Capturing the heart of your place


Why do you photograph your family? I take pictures to tell the story of our lives. I want to remember those daily things we do and places we go that make up our own special world. But last year I realized something in dismay.

As I viewed my Lightroom catalog, I saw that my images didn’t reflect the beauty and life that surrounded me. Sure, I had plenty of lovely close-up portraits of my kids, but most left no clue as to where they were taken and my big-girl camera rarely went beyond the confines of my garden. There was no sense of our daily lives, no setting to our story. We have been blessed to live on an exotic island in the Indian Ocean for a few short years, yet I had only a handful of pictures showing the places and spaces we will miss when we leave this plot of paradise.

My kids might not remember our favorite spot for a hike or the countless sunsets spent fishing on the rocks.

Unless I capture it for them.

Thus began my quest a year ago to take my camera to the streets and the country. I wanted  to put the place back into my portraits. So ask yourself, when you look at your photo albums, how well do you capture your family in those spaces you love?

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

1. Get your camera on the move

The first step is to take that fancy camera out on the town. Taking my DSLR with me is now routine, but it wasn’t always that way. Between my purse, ten toys, sippy cups and snacks, I was already equal parts Sherpa and mom. My camera stayed home until I found an easy way to carry it. I bought a combination camera bag/purse for regular days and a light backpack for more adventurous trips. So keep using the iphone camera you love, but make it a goal to take your DSLR on normal family outings at least once a week.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

2. Start with a list

Now that your camera is ready for a road trip, come up with a plan. Think about where you go and what you see on a daily basis that makes your life unique. I listed all those daily sights, routines and rituals I didn’t want to forget.  Visits to our funny little yellow and blue post office. The fishermen with their old pirogues. My kids paddleboarding with dad. The list is not about your local tourist attraction or what others think is important. It’s personal. Do you go to the same coffee shop every Sunday morning or the library on rainy days? What are your family’s hobbies? If you like to hit the town, you will have lots of pictures of your family in cafes or museums. Since we live surrounded by beaches and mountains, my images reflect that.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

3. Practice the environmental portrait

In a standard portrait, most photographers strive to capture the heart and soul of someone.   We zero in on our subject, preferring the shallowest depth of field to render the background a blur. But in environmental portraits the background is just as important as the subject. The environment adds personality and context to the image. You will need to step back. And step back some more. Practice making your subject just one small part of your frame. Use a wide angle lens. And narrow that aperture a bit so that your background is more than just bokeh.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

4. But also add some details

The little details can add a sense of setting to your story, especially when paired with more expansive views. My daughter’s girly obsession with cute shoes, boots and bags is a big part of her personality at this age.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn
5. Walk the neighborhood

If you aren’t quite up to a big trip to the supermarket with your camera and kids, start slow. With camera in hand take a walk around your neighborhood. It’s a great way to keep the picture-taking fun for your children and capture those places that you will want to recall.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

6. Allow for the imperfect

Not all images of your outings will be masterpieces. But they don’t have to be to make you smile years from now. They just have to document memories important to you. You might not always get the perfect composition and your family won’t often be wearing that timeless outfit. They will still be images to cherish.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

7. Sometimes look away

Often in my favorite images, my kids are not looking at the camera with a big grin. Sometimes they are lost in thought, have their interest engaged in something small, or just quietly at peace. I also take way too many pictures of my children from behind. They love to watch the world – and I love to see the wonder of their perspective.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

8. Use your lines

Stretch your skills and practice using framing and leading lines. It will make your images compositionally more interesting.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

9. Add action

Adding more environment to your image means more space in the frame for children to do what they do best: run and play. Up your shutter speed and don’t forget to have them running toward the negative space, rather than out of the frame.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

10. Embrace the light – and the dark

Special moments occur in all kinds of light. The only way to get good at shooting in flat light or full sun is to practice. The flat light of a cloudy day allows you the flexibility to shoot anywhere. But strong sun can add brilliant color and bold blue sky to your images. Just be careful to expose so that you aren’t blowing highlights and shoot so that any shadows accentuate, rather than detract, from the picture.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

Many of your family memories happen after the sun goes down. Try upping your ISO and using a natural light source at night to illuminate your subject. When shooting in low light overexposing a touch can help to reduce noise caused by the higher ISO.

capturing the heart of your location in portraits by Sarah Vaughn

Sarah VaughnSarah Vaughn, California
website | facebook | pinterest | daily project
Nikon D700 and prime lens photographer Sarah lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, one boy and one girl where she loves to shoot single subjects outdoors in natural light. Her obsession began in high school and although she started her college days at an art school, she eventually transferred and received a master’s degree in writing in publishing. Sarah is a co-participant in the Watch Us Edit: CMpro Edition breakout.

Read all photography tutorials by Sarah Vaughn.


  • mindy b. says:

    Sarah, I looooove this! So many great ideas, and a fabulous push to get out there and document the everyday. Thank you! :) This is why I love CM oh so much!!!

  • Sarah, thank you for putting this tutorial together for us. This is something that has been on my mind lately. I’m going to work through your wonderful list. Gorgeous imagery.

  • lovely! thanks for sharing your tips and beautiful images.

  • alana says:

    this is wonderful, Sarah! thanks for the tips. and i LOVE #5 image. i remember it on the DP

  • Ahh! Sarah! This couldn’t have come at a better time. I was gearing up to add to our family book and I’m looking through my pictures (with the big camera) and I there were portraits but no memories. This post is a perfect marriage of the two <3 Thanks for the great reminder!

  • Stacey V. says:

    Wonderful post. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Sita says:

    Wonderful, Sarah! You inspire me yet again. Beautiful scenes-I feel so lucky to recognize all of these locations. And what a precious kind of memory box for your children. Mauritius will miss you all <3

  • Angie says:

    Awesome tutorial! I’ll be keeping these tips in mind.

  • Cathy says:

    Love your style! What aperture do you recommend or do you use most of the time, to separate the subject, but keep some of the background with just a little blur? I tend to stay on 1.8 with spot.. but I think it’s too shallow… still learning.. :)

    • Sarah Vaughn says:

      Thank you so much Cathy! The aperature definitely depends on the situation, how close you are to your subject, and also your focal length of your lens as you will have more area in focus with a 35 mm than an 85 mm. For most of my environmental portraits I will use a 35 mm lens and often my aperature is anywhere from 2.8, 3.2 or on up to 4 and sometimes higher. My preference is to give some detail and context, but still retain a bit of that softness in the background and seperation – but it really depends on your taste. You are right – at 1.8 you will get beautiful bokeh, but not much detail of your surroundings, so it just depends on what look you are going for! Have fun playing with different aperatures and looks and see what you prefer. <3

  • Louise says:

    Your images are absolutely brilliant such an inspiration thank you

  • Meredith R. says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a ton lately. Great reminder!

  • Sue Hollway says:

    Great article! I am guilty of always getting in very close. I will try to vary my composition with my little grand kids.

  • Kira says:

    Love this Sarah. Such a great reminder that portraits aren’t enough, and that we want to remember the surroundings too. Beautiful photos as always, and thanks for writing this!

  • nicki says:

    This was one of my favorite blog posts Ive read in a while! GREAT tips and gorgeous images!

  • Kat says:

    Inspiring. Great article.

  • Jo Clark says:

    Loved your post so much! I found myself nodding in agreement during my reading over and over again. You’re going to miss the beauty there. So glad you captured your time in such a beautiful place!

  • Claire Bunn says:

    Thank you for a great article. Love your work…absolutely delicious – I just want to eat it up!

  • katie says:

    Love this reminder that it’s about more than the pretty face.

