client education

location, location, location: pt. 2, at home by Ashley Brown

At home sessions are the pinnacle of a custom portraiture experience. No other location that will be as personal and meaningful for your family... and along with it comes authenticity and the assurance that your images will never be like anyone elses'! For clients who are looking for images that aren't duplicated a hundred times over and are truly custom to their family and lifestyle, home is where its at.

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Over the course of my career I've worked in hundreds of homes... everything from apartments, to near windowless condos, to sprawling, light filled estates. The most common question I get from clients when talking about location is whether their home will photograph well. You do not... in any way, shape, or form!... need to live in a showcase model home. I have never met a house or apartment I couldn't work with. Nooks and crannies with beautiful lighting almost always exist. Sometimes we have to move a few pieces of furniture, or use some unorthodox spots in the house. If I have access to most of the spaces in the home, chances are overwhelmingly in our favor that we'll find some perfect spots.

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We have the choice with at home sessions to either keep the focus on the child/family with more close up type images, or to incorporate decor and architecture. It totally depends on your home and the feel you're going for. Using various spots like staircases, foyers, chairs, and windows draws lends itself to more traditional portraits, while wide angles shots incorporating your child's bedroom or nursery bring in more of a colorful, editorial feel. The great thing about at home sessions is you can always mix the two, which is the most common route clients take... some traditional images mixed in with some lifestyle images, like your child reading a book on their room, playing cars on the wood floor, or snugging on mom & dad's bed. If you really love the lifestyle, magazine vibe, you can go entirely in that direction with an activity... like making pancakes, taking a bath, or playing a board game. There really are so many options!

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The unique, custom angle of at home sessions aside, one of the biggest perks is comfort. When working with small children, more often than not, I find these little subjects are most comfortable in their own surroundings. This especially holds true for kids who are naturally more shy or take longer to warm up. You are much more apt to achieve those natural, relaxed images on their turf, and where we can really take some time to play and chat on their terms. For babies and young toddlers, location sessions can sometimes be too overwhelming with all of the sights and sounds, leading to quicker meltdowns and less smiles. Staying at home keeps them more attentive and gives us more variety when it comes to posing and those classic infant shots.

Check out the images below to see a sampling of at home sessions!

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location, location, location: pt. 1, in your own backyard by Ashley Brown

Location is easily the subject we discuss the most before and after a client books a session, and for good reason. The venue for a portrait session sets the tone and feel for the entire session and all of the images that are created. We talk in depth with each client to determine the best spot, based on their likes and dislikes, visions for their session and places that are special to their family. Most of the time, the client just wants a beautiful backdrop for their images... and this is where a very common misconception comes in. Its all about the light... not the location itself.

Yes, there are many locations we love for their gorgeous architecture or other elements, but a vast majority of the time, we are shooting in spots that are unassuming and may not even look like much to the naked eye. Its all about how the location photographs, how the light falls, and how conducive it is to an easy, stress-free portrait session.

I'll be posting a three part series on the blog covering the "categories" of locations, and it makes sense to start with one of our very favorites... the home. More specifically, and because we still have (hopefully!) several more months of working outside, sessions in your own backyard.

Shooting at home comes with many benefits. First, the location is unique and special to your family. Your images won't look like anyone else's, and they will carry with them meaning. When your children are all grown up, being able to look back at images taken at their childhood home is priceless. Secondly, working at home is quiet, comfortable, and easy. No worries about overstimulating toddlers, post-car ride crankiness, crowds or distractions. Shy children are quicker to warm up in their own environment, and wardrobe changes are a breeze.

