Member Spotlight: Wild and Free Photography – Family Documentary Photography

April 7th, 2023
Caroline Stubbs photographer bio pic

This month we went in depth about the making of a favorite image with Zenfolio member Caroline Stubbs of Wild and Free Photography. Caroline is the creative half of the wife-husband duo in their Houston, Texas based family documentary and real estate photography business. Her favorite part of being a photographer is creatively and authentically capturing families spending time together–and she loves when they allow themselves to be goofy. As a mom of three boys, she’s most at home among sibling squabbles that quickly turn into laughing over a poop joke. Caroline draws on her understanding of the highs and lows of parenting and the value of being able to look back at these moments in time as inspiration.

The making of: a family documentary portrait.

I chose this image because of the way it communicates authentic, unposed family connection. You can see the shot is framed in the sweet faces of the children drinking from their mugs. The main subject is the mom of this crew. Right away you follow her gaze to see that she’s the gracious audience of a very enthusiastic story teller. He’s happy to have her full attention and, therefore, way too busy talking to drink like the others. Dad and doggie are in the background scrounging for something to eat. This scene is just so relatable and genuine. 

CarolineStubbs kids drinking cocoa

For this particular shot, I positioned myself at the end of the counter with my back touching the kitchen wall. This shot required me to lay half across the counter so I could get my camera to sit in the middle of the group. I did not want to make the effect too distorted with my wide angle lens due to their being faces at the edges of the frame. So I set my lens to 23 mm.    

Since my situation was obviously awkward, I had to wait a few minutes for the kids to turn their attention away from me and back to their conversation with their mom.  The final image was totally worth the discomfort!

This image is the perfect representation of what I get to do for my clients.  I get to freeze a moment of connection in their daily life that will be like a time capsule of this season. 

storiesandcocoa RAW
BEFORE: SOOC (straight out of camera)
AFTER: Final edited image.

Post processing edits to maintain details.

To preserve the details of the shot such as the red in their frozen cheeks and texture of their clothing, I reduced the highlights significantly.  I turned the shadows, whites, and blacks up.  Using this technique to lighten a photograph preserves the detail over just bringing up exposure.  They were in a fairly bright kitchen with windows to either side of them, but I wanted  the photograph to feel cozy. So I reduced the exposure a bit.  

For the color adjustments,  I used the white cabinets behind them to grab the white balance with my dropper and adjusted the warmth up a bit and brought in more green tint.   I brought down the saturation on many of the colors and turned the luminescence either up or down.   I was going for a more muted and nostalgic feeling in the photo. 

CarolineStubbs children playing legos

How to prepare for a family documentary shoot.

I’m a family documentary photographer, so I prepare the families I work with beforehand with good communication of what to expect during our shoot.  But really, there’s always a bit of awkwardness in those first five minutes.  Then they see I’m very relaxed and silly, just like them.  

We joke, I ask kids about their favorite things.  More than likely, as a mom of three children, I am also very familiar with their interests and relate well.  Moms and dads see their kids are relaxed, and so they relax.  Then I tell them to go about their day, and I will blend into their family dynamic. They soon forget to look for the camera, and I get to click away at all these beautiful moments.   

This family was homeschooling all four kids for only that year.  Their house was filled with the energy and voices of four small people whose world revolved around their family unit.  

CarolineStubbs children sledding

After a morning of school, mom had sent the kids outside to sled and burn off some energy.  So, they were coming back in, freezing and full of giggles from playing.  

And now it was time to drink cocoa with mom and dad.  For all the overwhelming energy levels, these parents knew afternoons like this were soon going to be fewer and farther between.  

I got to capture this moment for them, knowing they would treasure all the emotions and memories it would hold for their family as they grew.  I’ve since spoken with the mom, now a few years later, she says images like these are such a treasure to look back on.  Giving such value to families makes me so proud and passionate about what I get to do. 

CarolineStubbs children spinning

Three tips for shooting documentary style photography. 

Tip #1: Get to know your exposure settings like the back of your hand.  You often move from indoors, to outdoors, to sunshine, to cloudy in a matter of seconds.  You constantly have to be thinking about your lighting and be quick to adjust.  So…exposure settings. 

Tip #2: You can feel the pressure of technically trying to compose the perfect shot. But that’s the wrong focus. You should instead think about the story you’re trying to tell. For example, maybe you’re trying to tell the story of a little girl who’s gaining confidence as she works at the skill of tying her shoes. Bring the camera down to her level and grab the details of her task or her expression. Or is the story about a little boy who is constantly lost in his imagination? Maybe you should take a step back and take in more of the background to show that he is living solitary in a world apart.

Tip #3: I feel like this is the absolute most important tip; Do not go it alone. If you can’t get to know other family documentary photographers in person, find an online community. I highly recommend Michelle McKay’s There you can find other photographers who are also passionate about preserving all these beautiful, ordinary moments through the art of photography.  

You can see more of Caroline’s work on her documentary portrait portfolio website, and follow along on her Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Camera: Canon EOS 6D Mark II

Lens: Canon EF 17-40mm f1.4 lens (shot at 23mm)

Exposure:  1/180 sec, f/4.0, ISO 640, Manual

Where:  A well lit kitchen in Great Falls, Montana


Watch and learn more about family documentary photography with Caroline Stubbs of Wild and Free Photography in episode 6 of Behind the Photo:

YouTube video


  • Amanda W

    Amanda is the Content Marketing Specialist at Zenfolio and the Owner/Photographer of Wild Orchard Studios photography. A BFA graduate from Maine College of Art and Design and professional Portrait, Family, and Branding photographer for over 10 years, she thoroughly enjoys drawing from her experiences to guide new photographers as they are starting out. Amanda lives in the wilds of Maine with her husband and two imaginative daughters. If there’s such a thing as too much dark chocolate, she hasn’t heard about it.

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