May Meeting Notes: Heleyna Holmes

On May 23rd, we were joined by local photographer and mom Heleyna Holmes!  She draws from her experience as a nanny and a mother of a young child when she photographs children, and she is just full of great tips and tricks to capture the “wow” shot.

Background:  Leyna got into photography while taking classes from Randy Nelson at South Seattle Community College.  She was also a nanny at the time, and the family she nannied for wanted her to take photos of the kids while she was with them.  She agreed, as long as she could use the dad’s fancy Nikon F100 film SLR!  He refused at first but eventually she was able to convince him that if he trusted her with his house, his car, and his children, then surely he can trust her with his camera!

One of Leyna’s assignments from Randy Nelson was to be a “pathfinder” at the 9/11 memorial gathering in Seattle.  She was to journal the experience with only one photo, so she set out to try to capture the emotions through a single image.  While she was there, however, she was the one whose emotion was captured in an image — a photo by Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman that ended up on the front page of the Seattle Times and eventually winning “Photo of the Year”.  Because of that photograph, Leyna was invited to attend a lot of amazing photography events that are normally reserved for professionals.

Gear:  Leyna started with film and didn’t move to digital photography until 2 years ago.  Although she loves film and developing, she realized that it wasn’t fast enough to keep up with her son (who was 6 months old at the time and quickly becoming more mobile).  She started with a Nikon D40 and upgraded to a D90 last year, and she believes that you don’t need to spend a lot on equipment in order to take great photographs.  In fact, the only reason she upgraded to a D90 was because many of her clients had better cameras and were skeptical of her D40!  She uses four lenses:  50mm, Tamron 70-300mm, 55-200mm and 18-105mm.

Leyna recently upgraded to Photoshop CS5 for her post-processing (previously, she used Photoshop Elements).  She gave us a great tip about purchasing Adobe products too:  If you have a child in school or are paying tuition for preschool, then you are eligible to buy a student version of the various Adobe products!  Adobe Photoshop CS5 costs $199 for the student version (which is the same as the regular version — it just can’t be upgraded through the normal upgrade program).

Leyna has a few favorite Photoshop actions that she uses for processing.  She loves My Four Hens (especially “Beachy Keen” for a soft hazy look) and Totally Rad (“Bitchin’ B&W” for black and white conversion).

Approach:  Leyna always photographs outside.   If it rains, she reschedules the shoot or goes to the Conservatory in Volunteer Park.   She’s found that it’s hard to photograph children on their own turf (i.e. in their homes) because they are easily distracted.  If they are in a park, there are more things to do and see and the children tend to be more excited and engaged.  It also gives them the space to run around and be themselves, which is when she can often capture the best shots.

After the session, Leyna proofs in person with prints and a slideshow.  She provides each photo with three different treatments:  clean, artsy, and black & white.  Her camera takes video, so she makes sure to film a few seconds here and there during a photo session (without telling the client).  She includes these video clips in the slideshow, which is a fun surprise for her clients!

Locations:   Some of Leyna’s favorite places to shoot include Magnuson Park (path to boat launch and grassy area adjacent), Pike Place Market, Post Alley (bubblegum wall), Market stairways, Seattle Waterfront Park (small beach, sculpture park), and the Arboretum (footbridge).  She usually photographs at 8AM, 10AM or late afternoon to avoid harsh shadows.

Props:  Stool, bench, chair, tricycle, bicycle, wagon, balloons…anything that can capture the kids’ attention and keep them in a somewhat contained area long enough for a few photos!  Leyna talks to her clients about the props she has available before the shoot so that she knows what to bring with her.

Leyna also likes to set up “themed” photo shoots for seasonal mini-sessions.  She’ll decorate a tree with ties (for Father’s Day), balloons, Christmas decorations, etc. and have the kids sit or play next to the tree.


  • Wears shirts with long sleeves so she can clean runny noses easily.
  • Keeps scrunchie/hair elastic on wrist and bobby pins (5 per girl) in her hair so she can keep the hair out of little girls’ faces on breezy days.
  • Brings a green scarf to sit on.  Even if it’s not very thick, putting it down on the wet grass is usually enough to convince clients to sit down.
  • Brings her magical stool (custom wooden convertible stool/bench) and lets the kids sit or stand on it as a special treat.
  • Uses a “magic word” (pre-approved with the parents in the introductory packet) to get the kids’ attention.  When they start to get distracted or run off, she can call out the magic word to help them redirect their energy and come back.  Words can be kid-funny (farty-face, poopy-pants) or parent-friendly (tinkerbell).

Tricks:  Here’s the good stuff!  Leyna had some great tricks for getting great photos out of kids (and their parents).

  • Spin & Stop:  Have a parent hold one child and spin around…and POP!  Provide a goofy sound effect with the pop to get the child’s attention.  This creates wonderful natural smiles and laughter, from both the kids and the parents.  Kids can even do it by themselves, and they’ll usually spin until they end up falling on the ground.  Which is another great opportunity for a fun shot!
  • Ring Around the Chair:  First, talk about “How do we use a chair?”  (“Do we stand on them?  No!  Do we jump on them?  No!  Do we sit on them?  Yes!”).  Then have each child (one child, one chair) run around the chair and POP! onto it, showing you how they sit on it.  The POP! is when you get the best smiles out of them.  This works best for children age 3+.  And remember, only one child at a time!  It’s a good idea to use Shutter Priority (S/Tv) since your subjects will be moving pretty quickly!
  • Run & Hide:  This is a way to get 2 kids on one chair.  Place them on on chair, back to back.  Tell them to look straight ahead and not at you.  Say that you’re going to run and hide and they’ll have to find you.  “Don’t look!  Not yet!”  Then tell them you’re ready, but you haven’t moved at all.  They’ll look right at you and laugh when they see how silly you are, standing right where you were before.  Make sure you’ve already focused on them and are ready to snap away when they laugh!  (Note:  This trick generally only works once.)
  • Find Your Smile:  This works for people of all ages who aren’t in the mood to smile for photos.  Ask them to find their smile and suggest places it might be (pocket?  sleeve?  boots?).  Tell them when they find it, they need to put it on their face really fast (and be ready with your camera).  They’ll probably lose it again so they might need to look again.  (For older kids/adults, you probably don’t need to suggest places to look…just tell them something like,  “Uh oh, looks like we’ve got to find your smile!”)
  • Hands on Lap:  If you’ve got children like mine, they’re always putting their hands in front of their faces or chewing on fingers, etc for photos.  You can do a favorite preschool song to help them get their hands on their laps (for at least a second or two):  “Open, shut them, open, shut them (while opening and shutting your hands),  give a little clap clap clap!  Open, shut them, open, shut them, put them on your lap lap lap!”
  • Run In:  When you have parents with young kids, it’s easiest to control only what you can and let the rest happen naturally.  Set the parents up in a pose where you want them (sitting or kneeling so that they are close to the ground).  Wait for or tell the kids to “run in” to the parents and capture the photo then.   Or tell the kids a secret and have them run to tell it to mom or dad.  If there are two or more kids, you can give each one a different job (find mommy’s lap, find daddy’s shoulder, etc.) and then have them all run in at the same time to do their job.

Exercise for June:  Leyna suggested that we try “Ring Around the Chair” (see the second “Trick” above) with our own child(ren)!  Remember that it’s only one child with one chair — if you try two or more children at the same time, they’ll end up fighting for the chair and some tears are likely to be involved (especially if one child is younger and smaller).  The only time that it might work with two children at the same time is if you have twins — they are more evenly matched.  Have fun!


One response to “May Meeting Notes: Heleyna Holmes

  1. Pingback: Monday June 20th Meeting Details! | Mamas With Cameras

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