For as long as there’s been photography, people have wanted professional portraits taken of them and their families, going back to the 19th century.
The natural desire to capture special moments with loved ones for posterity has never dissipated, and even in an age when billions of selfies are taken on cellphones, newlyweds and families still want high-caliber photos by skilled professionals who can deliver artistry. In the crowded world of commercial photography, it takes a great deal of skill and innate talent to rise to the top in your chosen field. That’s exactly what Laura Volpacchio has done. If you Google the best family photographer in NYC, you’ll find Laura at the top of Peerspace's list.
Originally from Connecticut and now based in the Hudson Valley, serving clients in Westchester, The Hamptons, Long Island and New Jersey (as well as her home state), Laura didn’t actually start out as a photographer. Her first passion was dancing and she had a successful career in NYC as a professional dancer. She also spent a summer in Vietnam teaching English to children. That experience was so fulfilling for Laura, it inspired her to work as a Teaching Artist when she returned home, teaching dance to kids, including neuro-diverse children.
I interviewed Laura to find out how she got into photography, her advice for potential clients, her busiest time of year, and what’s the biggest number of photos she’s taken when she’s with her own family – her answer may surprise you!
Was there a pivotal moment where you realized you had to dedicate yourself to photography as a career, which has led to you becoming the premier family photographer in the NY-NJ-CT Tri-State area?
I didn't pick up a camera until I was 18 and my mom gave me my first DSLR – her old Canon 20D. Looking back, I was always a visual and creative person, but because all my time as a kid and teenager was invested in school and dance, I didn't start pursuing other creative outlets until I went to college. I spent the first years with my camera just photographing in the streets of NYC and on my travels.
After years of dancing professionally, I was yearning for a vocation that I had more control over. With showbiz, you can put in a tremendous amount of work and at the end of the day, whether or not you are cast in the show is in someone else's hands. I didn't like that. I wanted to be the boss of my life. I remember sitting in a restaurant one night, talking with my then-boyfriend about what else I could do. I had graduated from NYU just a year before and in the meantime had been dancing in musicals and commercials, sporadically. It dawned on me then: Oh! I should take headshots! I have no idea why it took me so long to consider photography as a job.
So, I started taking headshots within the NYC showbiz community. Some of my headshots went to Broadway! I never thought “OK, this is my career now.” I was doing it as a way to generate more income and feel more fulfilled in my life while still pursuing dance100%. After maybe a year or so of taking headshots and really finding my groove, my first entrepreneur client came to me. Over the next few years I did a lot of branding photography, working with all kinds of female entrepreneurs. I was one of the first photographers in NYC to offer branding photography sessions, and it was simply a response to people coming to me explaining they needed headshots, but not just headshots – they needed photos to represent their brand online.
In summer 2014, I volunteered in Vietnam with an awesome non-profit called ETA4. I was teaching English and dancing around with the kids, and of course my camera came with me. That was really my first experience photographing kids. I did have an “aha” moment during that trip, which was that I needed to work with children in some capacity. When I returned to NYC after that trip, I pursued teaching artistry – dance and music – but as a photographer I was still focused on branding and headshots. When my first nephew was born later that year, I did his newborn photos. That summer, families sought me out in the Hamptons for their annual photos. Present day, I spend most of my time photographing kids and families, which is pretty much the best thing ever.
Do clients usually come to you with an idea of what they want or do you create the visual concept yourself or together with the client?
Sometimes clients have an idea of the location they want to shoot, but most often they are looking for a particular feeling in their photos. Clients come to me because they are looking for natural, joyful photos that look like real life but a little more magical than what we notice day-to-day. For a family photography session or newborn photography session, planning is: where would you like to shoot, what time of day is your child happiest, and what type of artwork are you most interested in? I'm sure to get certain shots at every session. For example, I'm always sure to get a family photo of everyone looking at the camera in the final gallery, but I find that overly planning shots leads to missing the magic of the moment. As a photographer, and especially as a photographer working with kids, flexibility and present-moment awareness is absolutely essential to creating magical, real images.
What recommendations and/or advice do you give families so they can prepare for the best possible portrait experience?
Trust your photographer. If you don't, find a different photographer! Read the pre-session guide - I offer a free one just for signing up for my newsletter list – and make sure everyone is on board. It really helps if the kids know something about the photographer beforehand so they feel more comfortable. Their name, something they like to do, how old they are – kids love to know that! Also, non-messy snacks for the kiddos are absolutely invaluable during the shoot!
What’s your busiest time of year and how far ahead do you usually get booked up?
The summer is my busiest time of year. My clients are super busy families. Come fall, the kids go back to school, work gears back up after a little August lull, and the last thing they want to do on a precious weekend is take photos. August is absolutely insane out in the Hamptons. That is when people do their annual family photos.
By December, all holiday orders are in, family sessions are done, and I'm focused on branding photography sessions, newborn photography sessions – babies are always being born! – and being with my own family. Throughout the year, I book up 8-12 weeks in advance. Usually I'm booked for summer in the Hamptons by June!