Here's where the hesitation occasionally comes in. You do not, by any stretch of the imagination, need to live on several manicured, park like acres. The best way to prove this point is to see it with your own eyes. All of the images below were taken in our client's backyards. Normal, everyday backyards with fences, swing sets, wood piles and neighbors.... in new subdivisions, in old, established neighborhoods, in the country, and even condos downtown. Want to incorporate your home or porch? Absolutely. But if you don't want to, no worries at all. I've worked in literally hundreds of homes and have mastered the art of avoiding distracting elements, and instead focusing in beautiful pockets of light and color. Your own backyard is definitely worth a second look!

our newborn philosophy by Ashley Brown

Newborns may be our tiniest subjects, but make up such a large part of what we do. Since I first opened up shop in 2007, newborn photography has exploded in popularity. More and more parents have come to appreciate and seek out images of their baby when they are brand new... the sweet, tiny features, and the blossoming of a bond between baby, parents and siblings. Because there are so many styles of newborn portraiture to choose from, we wanted to share some images that really capture our philosophy on photographing now only babies, but children and families in general (disclaimer: this is our personal artistic perspective, and we have the utmost respect and love for many different styles of portraiture!). No matter what style you choose, newborn portraits are among the most precious as you are capturing such a finite window of time. I like to think that our work can be summed up as simple, classic and clean with some modern twists. This is especially true with newborns, the teeniest of subjects who need little embellishment. Simply put, we steer away from an abundance of props, backdrops and twisty pretzel poses in favor of natural, classic and beautifully simply images. This lifestyle approach allows us to truly focus on the baby as an individual, and not just as a vehicle for loads of cute accessories. An added bonus to this approach is that baby doesn't need to be quite so young, so the session can take place anytime over the first 3 weeks or so.

While we aren't “prop” photographer as a whole, we do feel that simple additions, like a bonnet, a blanket, etc. can really add something unique to an image. If your newborn session takes place at the studio, we have a handful of items (like a cream settee, a bed with a white duvet, etc.) to utilize. When props are used, we are a believer in using the family’s own items. Think a blanket that grandma knitted, one of baby’s own adorable hats or booties, an heirloom cradle, a basket or piece of furniture in the home, or any other items with sentimental value. Custom photography is about making the session represent your family (or in this case, your brand new baby). Incorporating the home (especially baby’s nursery!) and personal, meaningful items results in images that are truly unique and far from mass-market. However, we like to remind clients that you do NOT need to live in a showcase home. I have never met a home that didn’t have a few perfect nooks and crannies. And of course, if you'd rather not shoot at home, our natural light studio in Saratoga provides a perfect neutral backdrop for newborn sessions.

It is never a "requirement" for the family to participate in the session, but some of our favorite images are those where baby is snuggled on mom or dad's chest, or show the look of wonderment in a sibling's eyes as they hold their baby brother or sister, or the whole family (four legged members included!) piled on the bed. One of the very best things about working with a professional photographer is that Kristen and I have years of experience posing postpartum moms and working with big brothers and sisters who may not be overly fond of their new sibling yet. Working with small children... especially the brand new ones... sometimes requires us to come back for a second shot to round out your images. Knowing that its never a "one and done" scenario, and that we are dedicated to providing you with images you are 100% thrilled with, really takes the pressure off.

Above all, there is no better way to showcase our style and philosophy than with images... so enjoy these sweet, brand new faces!

questions & answers by Ashley Brown

We received some really great, thoughtful questions yesterday... thanks for sending them in! We eliminated the duplicates of the most common questions (i.e. camera recommendations), so here are the resulting questions and answers. We hope that these will provide you with some guidance and tips on creating, storing and enjoying your daily snapshots!

I have a nice Digital SLR that I got about a year ago (to help me capture the speed of my little one!).  It came with a general lens (18 - 105).  What one lens would you say you use the most with your pictures? I'd like to save up for one but don't know what to get right now.  I love to shoot nature so I've thought a macro lens would be nice but don't know if my money would be better spent somewhere else.'

If you have a DSLR, lenses are definitely the best place to invest your money. They'll allow you to get versatility (i.e. every day shots, kids' sports games, nature/landscapes) and therefore get the most out of your camera. Good quality (glass) lenses can be very expensive... many well exceed the cost of even professional camera bodies. However, for every day use, there are a lot of options that work just fine. For portraits, we use wide angle lenses as well as prime (fixed focal length) lenses. For every day purposes, one lens that is well known for being extremely economical and often recommended, is the 50 mm 1.8. The focal length allows you to work both indoors and out, and it is a good option for working in low light situations. Macro lenses are great for specific purposes (like close up nature shots, as you mentioned), but if you are on a budget, I'd recommend seeking out something more all-purpose. Online reviews are a great way to figure out what would work best for your most common usage.

