Sarah Wayte: Family Documentary Photography and Smiling A Lot

All images by Sarah Wayte. Used with permission.

Photographer Sarah Wayte is a wedding and family documentary shooter based in Essex. She believes that smiling a lot is a big part of her job.

“As with most things in my life, I pretty much fell into photography around a decade ago, teaching myself through books, magazines and the internet.” she says to the Phoblographer in an email. “For years I stuck to nature, landscapes and architecture, until one day I got asked to photograph the wedding of a friend which I promptly refused to do, not wanting to be responsible for potentially ruining memories of their happy day.” Since then, much has changed.

Sarah, like many wedding photographers, is a people person. And she’s recently gotten into a new genre associated with wedding photography: family documentary. Essentially, it’s a follow up to the wedding and what happened afterward. But for Sarah, it’s all about the moments.



Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Sarah: Whenever I get asked this question, I always wish I had a better answer than the one I’m about to give you. Some great story about being nurtured into it from a very young age by a parent or grandparent or maybe some great story about finding a camera as a kid and developing a natural talent from there. But the truth is pretty boring. As with most things in my life, I kind of just… fell into it. I’ve always been very creative, more so with words as a youngster, writing short stories and poems right through into my teens.

I’d briefly dabbled with photography as a kid when I won a small point-and-shoot in a colouring competition but after using an entire film in a graveyard on route to a camping holiday with school friends, my parents declined to buy me any more film and so photography took a back seat for a good number of years. When I hit adulthood, my natural instinct to write just dried up, along with my inspiration, and I went a good 3 or 4 years without any creative outlet. It was only when I decided I’d had enough and needed to do something inspiring, I decided to start painting. I went out and bought an easel and canvasses and paints and brushes, brought it all home and set it up in my room… only to find I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I just knew I had these images in my mind but with no idea how to get them out into physical form. Which is when photography re-introduced itself. I spent a good few years learning everything I could about photography from books, magazines and the internet before eventually setting up business around 5 years ago.


Phoblographer: You shoot weddings, portraits and you also do family documentary photography. How’d you get into those genres?

Sarah: Ah, a great question! When I first started out with photography, I was very much a landscape and architecture kind of girl. I had no desire to shoot portraits or weddings, in any way shape or form! But I’d been sharing my work online for quite a while and two friends, who were getting married, approached me one day and asked me if I’d photograph their wedding. I immediately said no! I understood the importance of wedding photography and did not want the responsibility or the guilt if I messed up. But my friends were pretty stubborn (and extremely relaxed and encouraging about my work) and so I finally agreed to do it.

I had zero experience so I immersed myself in as much information as I could find about wedding photography before their big day. I’m not gonna say that first foray went particularly well, because it didn’t and I made a lot of mistakes. But I went home that night absolutely buzzing with adrenalin and I knew this was something I had to pursue. Portraiture became a natural progression from there and the family documentary work, well, that actually came much later.

Phoblographer: Family Documentary work is rather new, so what made you want to get into that type of work?


Sarah: Can I just say I fell into it again? 😉 That’s the truth, it really is. Although how I fell into it says a lot about why I work the way I do. Two years ago now, my Mum went into cardiac arrest during a routine operation. Her heart stopped for 30 minutes. She was, effectively, dead. It was only because of the sheer determination of the Doctors and Nurses who worked on her that she is still here today, completely fit and well with no lasting effects from her experience. At the time it happened, she was just 57. What happened that day totally blew my world apart.

I’d never really experienced the death of a loved one before (my grandparents all died either before I was born or when I was still too young to understand) and, even though she survived, it still affected me probably almost as much as if she’d actually died. It took 18 months, a bout of depression and the help of a great counselor for me to move on but the whole experience really took me back to my roots, it showed me what was most important to me, above absolutely everything else and I eventually distilled it down to just one word… FAMILY. It was only a matter of time before that started to leak into my photography and I knew, then, that my approach was forever changed.


Phoblographer: So how do you go about getting these types of gigs?

Sarah: Family documentary is still very much in it’s infancy. Not many people know about it or understand what it’s about. Everything I’ve done, so far, has been totally through word-of-mouth and usually because a person has seen my work up on a friend’s wall or on their Facebook page. Some people come to me looking for more traditional portrait photography and expect a studio shoot – you know the kind, bright lights and a white backdrop with some funny poses or laughing shots. But that’s so far from being my style so I openly explain to them that that’s not what I’m about. I explain to them that I’m about honesty, I’m about capturing their family exactly as they are, in the small moments of a given day. I tell them I don’t really do posing although I might get them to sit or stand in a particular spot before I get them to interact with one another, tell me stories about themselves and go from there. I explain that a portrait session with me is about as natural and relaxed as it gets, in fact most people even forget about the camera after a while!

“It took 18 months, a bout of depression and the help of a great counselor for me to move on but the whole experience really took me back to my roots, it showed me what was most important to me, above absolutely everything else and I eventually distilled it down to just one word… FAMILY.”

