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Juggling Parenting and Film Photography – by Richard McKenzie

August 29, 2021

It’s a cliché but it’s true: everything changes the moment you become a parent. There’s the stuff they tell you about—the crying, the nappies, the many, many sleepless nights—and then there are the changes that are much more profound. For me, that latter type of change was the loss of time to devote to my photography. Adjusting to life as a parent with less time to undertake creative pursuits has been really difficult—and continues to be even after 6 years.

On the one hand, photographing your own child is one of the most important gigs you’ll ever have. On the other, the unyielding responsibilities of parenting make it difficult to do anything but take pictures of your kids. However, I’m here to tell you it can be done!

And this advice isn’t just for parents, it’s for any photographer who has ever found themselves in a creative funk. Given the 2020 and 2021 many of us have endured, our collective creative spark has probably come close to extinguishing. But there are some steps you can take to fulfill your creative goals.

After two kids, six years and 284 rolls of film, here’s how I’ve managed to remain relatively sane and keep my film photography going.

Packing light

Parenting is hands-on—literally! I might need a hand spare to help my kids up the stairs, hold their hands or pull them back from certain doom. This makes shooting fully manual 1960s rangefinder or unwieldy Hasselblad a difficult—and potentially dangerous—proposition.

As a result, I usually opt to leave my Leica M4 at home when going out with the kids and instead take my modest Olympus µ[mju:]-II (every time I do this, an engineer in Wetzlar keels over from a Herzstillstandtut mir leid!). I know there are as many opinions on the µ[mju:]-II as there are stars in the sky, but as a parent and film photographer, it is the best camera I’ve ever owned.

Olympus µ[mju:]-II

My beloved Olympus µ[mju:]-II in eBay【Exc+++】condition

Your compact camera of choice doesn’t have to be a µ[mju:]-II of course (I picked mine up a decade ago for about $50, not the sky-high sums they’re going for today), but go with something that has autofocus, autoexposure, is pocketable and useable with one hand. For all the endless whinging about the µ[mju:]-II being too expensive or overrated, I think it ticks these boxes better than almost any other 35mm camera available. Save the Leica and the Hasselblad on more planned outings where you can carry a backpack and tripod without also having to push a pram.

Have an (achievable) project or two

Having kids irrevocably alters how you spend your time. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but if your grand photographic project is a large format review of every heritage fire station in rural Madagascar, you will be waiting a while to complete it. On the other hand, if you find the architecture on the way to your child’s kindergarten is worthy of a photograph or six, you might have an achievable project on your hands.

Those who work in the coaching space say ‘SMART’ goals are the key to success: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. While I’d normally cut off my left arm before borrowing from the vernacular of self-help shysters, they’ve got a point on this one.

Lunchtime walks

One of my favourite lunchtime walks captures

So I try to create a photo project that fits within the limitations of my everyday life. It might be the aforementioned residential architecture, or it could be street photography on my lunch break or the forest on one of my many long walks with the kids. Something incidental to my day that doesn’t require huge chunks of time will always be more achievable in my life as a parent. For instance, I keep on adding photos to my gallery of shopping trolleys. It ain’t Gursky, but it’s something.

Take note(s)

I always have a notebook close to hand that I jot photographic ideas down in. My notes range from a single dot point that the passage of time has rendered as inscrutable as an Ancient Greek cipher, to detailed sketches of potential compositions with thematic ideas. Some of them I’ve even achieved! Taking notes also makes me feel like I’m doing something, even when I can’t get out with the camera.

The purpose of putting these ideas down is twofold: 1) to help you get into the habit of thinking about your photography beyond this moment; and 2) to have something to work on once you get some time back (yes, it does happen eventually). Notetaking is also just darn good for you. I find putting ideas and concepts down on paper helps me to refine them better, remember them for longer and generally improves my creativity.

Build a photobook library

I consider myself a photobook addict—both in the purchasing and the creation. I make at least one annual photobook and try to make a handful of others throughout the year. It’s very satisfying and is achievable in the limited free time I have. Best of all, I don’t have to take new photos to make a new book. One of my most recent efforts, Berlin: Natur und Umwelt is made up of photos from my archive. I seriously spent more time on typeface selection (hello Berlin Type!) than on the photos.

Making photobooks

Your own photobooks don’t need to be bland and boring affairs

There are also some really inspiring photobooks out there that have inspired me. One is Photographers’ Sketchbooks by Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals. This book emphasises how much of the creative process takes place long before the shutter is released. The authors take a look at the notebooks of notable photographers including Trent Parke, Alec Soth and Emily Shur and provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how they realise their visions. You might even adopt some of their notebook techniques as your own!

Another book, Family Photography Now, also by Stephen McLaren and his Street Photography Now co-author Sophie Howarth, looks at how leading photographers approach the subject of ‘family life’. Some are artists capturing their own families, others are commissions, but all are fascinating. For us parents, it’s interesting and instructive seeing how pro photographers capture their own families, weaving some real creativity into what would otherwise be banal familial records. They did so to scratch that same creative itch you have while juggling the same responsibilities. Highly recommended.

Learn home development (it’s easy)

I’ve shot more than 150 rolls of black and white film since having kids and I doubt I would have shot a quarter of that had I not developed it myself. Home development is easy to do. It saves money and, most importantly as a parent, it saves time. Learning how to develop at home was something I put off for a long time, but after the initial (small) outlay on a Paterson Universal Developing Tank and chemicals, I’ve saved thousands of dollars on development costs and been able to shoot more film as a result.

Be kind to yourself

I went from shooting 245 rolls of film in the year immediately prior to my first son being born, to barely shooting that number in the six years following. There were a few reasons for that—not just kids—but it’s still easy to beat yourself up about it. Avoid that temptation. Parenting is probably the hardest thing you’ll do and you’ll have enough issues to contend with that aren’t related to your creative photographic output.

Make photos when you can but don’t stress about it when you can’t. And at the risk of this article turning into a relationship advice column, talk to your partner about making time for your creative pursuits amidst the mayhem of parenthood—it’ll do everyone good!

Keep shooting

I’m a copywriter by day and the one piece of advice any writer will give you is to keep writing. Don’t worry about how good or bad it is, just get the words down and edit it later on. Photography is not dissimilar. Keep your camera loaded, keep it close and take it with you. You won’t find the keepers if you don’t shoot! And regardless of whether you’re a parent or not, going out and shooting is one of the best things you can do if you’re in a creative funk.

Family is everything

There’s a quote from Magnum photographer Trent Parke in Family Photography Now that I keep coming back to: “Events and mundane daily occurrences that seemed completely unimportant at the time can suddenly become crucial pieces of the puzzle years down the track.”

Whenever I’m in a photographic funk, this line keeps me going. I might not value the photos I am taking right now, but there’s a good chance I—or someone I love—will do so months, years or decades from now.

A very new baby Archer

And film, of course, is the best medium to do any of this on. I’m very proud of the fact that my kids are amongst a global minority that knows what those little grey-topped plastic canisters are for. My two-year-old loves helping to unload finished rolls from my F100 and watches with interest as I compose with my Hasselblad. Unlike most of their cohort, my kids’ memories are indelibly fixed onto a gelatin emulsion as opposed to existing solely in someone’s ephemeral cloud. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has revelled in the literal shoebox of prints and negatives our parents and grandparents have shared with us and wondered what we are leaving our kids.

I’m not just making photos for myself, I’m making memories for my family and that, I’m sure you’ll agree, is one of the greatest motivators of all.

Thank you for reading.
If you’d like to see more photographic evidence of my relative sanity, visit my website or Instagram.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Ivan
    August 29, 2021 at 12:39 pm

    A great read. I can relate to everything you wrote with a 4 years old running around. Sunday mornings are usually my “me time” when I take photos for myself. Otherwise, as you say, a point and shoot in the bag when out with the family is your best friend. At times it is still a struggle and hard to find a proper balance. I find specially hard to find the time for my photos and for the family photos, as in making books with them, etc. Nice work!

    • Reply
      Richard McKenzie
      September 15, 2021 at 5:25 am

      Thanks, Ivan, for taking the time to read and comment. Yeah, there’s certainly no one panacea and it’s always an ongoing struggle!

  • Reply
    Michael Elliott
    August 29, 2021 at 1:31 pm

    Thank you for this Richard! As a recently new father (she’s now almost 8 months old! How time flies!) and only just starting film photography about a couple of months before her birth, I haven’t got the pre-parenting experience, but at this age I still get to take her out for a walk in the pushchair and use manual cameras as long as I’m not too slow composing/metering/recomposing/hitting the shutter/forgetting to wind/winding/hitting the shutter finally. She’s very patient with me but there’s still a limit.