We recently purchased a Canon PowerShot SX40 so that we could capture higher quality (and quantity) pictures without committing to an SLR-level camera. So far we love what it can do, but of course we’d love to hear any advice you have regarding cameras.

Here are some of our burning questions:

  • What software do you use/recommend for editing pictures, storing or backing them up, sharing them with friends/family?
  •  How can we best organize our pictures once they are downloaded?
  • How can we best protect our photos (and videos) with backup procedures?
  • Is it worth printing pictures out like old days and creating photo albums, or are digital archives sufficient? How do you choose and commit to printing out those “special” moments and displaying them artfully in your home?
  • Is there an at-home printer that you recommend for photos, or do you prefer using other sources such as Mpix?

Excellent questions! The "after" part... figuring out what to do with all of your digital snapshots... can be daunting.

  • The best type of software really depends on how much you are looking to do with your images. We use Adobe programs, such as Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom. These are large and rather expensive programs, so I wouldn't recommend them for every day use. Adobe does have a smaller program called Photoshop Elements, which I've heard great things about for basic photo editing. If you have a Mac, Apple has programs such as Aperture and iPhoto which are very popular. I recommend keeping your images online, in addition to storing them on your hard drive. Flickr is a popular photo sharing website, and Google has a similar site as well.
  • Different methods work for different people, but my personal method for my daughter's snapshots is pretty simple. I make a folder for each year, and then a subfolder for each month. Then, I create a further subfolder for the original images, one for any images that I've edited, and one for our cell phone snapshots.
  • Backing up your images is SO, SO important. Think about how devastated you would be if you you lost all of your images. Hard drives crash... its not a matter of if, its a matter of when. Don't make the mistake of getting complacent and in turn, losing all of those precious memories. I highly recommend storing your images in three places. (1) On your computer's hard drive. (2) In an offline medium that you can keep in a safe place, such as burning them onto CD's or keeping them on external hard drives. I recommend purchasing an external hard drive for this purpose. They are very inexpensive and come with tons of storage space. (3) With an online back up program. This is a critical part of the equation. God forbid your house burned down, was flooded, etc., your images will be safe off site. Back up companies such as Mozy and Carbonite have very inexpensive back up options and continuously run on your computer. That means you don't have to remember to back up your images... it happens automatically.
  • Yes! With the digital age, so many snapshots sit dormant on computers, never to be seen or enjoyed. That's not to say you have to print every image you take, but try to make the effort to get those day to day memories offline. Prints for around the house are great, but one of the best ways to showcase your images is with books. Websites such as Mpix, Snapfish and Shutterfly are great options, as they offer economical press-printed books that you can make as fun or as simple as you'd like. For my daughter's snapshots, I also use Exposures albums and fill them with 4x6 prints. That is a nice option if you prefer more of a traditional album.
  • I don't know too much about home printers, other than the fact that good quality ones are expensive (as is buying photo paper and the collossal amount of ink required!). With so many online labs nowadays, I recommend printing online. For your daily snapshots, again, websites such as Snapfish or Shutterfly are just fine. When clients purchase digital images through us, we recommend Mpix.

I love taking pictures and we have a pretty good camera and lense (Canon Rebel). I love how natural and vibrant your photos are. Do you edit your photos and if so what program do you use? Any tips on good photo editing? Perhaps you know of a workshop on photo editing?

See above for my photo editing program recommendations. As far as tips go... less is more! It's easy to fall into the trap of way over processing your images. All of of our images are post processed, but the key is to getting a perfect image straight out of the camera... you can't salvage a bad image after the fact. Good light and exposure are paramount. I'm not aware of any particular online workshops, although I'm sure there are many! Many of the local towns continuing ed programs, as well as community colleges, have Photoshop classes if you'd like to further delve into that area. For Mac users, the Apple store also offers free classes on using their photo programs.

I keep telling my husband that I need to buy a new camera!!  But I have no clue what to buy.  I obviously don't want to spend a ton of money, but I was hoping for something that could help me get some good images, since I obviously am not a professional!  I know that the camera can't work wonders and that there is a lot that goes into professional images, but if you have any thoughts on some cameras that could help, that would be WONDERFUL!

Both Canon and Nikon have great lines of entry level DSLR cameras. For every day purposes, there is no need to go into debt to get a nice, versatile camera. These entry levels bodies (for example, the Canon EOS Rebel series, one of the most popular options) are really great every day cameras. You can use them as a nicer point and shoot camera on the automatic settings, but have the option to learn and use the more manual settings as well.

Just got my first DSLR camera and already love those everyday photos you described that I've been able to capture way more than my point and shoot.  However, struggling with all the settings.  Which should I be using most often?  Seems like the flash often pops up on most settings but I find my eye liking the shots where there is not a flash.  Another question....how do I avoid getting shadows behind my kids' heads when taking their pics?  Cannot seem to figure out an easy lighting trick.

Congrats on your first DSLR! Learning how to use it to your full advantage can certainly be overwhelming, and its more than I can explain in a quick answer. After you've devoured your camera's manual, I recommend that you check out some books on digital photography, as well as the wealth of information that is online (from tutorials, to workshops, and more). Again, local options such as continuing ed courses are great as well. I know this advice seems pretty simple, but honestly, most people who purchase DSLRs never take the time to learn and end up using them as glorified point and shoot cameras... which is fine, but there is so much out there to learn if you want to take your snapshots up a notch! Practice really makes perfect. My biggest recommendation is to read and familiarize yourself as much as possible with using natural light, so that you can avoid using your flash. On camera flashes make images look, well, flashy (i.e. harsh shadows), so using natural light whenever possible is really ideal.

I would love advice on taking pictures of kids playing indoors in the dead of winter, when it's always dark outside and you don't have any natural light to work with... I feel like those shots always come out yellow and fuzzy if I don't use flash, or really overexposed and flat looking if I do.

Winter is tricky, as we have so few hours of natural light! During the day time, really milk the natural light for all its worth. Place your child in a chair and turn it toward a window, open all of the blinds/curtains, etc. Keep overhead lights off as much as possible. There are times, like when its dark out, when you can't avoid using your flash. Are you using your camera's on board flash? Consider purchasing an off camera flash. Unlike the flash that comes on your camera, you can turn it so that it isn't flashing right in the direction of your subject, and reduce the power so it isn't full blast. When using a flash, make sure to keep your child or the subject as far away from the wall as possible to eliminate shadows.

I would love to have a picture of my huge family-- my parents, their 8 children, 16 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren... how would you tackle that challenge?

Challenge is definitely the correct word! The important thing to remember with large group shots like this is that it doesn't need to be perfect. The important thing is that you have all of your loved ones together in one image! I recommend outdoors during the nicer time of the year, and using a ladder!

Any tips on getting 2 kids (3 & 1) to sit together - nicely?

Like I mentioned in yesterday's post, photographing your own children is a challenge, one that even photographer's face. They are obviously comfortable with you, and therefore it is harder to keep their attention and encourage them to sit still. The best option is capturing them while going about their daily lives, whether it be sitting together doing a puzzle, or running around in the backyard. For those times that you'd like to get them sitting and smiling in the same shot... bribery! Really... I am never above a good bribe. Aside from that, I find it is very helpful to use a "containment device"... whether is be a bench, wagon, or any other place where they can sit and not get out of or off of quickly. Giving them something to hold, especially for kids under 2, is very helpful. Enlist a helper (like dad) to be silly behind you. Funny faces and dances are a great way to keep kids still and guarantee big, genuine smiles. Other things like hand puppets and balancing toys on your head are great tricks as well.