What's been the most moving reaction you've received from a family to the photos you took of them?
People often tear up or cry while we watch the slideshow of their family photos during their in-person viewing and ordering session. I love watching the parents react to the pictures of them with their kiddos. I once had a toddler in the room with us watch the slideshow and there was a really sweet photo of him hugging his mom and he automatically re-enacted the photo right there and snuggled her. It was so adorable and exactly the point. I want to create photos that elicit those feelings of joy, love and connection so that when people see them on the walls of their home, even if their family has been driving them insane that day, they can reconnect to that goodness.
Looking at your photos on your website, this one in particular stood out.
It's a terrifically exuberant photo that switches up the traditional family composition.
That photo is from a beach elopement. I did not create a concept for it, I just showed up and captured what unfolded. The planning was all the bride and groom! They wanted a simple wedding on the beach. My concept planning included encouraging the bride to get some flowers, and helping the groom decide where to stand on the beach.
It happened to be a gloriously foggy day on the ocean in Montauk, which created that beautiful neutral color palette and super soft light. For this shot, I just told everyone to gather around the bride and groom. We took a few traditional shots with everyone smiling at the camera. Then I said: “THEY'RE MARRIED!” while putting my free hand up in the air and naturally everyone reacted by hooting, hollering and raising bouquets. Everything in my portfolio is just real life, perhaps with a little prompting.
What camera gear are you currently using for your shoots?
I've always shot on Canon. The EOS 20D was my first camera. I'm currently shooting on a 6D Mark II. I have a 6D and 5D Mark II as my backups.
I shoot on a variety of lenses. I used to exclusively shoot on fixed non-zoom lenses, but honestly, with kids running around unpredictably, that's really difficult. Now I shoot primarily with a 24-70mm lens. For headshots, I almost always use an 85mm, and with newborns I have to have my 100mm with me to capture the teeny tiny details.
I carry a speedlight with me just in case, but rarely use it. In the studio, I love using a beauty dish for headshots.
What's been your proudest moment as a photographer?
There have been many! I'm quite proud that I built my own business and am able to support myself and my family as an artist. I recently worked with a client of mine who I've been photographing for years. Her husband has been traveling a lot for work and only gets to see his family on the weekends. She told me he asked her to make the family photo I took of them that past summer his phone background so he could see it all the time. He told her when he looks at it, it makes him feel so happy. It's such a simple, seemingly small thing, but it's actually huge to be able to help people feel more connected to joy, love and their family.
I had another client write to me after her branding shoot that I'm the sweetest person she knows. She felt so encouraged and supported at her session. Another client called me this summer explaining she was starting her own business and had no idea what she was doing, but she had been following my work for years and felt like I could help her. It was really touching to be trusted so fully right from the start.
Is there a particular career goal you haven't achieved yet that you're looking forward to?
Throughout my life, I've been open to seeing where the path leads. So far, the biggest thing I've learned in life is that you can plan all you want, but if you are obsessed with sticking to those plans, you're going to miss a lot of magic along the way. I NEVER planned to be a photographer, and now I'm being referred to as the premier family photographer in the NY-NJ-CT Tri-State area. I never saw that coming!
As a photographer, I'm grateful for the career I've had so far and I'm curious to see where the path leads for me.
Do you have any tips for aspiring photographers who would like to specialize in portrait and family photography?
Be open minded and flexible. Seek advice from others who know more than you. Take your ego out of it. It's not about you, it's about your clients and the experience you're creating for them. Also, only a small percentage of the time you spend making a living as a photographer is spent actually taking photos. There is so much work that goes into this business that is not creating photos. You have to be an entrepreneur, which means you have to learn how to deal with money, market your work, and organize your time among a thousand other things. People in art school should take business courses. There are tons of people who can take beautiful photographs. There are not many people who make a living doing so. I do not believe you need to make a living with your art in order to be considered a successful artist, but for those who want to support themselves as a photographer, understand that creating beautiful work is just one piece of the puzzle.
Final question. You mention on your website you come from a large family. And there's also your husband's family. What's the largest number of photos you've ever taken at a family gathering?
I never bring my camera to family gatherings. I like to be present with my family. Remember, this is what I do for a living. Although I love what I do, it is work, and just like most people, I'm not interested in working all the time. Once in a while, I will bring it out if I'm visiting with nieces and nephews, but that is rare.
David and I don't have any kids of our own yet, but once we do, I'm sure I'll take more off-hours photos, but likely in the comfort of our own home when there isn't much going on. At our family gatherings, there's a lot going on, usually the light is crappy, and people are there to hang out and be with each other. A photo session is for a different time and place.
By the way, every [client] family session I do is in the triple digits, very easily. Often, we get up into the thousands depending on how squirmy the kids are being!
To learn more about Laura and how to book a session, visit her official website: https://lauravolpacchiophotography.com/
You can also follow her on Instagram and Facebook: