November 4, 2018

Photographing Families and Capturing the Magic - Quickly! - Elizabeth McQuern Photography + Film

There's nothing like the color and splendor of Autumn in the Midwest. And lucky me, I live in Chicago, right by Lake Michigan, and one of my city's countless beachside parks. Wide open green space, tall grasses, gorgeous multicolored trees, the beach, the water, and an awesome playground.

One of the first things I learned about getting good photos of young children is not to ask them to pose, but to get them involved in activity they enjoy, and capture those spontaneous, unselfconscious moments.

Sometimes families do want the "Christmas card" type pose, and we pull them off, but they usually require a stimulating, new toy - something as simple as a balloon will do - and then I snap off as many photos as I can before the novelty wears off and the kids are tired of sitting still and being encouraged to look at me. And who can blame them? How could me behind my camera possibly be as interesting to look at as their balloon?

A few weekends ago, I did a super fun outdoor shoot with one of my favorite regular clients, family friends Amanda and Mike Maxwell, and their darling little boys. We took full advantage of the beautiful, clear, sunny skies, the colorful Autumn foliage and moderate temperatures, and caught the magic as long as it lasted.

I've learned that all clients, kids and adults, have a certain amount of energy and focus for a photoshoot. Early on in doing photography, I thought that offering clients long photoshoots - 2+ hours - was a benefit to them. More photos to choose from has to be a bonus, right? In my experience, not really.

Before long I realized that everyone has a threshold where they're just out of smiles, where more is too much, and frankly, I also hit a wall at some point, too, where my energy levels are depleted. And after that point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

And as my familiarity with my equipment grew, and my technical skills improved, I was quicker on the draw - I spent less time fiddling with my camera settings, less time second-guessing my creative choices, and learned to think ahead and really plan and visualize the shots I wanted to get, and how to get them.

Thanks for reading,  enjoy your Autumn, and don't forget to check out more of my work at!

October 18, 2017

A Brave Choice - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

I just did a photoshoot with a beautiful young woman who is undergoing a voluntary full mastectomy tomorrow (and reconstruction soon after) because breast cancer has run rampant in her family and she tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. I feel so honored that she chose me and trusted me, a total stranger, to do this, and to do a series of shoots in the coming months documenting her healing process. Please think good thoughts for her as she undergoes surgery tomorrow.

October 12, 2017

HAPPY CUTE BREAK! - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Who needs a dose of cute? HAPPY THINGS CUTE THINGS HAPPY THINGS One of my favorite little people in the world. #4YearsOld #PreschoolBestFriends ❤️

September 28, 2017

Natasha Samreny - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Natasha Samreny's photoshoot with me awhile back is a perfect example of why working from home can make things even easier than if I were working alone in a big studio.
Natasha needed photos for comedy promotion (and took my black leather jacket suggestion, with great results!), and, though that day was the first time we'd met, we were friends by the time she left.
I always let people know before they come to my home studio for work that there's a pretty good chance my son, and either my husband or a babysitter will be there, too.
There's a funny pattern with my son - if men clients come over for photos, he gives them a little side-eye, isn't interested in talking to them, and usually sticks to my husband's side like velcro. But if a woman shows up at the front door, he is suddenly very interested in Mommy's creative process.
With this shoot, he comfortably sat on Daddy's lap on a living room chair, with a snack and beverage close at hand. We laughed at his obvious crush on her, and all of this made everyone relax - most importantly my subject, who walked away with the photos she wanted, and I even gave her a few extras for good luck.

September 22, 2017

Jenni Grover, the Chronic Babe! - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

This is a special post for my friend and frequent client Jenni Grover, the superpower behind ChronicBabe, a truly remarkable resource for women who "want to live a kick-ass life in spite of illness." I'm excited to say that after years of toil, Jenni will be publishing her first book in just a few days! If you or anyone you know is dealing with the pain (no pun intended) of any kind of chronic health issue, I strongly encourage you to grab a copy of her book - I've seen the love and care she's put into this book, and the talent she's enlisted to help with every little detail of this fantastic, multi-media project. (That group includes her awesome husband, Joe Germuska.) More about Jenni's book: ❤️

September 21, 2017

Impress These Apes! - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

I've blogged before about being the photographer for my husband Bryan Bowden's shows, including Blewt! LLC's Impress These Apes!, masterminded by superproducer Steve Gadlin.
Apes is such a complexly ridiculous show, I won't even try to explain it, except to say that it's spectacular and full of brilliant surprises.
In the spirit of "you had to be there," here are a few photos from various seasons of Apes (there have been 8 so far, with perhaps more in the future?):

September 20, 2017

Wedding Ambiance - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Weddings are about celebrating the love of two people who want to be joined as one.
It's also about the ambiance - the setting, the flowers, the decorations, the music, the intangible thing we call "vibe."
At every wedding I always take a few minutes to grab images of the setting itself - it's part of the experience of the day, and surely part of the memories of the celebrants.