As with anything, learning how to best use your camera and photograph your family is a "practice makes perfect" endeavor. From the technical aspect, read and research as much as you can. And when it comes to the actual documentation, remember that your images don't need to be perfect, and snap away as much as you can. All of those trivial every day moments will amount to beautiful memories for your children, years down the road. Be patient and don't expect your children to sit and smile at every turn. Capturing them doing what they do best... being kids... is not only the easiest method, but it will create images that reflect your lives at any given point. And those are the moments you'll want to remember.

location, location, location! by Ashley Brown

Once a session is booked, it is typically the first thing that is discussed... and with good reason. Where a session takes place completely dictates the feel of the resulting images. Images created in a rustic location will have a different feel than those created in a manicured park, or in a downtown setting. There are several elements to consider when choosing a location for your portrait session. Wardrobe preferences, the decor of your home, the age of your children, and also, the season. We find fall to be the most sought after time of year, and most clients want to incorporate at least some of the beautiful elements of this time of year into their images. However, there are some important things to consider when choosing a location for your autumn session:

  • What are you going to do with these images? If you are booking a short&sweet session with the sole purpose of getting some great shots for your holiday cards, then very seasonal images (foliage or holiday clothing) would be up your alley. However, if you plan on using these images for any other purposes... prints for hanging in your home, an album, etc... we recommend keeping the location a bit more neutral. Highly seasonal images look out of place and dated quickly. For a signature session, in which the intention is to capture classic and heirloom images, a more neutral location is key. That's not to say that the stunning color of fall can't be incorporated, but using architecture or the home would help achieve great variety.
  • Not every location or fun spot is conducive to a portrait session. We love orchard and pumpkin patches as much as the next person, and these make wonderful family activities during the fall. However, if you've ever set foot in such a place on a fall weekend, you know "mob scene" is an accurate description. A full sun pumpkin patch, with cars in the background and swarms of people to dodge is far from ideal. Children are easily distracted and overstimulated, and adults find it hard to feel natural when many pairs of eyes are on them, so a quieter location is a much better bet. Unless you are looking for a lifestyle, activity-type session (more info to come on that subject!) portrait sessions should be held at a location with lots of ideal options for lighting and backdrops. There are many other location ideas that can capture the same type of rustic feel without the madness. During the fall, you can find foliage just about anywhere! And that's not to say places like orchards are always off the table! Some busier locations work out just fine on early mornings and weekdays.
  • Private property. Some locations are private or semi-private property, and may not allow photography for commercial purposes on site. Or, they may allow it with certain stipulations or at certain times. We strongly believe in respecting this and seeking permission before using such venues.
  • Nothing beats unique. Regardless of the season, like we always say (maybe a bit like a broken record!) unique and meaningful locations make for the absolute best images. Whether it be your home, where mom and dad got married or went to college, or something of that nature, these types of locations will bring your images to a whole new level. Think outside the box, or ask us for our ideas!

Here's some examples of on-location sessions.

This type of image can be taken almost anywhere during the fall!

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This is a great orchard shot... taken first thing in the AM, before the orchard even opened. Soft lighting and no crowds to work around!

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A perfect idea for fall... a wardrobe full of layers and textures, and interesting architectural backgrounds. Neutral, yet seasonal, and oh so classic!

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Downtown locations often provide the perfect blend of greenery/foliage and and architecture.

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Rustic, farm-esque locations with barns and fences are perfect for autumn!

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P.S. Like this post? We'll be posting new installments to our "client education" blog feature in the coming weeks... so check back for our tips on types of session, clothing, and much more good stuff!

evaluating a photographer's portfolio by Ashley Brown

Hiring the right photographer for your family is no easy feat. There are so many things to take into account, including (but not limited to), the photographer's style (does it fit what you are looking for?), technical abilities, reputation, overall investment.... the list goes on and on. One of the easiest ways to evaluate a photographer is by their images. It can be challenging to look at portraits with a subjective eye... especially when it is your children!... and if you aren't a photographer, you may not automatically know what separates a good image from a bad image. Here's a quick visual tutorial on what makes a technically correct and pleasing portrait. Keep in mind... art and photographic technique is subjective. From many aspects, there is no right or wrong. However, there are basic photographic techniques that are universal truths and should not broken... or, if they are, it should be a stylistic choice that is made by a photographer who has the basics down pat. "Style" is no excuse for a poorly executed or incorrect image.