    The piece at the end hits home with me – the setting down of memories on a physical medium rather than in the cloud. I’ve lost track of how many rolls of film I’ve used taking pictures of her growing up, either portraits with the medium format camera or more casual snaps with the OM-1 (the 50/1.4 is really quite amazing for this). Outside of that, there’s pictures of the un-redeveloped parts of Greenwich nearby where she’s growing up, pictorial photos, more abstract images, and so on, that I can leave to her. And there’s just that something special about the way film renders images as opposed to the more clinical technical perfection of a digital sensor.

    I don’t not shoot digital; though I typically use my iPhone more than anything else. But the film shots are special and they are the ones that I’ve blown up and printed.

    Your piece is a beacon of hope to a new father with a newfound hobby that I will still be able to pursue as she grows up – and hopefully like your 2 year old, she’ll enjoy helping out! She already looks inquisitively at the variety of cameras as I’m using them to take her picture, or as I’m loading/unloading them, which gives me hope!

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply
      Richard McKenzie
      September 15, 2021 at 5:27 am

      Thanks for sharing, Michael! Sounds like you’re making the most of your newfound hobby. There are certainly less complaints from them when they’re strapped into a pram and you’re fiddling with the dials! Looking back, that was quite a good time to be out shooting.

  • Reply
    Bill Brown
    August 29, 2021 at 3:56 pm

    Richard, I couldn’t agree with you more on so many of your points. I however am at the other end of this equation. I became an empty nester a year ago as my daughter went off to university. My cameras with a roll of Tri-X and Portra 160 sit languishing in my camera drawer. I loaded both back in April and as of yet have been unable to find 36 scenes worthy of the press of the shutter.

    My whole photography life revolved around my daughters daily activities so now I’m at a loss. My situation sounds similar to yours in that my daughter was the only one in her circle of friends that knew what the Grinch was doing when he exposed the roll of Who film from the Who camera. We were doing photo projects from the time she could walk and over the years I had numerous ongoing projects with her. To name a few, first and last day of school from Pre K to graduation, riding in the van on her way to school and ending with her driving the van and so on. For her senior year each week I placed a photo on her bedroom door starting with her birth with the final weeks being current events. I’ve lost my muse and am quite disheartened.

    On your subject of photo books about family I highly recommend Deanna Dikemans book titled “Leaving and Waving”. I could blather on since this is a subject dear to my heart but I will close instead. My wife always reminds me that a conversation means two people are talking. Thanks for sharing your story and my best to you as you continue your family photographic journey.

    • Reply
      Richard McKenzie
      September 15, 2021 at 5:29 am

      Thanks for sharing, Bill! I still have quite a few years to go until my kids are at that point but I’ve no doubt that a bittersweetness will tinge all our experiences at that point.

  • Reply
    Florian
    August 29, 2021 at 5:31 pm

    Great article, thank you so much!!
    Just a quick personal sidenote on home development – development and especially the scanning afterwards consumes lots of time, at least for me 🙂 thus I traded money for time and let labs develop & scan my film again.

    • Reply
      Richard McKenzie
      September 15, 2021 at 5:32 am

      Thanks, Florian. You’re absolutely right—it can be incredibly time consuming. I’m still soldiering on with a Nikon Coolscan 5000 which a modded filmstrip adapter, so I can sit back and it’ll scan a whole roll in about 30–40 minutes. But lab dev and scan can save even more time.

  • Reply
    Khürt L Williams
    August 29, 2021 at 5:44 pm

    Excellent tips on finding time for small and more achievable projects as a parent. I’m confident the digital images in my catalogue with its three daily backups, including one in the cloud, will outlive every strip of celluloid I have ever exposed.

    • Reply
      Richard McKenzie
      September 15, 2021 at 5:35 am

      Thanks, Khürt! Yes, don’t get me wrong—I’m a fiend for digital backups also. I’ve got my negatives plus my scans plus prints plus my digital backup regimen. Really, there’s no excuse not to, these days.

  • Reply
    Michael Raven
    September 14, 2021 at 3:23 pm

    Loved reading this and found it very relatable! My Olympus XA is used almost exclusively these days simply because it’s small, quick in use, and can be wrapped round my wrist whilst I carry endless parenting paraphernalia, catch falling children, push prams, and all manner of things I never imagined I’d be doing a few years ago. Keeping things achievable is great advice.

    • Reply
      Richard McKenzie
      September 15, 2021 at 5:38 am

      Thanks, Michael! It really is, life-changing, isn’t it? Anything which fits in the pocket / holder / cupholder thingy at the top of the pram is the best way to go, I reckon (sorry, Hasselblad). My beloved Billingham Hadley also does double-duty as a camera bag / snack repository and does a sterling job.

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