September 19, 2017

Libby Rudolph - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Libby Rudolph is an opera singer and vivacious, gorgeous human being. The only sound nicer than her voice singing is the sound of her voice laughing.
I've worked with her several times, including photographing rehearsals, fittings, and performances of the The Floating Opera Company's "Quantum Mechanics," which just happened to be directed by my brother, Andrew Snyder.
We also did a super-fun boudoir shoot that resulted in the very first time I ever (accidentally) took a boudoir photo of a cocker spaniel. He didn't care that lights were set up just right and I was taking photo after photo, he just wanted to relax on his bed. Who can blame him?

September 18, 2017

The Maxwell Family - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Comedian Mike Maxwell has come to me for both stand-up headshots and family photoshoots, along with his beautiful wife Amanda Maxwell.
Once, right before the had their second son, we did a combination family photoshoot and a headshot shoot!
I was pleased with our results and Mike and Amanda were pleased to welcome their second child into the world just a few weeks later.

September 15, 2017

The O'Shaughnessies - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

I enjoy everything about being a photographer - the technical and the creative, the interactions with others, getting to know new people and learn new things.
But some photoshoots are extra special. Like this one with my very good friend Kathleen O'Shaughnessy. I went to lunch with her on the day she found out she was going to be a mother, cheered her on throughout her pregnancy, and was very excited about her birth of her adorable son.
I was also pleased to take her first family Christmas portraits, experiment with colorful decorations, and celebrate the birth of a bright new star in the world.

September 14, 2017

Charlotte Hamilton - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Getting the light right is so important for a good photo. One of my favorite tricks is to shoot during the golden hours, at sunrise and sunset.
In this photo, I was with the lovely Charlotte Hamilton, around sunset, once again at Loyola Park, perhaps my favorite spot for outdoor photography.
I wanted to get that lovely backlit look, hair aglow, wherein my subject looks practically angelic. It took a minute or two for us to get ourselves in just the right position to get this effect, but once we settled in, we nailed it.

September 13, 2017

The Captain Family - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

I do the majority of my work in my home studio, but I always enjoy the challenge of shooting in a new environment, especially one as beautiful as the home of my friend Katherine Schneider Captain.
These photos were taken awhile back (they are now a family of four!) and it was a super fun shoot, celebrating Katherine's second pregnancy and the love that clearly intertwined her family.

September 12, 2017

Baby Birthday Party! - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

One of my favorite kinds of photo gigs is a good old-fashioned little kiddo birthday party. What's not to love? Happy little kids excited to see each other, hyped on up sugar and the excitement of a guitar-led singalong, and I usually have a minute to sit down and snag a piece of birthday cake myself. When in Rome, right?
A recent client wanted to plan something "very Chicago" for her daughter's first birthday, and so booked the back room at the Vienna Beef Factory and Cafe!
As a photographer, I was thrilled with the choice, because the place was brightly lit and extremely colorful.
There were balloons and photos and treats and snacks and toys and gift bags and - yes - hot dogs! Lots and lot of hot dogs.
Well-wishers included approximately 15 one-year olds plus their parents. Many a pickle was munched, a smash cake was, well, smashed, and a good time was had by all.
The musical entertainment led us all in a rousing edition of "Wheels on the Bus" (are children born knowing this song? I've yet to meet a kid who doesn't know at least 15 verses of this tune).
The star of the party, little L, came in wearing the most awesome purple tutu I've ever seen, with a jean jacket on top to remind you she's also edgy when it comes to fashion choices.
She was quite cheerful the whole time, and I even managed to snap a few cute pictures of two of her friends who are birthday twins (birthday triplets?).
And later, when it was over, and I was reviewing the thousands of photos I'd taken that day, I came across one I didn't even remember snapping - an adorable rear-view that was just too cute not to include in the final collection.
Because when you're serious about partying, there's no amount of tulle or big fluffy diaper that's going to keep you from dancing with your friends and celebrating your special day.
Happy birthday, little L. Thanks for letting me share in your special day, and may you have many, many more happy birthdays to come.

Steinways and Tomatoes - A Family Reunion - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

My brother's spouse had not seen his aunt (his father's twin sister) or his two first cousins in over 15 years. Sunday my husband and son went to their house to meet the family, and it was a beautiful day of enjoying the outdoors (eating tomatoes straight off the vine!), running around the yard, and getting to know each other.
Much like my brother-in-law, his family are the warmest, friendliest people you've ever met in your life. We all struck up easy conversations, and of course my son enjoyed being the center of attention most of the time.
I could see a physical resemblance among them all, and definitely the same love of laughter and music. Paul sat down at his Steinway and began playing a song from his early days in church as a little boy, and the entire rest of the family began to join in singing the song! He had no idea they all knew the words, and it was truly a beautiful moment. I would have cried, except Paul put me in charge of taking a brief iPhone video of the song.
I haven't friended them on Facebook yet or reached out to them otherwise, and I don't post people's photos without their permission, but I thought I'd include some I took of my husband and kiddo while we were there that day. Do you think my son gets enough attention and playtime? (Yes. Oh, yes, he does. I think that top photo of him tackling my husband is the very definition of the word "frolic.")