  • Nancy says:

    This was so great for me to read. I have been capturing nothing but close-ups of my kids, and have been wondering how to go about capturing the rest of our world. Do you have a lens you most love when planning on shooting more of what surrounds you? How wide do you generally find yourself shooting? I mostly just shoot with my 85 mm and have been nervous about wider angels — not sure when I have to worry about distortion of my subjects, etc. I’d love to hear what you’ve been using to catch your kids in their environment!

    • Sarah Vaughn says:

      Hi Nancy! That’s great that you are thinking about branching out to wider portraits! I usually love my 35 mm for environmental portraits. If you are nervous to go that wide, you can always get a 50 mm and go up from there. The 35 mm does have some distortion if you shoot close-up portraits, but it is not very noticable if you are shooting your subjects at a greater distance, which is what I normally do. (If you have a lot of lines in your image, you can get noticable distortion also, but I usually just use LR’s lens correction tool to fix that). With my 35mm I will often shoot with an aperature of f3.2 to f4 – but it does vary on the situation. I like ot have some detail but a bit of softness and seperation. Many people, however, love to shoot at a much narrower aperature to give a lot more emphasis on the background, as you might see in documentary style images. Play and practice and see what you love. <3

  • Bonnie says:

    Love these images! :)

  • Danielle Barnett says:

    Gorgeous work, Sarah!! Thank you for sharing your beautiful family, helpful tips, and stunning work. 😀

  • natalie james says:

    hymmm it looks like paradise……:)
    beautiful work Sarah!

  • Sarah Mazza says:

    Oh, Sarah….I just love this! You absolutely do live on a plot of paradise and you’ve captured it, along with your beautiful family perfectly, my friend. I say skip CA and come straight to me please, lol!!!

  • Sarah Vaughn says:

    Thank you so much everyone. <3

  • kara_jb says:

    i loved this post, sarah! i’m such a huge fan of environmental portraits. your tips are fabulous. i need to remember #6 more often.

  • AmyW says:

    Love this Sarah! Any chance to see your image!

  • Nichole says:

    This was a great read! Thank you. I have been in a funk lately with shooting and this give me such inspiration to just do more everyday stuff. Wish we lived in a beautiful place like you but I will work with what I have :) Your images are so amazing! I loved the one with your boy on the bike and the one of him on the rock. LOVED them! Thank you!

  • Ann says:

    Beautiful work as always, Sarah! I loved this post.<3

  • Jeanie Shea says:

    Inspiring! I make it way to difficult trying to come up with things to photograph. HELLO! Thank you for opening my eyes to what is directly in front of me. I am so excited to put this idea to use.

  • Carla Bagley says:

    Lovely Sarah!! You make me want to go to Mauritus! (I may have slaughtered that spelling!)

  • Samantha says:

    Awesome post, Sarah! Such gorgeous images <3

  • Anne says:

    Looooove this, Sarah!

  • Cary says:

    So wonderful!

  • Jessica says:

    What a lovely post Sarah!! and gorgeous images. enjoy the paradise!

  • Beautiful images Sarah. You are going to have one gorgeous family album at the end of this stay.

  • Rachelle says:

    A-maze-ing! Love the reminder and the images are divine. I’m going to need to make a conscious effort to step back and show more of the surroundings.

  • Marianne Audette-Chapdelaine says:

    Thanks for this beautifuly illustrated post, which comes at a very good moment for me since I am moving soon! I too tend to focus on details and close portraits more than surroundings. Lets get to work then!

  • Beautiful post and very inspiring! Thanks for the reminder that it’s good to step back sometimes and add some context for those little faces.

  • reezluv says:

    amazing tips from u..thanks 😀

  • marie says:

    This article totally hit home when you wrote about how we tend to capture the heart & soul of our subject & strive for that beautiful bokeh. That is totally me in a nutshell. Thank you for this article as I will be looking at things a little differently :)

  • Celia says:

    Great article Sarah! Your images are beautiful! I’m going to take your great advice and begin photographing my surroundings–this adds so much meaning and interest. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Leslie says:

    Love this. I try do this on a regular basis. I definitely need to remember #2.

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