One Tool for All The Stories

Best Practices for capturing your family’s story on your smartphone.

I am a professional photographer, and yet, my daughter Ruby’s existence has been documented almost exclusively on my smartphone. While I am ever so grateful for modern dslr lenses and great big digital sensors, it isn’t lost on me that the value of an image is not presupposed by the value of the camera it was taken with. Beautiful stories can be told with a crayon, let alone a pinhole camera, or a $10,000 dslr setup. I have learned in my 20 years of shooting, that the best camera is the one with you. Smartphones are ubiquitous and have some of the finest camera technology in the history of photography. Point in short, the technology is not what is holding you back.

Time and lack of a plan is what is holding you back. [Jessi to the rescue!]


As you may have read in The Modern Heirloom Method, I am launching a series of tutorials and workshops where you will be provided with easy, clear instructions to document the stories of your family (both young and old) using available tools (hello smartphone). The best part is there is always a quick and dirty formula for super busy parents (which all of us are), and more in depth projects for those that want the freedom to get really creative. The point of this is to get YOU to start documenting the stories around you and then to funnel that digital media (photo, video, audio) into modern heirlooms.

BUT, before we jump into the projects, there are a few best practices that I think we should cover.

Lighting for Video Interviews

This photo was taken using available, indirect light, from a bank of windows on a living room wall.
  • A space washed with indirect light from a window is always preferred. Direct sunlight can be too harsh and is not flattering for video, at all. And while I am sure there is an exception to this rule, let’s not put Grandma under a midday ray of sun and expect her to be happy about the results. A space that is too dark can lead to grainy footage. Place your subject so that the light falls on all of their face. Side-lit interviews surely have their place, but the light can be suggestive of a darker or more emotional mood. A good rule of thumb is just to minimize the amount of shadows on an interviewee’s face.
  • If you are shooting indoors, find the biggest window in your house, and pick a time of day where is it bright with out direct rays of sun on your subject. Overhead lighting is terribly unflattering. If you must interview someone in artificial light, do your best to have the light source shine onto your subject from face on (you, the light source, and your camera should be facing the interviewee).
  • If you are shooting outdoors, finding a spot in the shade near a sunny location will ensure that you have flattering light on your subject. Unless you are an expert at manipulating exposure, light falling on your subject’s back can result video with your subject too dark. Just remember, you want a clean wash of light on your subject.
  • If you are not using an image stabilization device, such as a tripod or gorilla pod, make your body into a tripod: wide stance, elbows in, hold camera with both hands.

Audio Tips

  • Do not block the microphone on your camera while shooting video! And do your best not to rub against the microphone.
  • Be close enough to your subject that your audio will be intelligible and sound good.
  • If you are recording ONLY AUDIO (no video) get the mic close to your subject’s mouth, but not too close. Too close, means every breath they take is audible. I find that if you aim your smartphone’s screen at your subject’s face, but the mic (on the bottom of the phone) to their chest, makes for great audio without the breath issue. It should look like your subject is talk directly into the screen, and should be no more than 6-8 inches away from their chest.
  • Wind is the enemy of audio.
  • Eliminate background noise: fans, televisions, washers/dryers… anything that creates a hum or buzz or repetitive noise will be distracting.
  • Do not record audio while eating or drinking or chewing. Have them drink some water before hand, so their mouth is not dry. Dry mouths makes words sound super sticky and wet. You can hear the spittle with every pronunciation of p’s and k’s.

Interview Questions for Oral Histories

  • Open ended questions are essential to getting your subject to open up. “Yes” and “no” questions will result in a very short, and very frustrating interview..
  • Try to get any expositional footage you can: What time day, season, location are you in? Does your interviewee have a really interesting home/location filled with visuals that tell a bigger story of who they are. Shoot it! Remember slo-mo for these kinds of shots can be very helpful when editing.
  • Photographs and mementos are great triggers for memories. Sitting your subject down at a table with those objects in front of them, can lead to some of the best stories you will record. This leads me to…
  • Do not become married to a linear timeline of an interview. That isn’t really how the mind works. Start with a question or a date in time, and if your subject goes in a new direction, follow them, think on the fly, expand your questions.
  • If your interviewee starts to tell a story that is triggered by a specific photo or memento, make sure to get supplemental footage or a photo of that specific photo/memento; and if you really want to do a pro job, scan photos. If you are shooting video of said photo or memento, shooting in slo-mo is SUPER helpful when editing. It helps to smooth out the footage, and it also gives an emotional vibe to the visuals.
  • Everyone loves to eat. If you hit a snag or a lull, start asking about food memories: what was Christmas/birthday dinner like when you were a kid? Did your Grandma ever teach you to cook anything? Are there foods you miss when you were a child?
  • Let your interviewee’s personality come out: Is Grandma a jokester? Ask her to tell you a joke. Is Grandpa always talking about “kids these day”? Ask him to give you advice. Roll with it.
  • Finally, let them ask you some questions. Some people are VERY uncomfortable talking about themselves, this can help make your interviewee feel like this project is conversational and collaborative.

I am so excited for you to join me in this creative challenge to documenting your family’s stories as they happen, and your family’s history that deserves to be remembered.