect to learn from this workshop?

Sandra:  ooh!! I'm in love with our workshop.... I would totally take it if I wasn't teaching it!  We get into detail about light; how indoor light differs from outdoor light, north light vs. south light, studio light, etc, etc... our goal is that our attendees will leave feeling completely confident shooting film in any light and all the time. We go into detail about specific film stocks, both BW and color, so that attendees can confidently choose a film based on its characteristics to create a desired look and feel.  We also cover metering for both BW and color as well as with natural light and studio light as well as  how to work with and create a partnership with your lab to ensure perfect scans every time!  It's a ton on info and that is just day one! Day two is all about business!! And believe me, it's a goooood business class!!!  We are diving in deep to help our attendees figure out what it is they do that sets them apart from all the other photographers is their market, who their people are, and how to create a killer marketing plan that communicates what they do to their people.  It's going to be great!!


Joyce:  What is the next new project on the horizon for Sandra Coan? What's next?

Sandra:  Well, as you know, I'm super excited about creating soft, natural looking images with studio lights and film.  I've written a PDF on just how to do that.  All Film for the Studio Photographer workshop attendees will be getting a copy!  It's a step by step guide to everything you need to know about incorporating studio lighting into your work flow!  Perhaps in 2015 I'll make it available to the general public... we'll see.

Joyce: What are some of your favorite photography books? You know, the ones you reach for inspirations or for a photography pick-me-up?

Sandra:  I'm obsessed with Richard Avedon (aren't we all?) My two favorite books are Avedon at Work In The American West by Laura Wilson and Richard Alvedon | The Kennedys | Portrait of a Family by Shannon Thomas Perich


Joyce:  I know our readers are now DYING to know:

  1. What is your favorite film camera for client work and for personal work, and why?
  2. What is your favorite film stock and why?
  3. What is one gear you can't live without when you go on a shoot?
  4. If you can give one advice to any photographer who wants dip his/her toes in the realm of film photography, what would it be?


  1. My favorite camera for professional work is my Contax 645. It's beautiful and produces the dreamiest images ever! For personal work I love my Hasselblad 503 because it's a tank! I never worry about hurting it and it takes beautiful photos!
  2. Fuji 400h. For indoor work it is just the best film around! White whites, and pearly skin tones... I just love it!
  3. In Seattle, especially in the studio, I have to say my strobes. They have changed my life.
  4. Shoot what you love. Do not pay attention to what other people are doing. Figure out what you do and then do it really, really well!

who are your favorite artists on your playlist right now?

I can not get enough of the new Taylor Swift album... honestly. I know it's not cool, but I freaking love her! I'm also a big fan of bluegrass music. Gillian Welch is always on my playlist.

"I wish my kids would hurry up and go to bed so I can watch...."

The New Girl.

A quote you live by:

"I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship" - Louisa May Alcott

What is the most exotic place you have ever been?


Your favorite hobby other than photography:

Swing dancing!! I used to dance all the time.. in fact I even taught it for a while. My husband and I still cut a rug from time to time in the living room.

Airplane, Train or Automobile?

Train... hands down! And in my mind, when I'm on a train, I'm always dressed like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

Wine, Champagne or Beer?

I want to say champagne, but in truth it's beer (a really good IPA!)

Two truths and a lie, go! (in any order)

I'm a really bad lier! You'd see right through it!

You can see Sandra's Work and connect with her at:

Website | Google+ | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Blog Contributor and Writer:  Joyce Kang

Joyce Kang is a children & family photographer in Austin Texas.  She is also a mentor and an instructor for Embrace The Grain, an intro to film photography workshop.  She is married to her best friend and enjoys outdoors with her family.  She loves to curl up with a good book and has a terrible addiction to any thing that tops with a heaping scoop of ice cream drizzled with chocolate fudge!

Follow Joyce and see more of her work at: Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Google+