Some people are really open to this style and will go right ahead and book me there and then, others are a little more fearful because they don’t really understand it. It’s a work in progress!


Phoblographer: What is your approach to this type of work? It’s a big mix of candid work, candid portraiture, and straight documentary photography.

Sarah: I approach every session from the perspective of a friend coming to visit. It really is as simple as that. When people first get in contact with me, usually through my website, I start working to get to know them as quickly as possible. Sometimes the first time I meet a person/couple/family is on the day of their session so it’s important for me to have built up even a bit of a relationship with them prior to the day of their shoot. I’m quite chatty in my emails – I write the way I speak and I think this helps people to know me a little better before I come marching through their door with a camera in hand. On the day of their session, I rarely turn up with my camera already out. In fact, usually we sit and have a cuppa together, and a little chat before I really get started.

And I smile, a LOT (including lots of smileys in my emails!), which helps to build up a positive relationship pretty quickly.


Phoblographer: How do you get your subjects used to the camera and not trying to pose for it as their days go on?

Sarah: I start off every session the same way, just sitting down to have a chat with them, find out what their expectations are, whether they have any particular shots in mind, that kind of thing. Usually we do this over a good old-fashioned cup of tea (the solution to most problems here in the UK!) and then I’ll have a wander about their home, checking out pretty spots, areas with nice light and any little details that I might want to try and capture. The majority of the sessions I’ve done have been centred around the arrival of a little one so far, so I ask the family to just do what they would normally be doing at that time, whether it’s feeding baby, changing a nappy or just cuddling up on the sofa together. I tend to find if they’re actually concentrating on doing something that is part of their routine, that is familiar to them, they are less self-conscious of the camera coming out and clicking away for the first half an hour or so.


I talk a lot during my sessions, too. About anything and everything! I like to try and find a common ground, subjects that we are all interested in and can chat about. I’ll ask them questions about how they met, proposed, how the birth went, how they found out they were pregnant, anything that involves them telling me a personal story of their lives a) because it relaxes them and b) because later, when they view those images they’ll remember the story they were telling at the time and so it creates a personal bond to that particular image. I also play games with them, crack jokes, make silly noises and do silly dances, anything that makes them laugh and, frankly, make them think I’m a little crazy. Again, it all works to relax them, to help them forget this is just a portrait shoot and there’s a camera moving in and out of their faces. By the time we get to what I like to call the more “intimate” part of a session, where I literally just get them to sit or lay quietly together and encourage them just to enjoy the peace and the moment together while I quietly snap away, they’re usually pretty comfortable with having me and my camera there and they just let me get right on with it!

“And I smile, a LOT (including lots of smileys in my emails!), which helps to build up a positive relationship pretty quickly.”

If I’ve got a particularly “posy” person, I’ll let them get that out of their system by forcing them to pose for me in a variety of ways before I suggest trying something totally different and a lot more natural. Every now and again throughout the shoot, I’ll also show them the back of my camera so they can see the kind of thing I’m capturing as well. This usually gives them a lot of confidence to just go with what I’m suggesting. They begin to trust me to do my job.

Phoblographer: How do you want to make your business evolve and what type of clientele are you targeting? How are you reaching out to them?


Sarah: Sheesh, that’s a tough question! I guess I haven’t really thought too much about evolving the business just yet as I’m still having too much fun with what I’m doing, although I am slowly beginning to expand into mentoring/training (a very recent development and still very much in the fledgling stages). I know I’m still swimming against the stream with my style of photography. I live in an area that still seems to have quite traditional views about photography so it’s an uphill battle to break through and have my work recognised by a wider group of people.

That being said, my style is quite niche. I tend to appeal to younger couples and families who are free-spirited, well-travelled and artistic, much like myself, so I’m trying to figure out ways of putting myself in front of those people and be seen. I’ve actually largely given up on advertising these days. I post regularly on a few social media platforms and work hard to try and move up the page rankings of Google and yet, still, my most successful form of advertising is word-of-mouth. I think that’s because I tend to nurture the relationships I’ve formed with my clients after their session is over and I can honestly say I am still friends with virtually all my couples and families and meet up with them or chat with them online as often as possible.


Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Sarah: Ah gear! A photographer’s first love 😀 (Seriously, hubby knows he comes third on my list of things to rescue if the house is on fire – my cats being first and then my photography equipment second in line!) I’m a Canon girl. I shoot with a couple of 5D3’s (although I usually only take one on family sessions and keep my back up in the car, so as not to overwhelm people with tech!), a 35mm f/1.4 which pretty much stays on my camera 95% of the time, a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8. I rarely use a 70-200mm f/2.8 but it does make the occasional appearance. I pretty much exclusively use natural light with my family photography work but I do carry a video light and a couple of flash guns for if the need arises.


And the other permanent fixture in my bag is my sx-70 land Polaroid camera which I adore, despite how battered it is, and my clients are always fascinated when I take it out and get a couple of shots with it. I use Impossible Project film for that. I’d love to branch out with film but just haven’t found the camera that has stilled my beating heart just yet. There have been a few contenders though!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.