The second best part of Tamara Lackey’s job is the reaction of the parents to the photos of their kids. Which makes the best part the actual creation of the images.

“It’s not a slam dunk to capture a photograph,” she says, “especially with children; to get all the elements in place—the lighting, the pose, the overall look, the interaction and the resulting expression. When it all comes together, that’s the best.”

When Tamara first started shooting, her sessions lasted about 45 minutes; now they’re about three hours. “It’s a matter of taking the time and working with the way the energy moves throughout a shoot.” It’s also a matter of having a system and a strategy in place. “It can be the best expression in the world,” she says, “but if it’s not well lit, if it’s not well captured, I lost it. So I make sure all the technical components are in place before I work on expressions.”

Her system is pretty much based around lighting. “I used to try to be very precise, and that led to so much frustration. By the time I got everything set and the ratios were perfect, my subject was halfway down the street. So I switched to a much more broad lighting setup [that] wasn’t necessarily absolutely perfect in any spot, but was good enough to give me a quality image to start with. I make sure that at the very least I have a clean, three-point lighting setup: well lit by the main light, good fill lighting and some sort of rim or ambient light behind the subject. That affords me more room to let kids be kids. For the rest, I know I can do little tweaks as I need. I put all my images through post, so there’s nothing that I turn around unfinished.”

It can be the best expression in the world, but if it’s not well lit, I lost it. So I make sure all the technical components are in place before I work on expressions.

Capturing great expressions calls for a strategy. “I make an assessment of my subject as soon as I can to get a feel for the personality type.” The types fit into a few general categories: “A really shy child; could be from fearful shy to hesitant and introverted. A high-energy kid—the performance queen or drama queen, the one who wants to put on a show. Then there’s the intense personality, the very interactive child; a lot of that is back and forth and questions and trivia. And the ‘too cool for school’ child, who does not want to be there. I make my assessment rather quickly, and I know how to get a spectrum of expressions...not just one look over and over again.”

When she started shooting professionally some ten years ago, she found the “too cool for school” subject would invariably be a teenager. “Now I see them as young as nine or ten,” she says. “One of the things I do right away, whether it’s stated or not, is to acknowledge that they don’t want to be there. Most of them just want to be heard, so I let them know that I understand. I ask, ‘Where would you be if you could be anywhere but here?’ I tell them I’m on their side—it’s going to be a couple of hours, I’m going to set a countdown, and then, in the course of the shoot, I’ll say, ‘One hour to go…you’re nailing it…you’re almost gone from me.’ If you were standing at a distance and watching, you’d think I wasn’t getting anything from that kid, but what I’m looking for are micro expressions. It takes only a second to get a laugh or an intense look before they remember they’re not supposed to be responding to me. The number one thing I hear after a shoot with a ‘too cool for school’ kid is, ‘Wow, I had no idea you were getting these.’ That’s what being ready to go is all about: grabbing the second they’re responding before remembering they’re supposed to be too cool for this.”

Tamara will talk with her subjects about what they’re interested in, but she avoids the questions they hear all the time—the “so what are you studying in school?” stuff. “They have predetermined responses and expressions for that,” she says, “and what I try to do is provide something different to pique their curiosity, or I’ll ask questions they never hear—that throws them off and that’s when I get the more sincere expressions. I often ask little kids about their stances on current congressional bills. A lot of times I’ll ask them what they think I should do in a tricky lighting situation or what should I set my aperture to. The looks I get are like, ‘What??’ And that leads to something.”

Most likely to the first and second best things about the job.

Top Gear

“In the studio I use continuous lighting,” Tamara says, “so what you see, you get. It’s usually three Wescott TD6 Spiderlites, a 4x8 foamboard reflector and daylight through the large studio windows.” Her traveling lighting kit is an SB-910 Speedlight on the camera for bounce light; a 42-inch Westcott Bruce Dorn series reflector; and, in the trunk of her car if it’s needed, one of the Spiderlites. “Here’s the order: a reflector on everything, 100 percent of the time; I never don’t see it improve something. Then, on-camera flash. Then if I need to, I’ll bring in the constant light.”

Tamara switched to the Nikon system not too long ago and shoots with a D4 and a D800. “The first time I picked up a D4 I noticed right away how well it fit for the size of my hands and how the [control] layout made more sense. I liked being able to customize it so I could literally touch everything I needed quickly.” Then, as a test, she took a D4 and a D800 along on a commercial shoot with her regular system. “I shot more with my previous camera because of its familiarity,” Tamara says, but after reviewing all the images, about 75 percent of those she delivered to her client were Nikon shots. “My decision to switch to Nikon was purely results driven: the image detail and the dynamic range in tricky lighting situations. And if I could get results like that and still be relatively unfamiliar with the gear, I was excited to see what I could get when the system became second nature.”

A favorite lens is the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G. “I really prefer the look I get from that lens and, lately, the 105mm [AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED]. If it’s a somewhat controlled situation, I’ll go for the clarity and sharpness of those lenses. If there’s a lot of fast movement or lower light, I’ll swap out for the 24-70mm [AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED] or the shorter focal length primes, get closer and manage the activity that way. My optimal look, though, is with the 85mm and the 105mm.”

One photo here was taken with a Nikon 1 J3. “That’s the camera I use socially,” Tamara says. “I was looking for a good compromise between the heavier equipment and the frustration of only having an iPhone.” And when a social situation offers up a charming image of commercial potential, it’s nice to know the Nikon 1 system is up to the job.