The Lincoln Lodge! - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

As some of you may be lucky enough to already know, Chicago has a bustling stand-up comedy element in its city. Big fancy theaters, grimy little bars, and everything in between host Chicago's local stand-up talent every night of the week. And there is a LOT.

Chicago's longest-running independent comedy showcase is the legendary Lincoln Lodge, now entering its 17th year. If the show were a person it would be old enough to drive, and old enough to get a fake ID and make terrible personal choices! (Rumor has it yours truly enjoyed a brief stand-up career and herself performed once at the Lincoln Lodge - but that's a story for another day.)

The Lodge is a cast-based show that survived the sudden loss of their long-time venue, the Lincoln Restaurant, and landed triumphantly at the awesome Subterranean, where they continue to highlight the best of Chicago's stand-up and variety talent, as well as bringing in national names and Chicago-spawned comics who have found success in New York or Los Angeles.

I was flattered when the Lodge asked me to take their Season 17 cast photo. The visual gag was "everyone in prom dresses," generally pretending to be drunk, the day after prom, on a playground.

By some utter miracle, the show's longtime producer Mark Geary managed to schedule 8 comedians to show up at my house at 8 AM on a Sunday, and after some fidgeting and emergency clothes-pinning of dresses, we ambled up a few blocks to a playground where I take my kiddo a lot, and we struck 5 different poses in 5 different places, and got some really great shots.

Satisfied that we'd gotten the shot we wanted, we headed back to my house. Impulsively, the cast decided to jump up on a dumpster in my back alley for a few last photos, and - of course - THAT WAS THE PHOTO THEY WENT WITH. The one we hadn't even planned. Funny how things work out that way. The spontaneous, impulsive choice was the right one.


How Long Does it Take to Edit a Portrait? - Chicago Photographer and Filmmaker Elizabeth McQuern

Every savvy consumer of our material culture understands that every photograph you see in the media is Photoshopped (or otherwise edited). I hate the degree to which our exposure to these literally false ideals change the way we think of ourselves, make us feel insufficient, and propel us to stores to buy all the "stuff" we think will make us beautiful and therefore happy.
I recently saw and before-and-after photo of Beyonce (forgive me for not being able to include the accent mark on her name!) and was shocked - they hadn't just done the usual things like I do - brighten teeth and eyes a bit, brighten highlights in hair a little, put a tiny twinkle in my subject's eye.
But what shocked me was how much they changed the tone of her skin, and the actual shape of her face and features. They changed the shape of her face and of her nose and of her jaw. The changed the shape of her brow ridge. She was a different person.
Photoshopping is possibly my favorite part of the photography process (okay, it's second to the shoot itself, especially the fun or experimental ones), and I'm entirely self-taught, but there are certain rules of thumb I've put together for editing/retouching, and specific goals with each project.
I don't have rules in any particular order, but my general goal for my editing is to show someone at their very best, in a very natural way. I don't want to change who they are. I don't want to make them unrecognizable.
I don't want to "fix their face." Nobody's face needs "fixing." I'm trying to create the best photograph that I can, so I mostly make changes in light (or lack thereof) and color. Sure, some people have a blemish, I'll touch that up, but the moles on my chin? Those are part of my face! That's what I look like.
Like a lot of newbies, I've been guilty of learning a new editing trick and then overdoing it, spurred by the excitement and the novelty of the new power.
My general rule is 10%. Brighten eyes or teeth - but not more than 10%. Beyond that, it seems more artificial. It's not natural looking. Lightly touch up the highlights in someone's hair - 10%. Otherwise, you're making them look like people they aren't.
Of course, there are other reasons to Photoshop - sometimes when I can't control my environment and get sufficient light, I choose to shoot with a lower ISO, resulting in a darker, but higher quality image I can easily increase expose with today's amazing editing programs.
Sometimes somebody has a crazy curl that just won't sit down like the others. I don't feel like it's dishonest to clone that curl out. Sometimes (all too often, actually), my three-year old son runs through the shot in his underpants. Once, when I was doing a fun outdoor portrait session with author Zoe Zolbrod, we had framed a gorgeous photo of her on a park bench, the beach and water and greenery behind her, a lighthouse poetically off to one side...and suddenly a chocolate lab hunching over and doing his business. Believe me, if that had been the perfect shot but for the photobomb, I would have cloned out the dog and considered it a success.
Sure, sometimes I go crazy, exploring new techniques and doing crazy things with colors - changing shirt colors just to see if I can do it, trying contouring and adding makeup to people's faces (same reason).
But, of course a photo for a client needs to be the way THEY want it to be. We talk our project ahead of time, explore the possibilities, clarify expectations. And that's when I can feel pretty confident (and edit more quickly) if I use the 10% rule.