Below is an example of a solid image. It is properly exposed and in focus. The color is true to life. A wide aperture was used (creating the creamy, blurred background) which adds dimension and depth to the image. And no, blurring a background is NOT a technique that should be attempted in Photoshop :)!

The gorgeous K. family... who will be properly showcased this week on the blog!

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Now, lets see the same image... but with a twist!

This version is underexposed. This lovely family has become dark and muddy.

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And on the opposite end of the spectrum, this image is way overexposed. Details have been lost and the image looks washed out. Overexposed images will not print well. In fact, the areas that have turned white (the edges of their clothing, the hot spots on their skin) will print as such... blank white... because there is no data left to print.

Put on your shades for this one!

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Why so blue? Incorrect camera settings can create people that are blue, green, magenta, red or yellow. A good way to check is to look at the whites of the subject's eyes, or in the shadows. Looking sickly in a portrait is never good!

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Yikes! The K. family has gone radioactive. A common amateur mistake is skyrocketing the saturation of an image in Photoshop. The result is orange skin, bright red lips, and colors that not only look crazy, but will not print (labs do not have the ability to print oversaturated colors that are "out of gamut".)

Steer clear... this is hazardous!

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Using different Photoshop techniques to create an image that is hazy, vintage-inspired or otherwise unique can create fabulous finished products... in the right hands. However, it is easy to go overboard. Editing techniques that are used to the extreme can quickly turn a nice image into an unrealistic and easily dated one.

Yuck!

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There are a few other things to consider.

Focus is paramount. When an image is in focus, you should be able to see all of your child's beautiful details that you hired a photographer to capture... their eyelashes, their lips, etc. The focus should not be on a leaf behind them, the collar of their shirt, etc. In the image below, you can see that the focus of this image accidentally fell on mama's dress... not Colin's sweet face. This is a pretty obvious example, so keep in mind that missed focus can be more subtle and not show up well until you've enlarged an image. Ask your photographer to see a closer crop if you are in doubt.

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Motion blur can also cause those crisp details to be missed. Note that in the image on the left, you can see all of Brie's eyelashes and how sparkly and vibrant her baby blues are.

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How about lighting? There are many forms of lighting that are correct, but one that should be avoided at all costs is full on sun in the face... namely during the brightest parts of the day (the exception is if your photographer is using supplemental lighting). It creates harsh shadows, turns eyes into black holes, and makes for very squinty subjects.

See what I mean?

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Ahh, much better. Michael is happier and we can see those handsome eyes and features when he is in more even and pleasing lighting.

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Lastly, post processing is an essential part of creating a finished portrait. The investment you make should cover light editing to bring out of the best of your child and family. Your photographer should be able to polish up the image as needed (brightening, straightening, cropping) and touch up redness or ruddy skin, drool, bruises/scratches/blemishes, under eye circles, etc. A photographer who is more seasoned with Photoshop may even be able to remove distracting background objects, give mom a touch of a virtual nip-tuck, and more. You've seen above how Photoshop can turn dangerous, but it can also turn an image into a excellent, finished portrait.

This image of Jackson has been post-processed enough so that he looks perfect, but not unrealistic. There is a fine line! The image has been brightened, his skin tone smoothed, and his minor blemishes and scratches were removed.

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This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg, and should be one of the many things that you consider when hiring a photographer for your family. Be sure to review the blog/website/portfolio in depth, and don't be afraid to ask to see a recent full session. This way, you know they can provide consistent quality work, and aren't just showcasing lucky shots on their website. Portraiture is an investment, so its always in your best interest to do your research. Your photographer should be willing and happy to answer any questions you may have to ensure that you will come away with beautiful images and a wonderful experience.