Questions About Mitzvah Photography

Today's post comes from the book Professional Techniques for Photographing Bar and Bat Mitzvahs by Stan Turkel. Here we look at a few of the questions he poses about shooting a bar or bat mitvah. This book is available from and other fine retailers.

The dos and don’ts for mitzvah photography can cause photographers new to the genre to wonder and worry—and that trepidation can result in missed photo opportunities and stifled creativity. So what’s a photographer to do? The questions in this chapter should help you feel at ease and create your best work—in the most relaxed manner possible.

What do typical mitzvah photo packages sell for?
I thought this would be a good question to start with, as many photographers have very little point of reference for comparison. Just as in wedding photography, there are many considerations that determine the price of a mitzvah photo package, such as location, hours, style of photography, types of album designs, etc.

On average, a complete package that includes a finished album will sell in the range of $2000 to $4500. The higher-priced packages usually feature graphically designed albums. These are average prices, and there are definitely photographers selling packages well over the $5000 mark, based on talent and client base.

How much time is needed to photograph a mitzvah?
This is another great question. Mitzvah photography is broken down into two segments: The synagogue portrait session usually takes place midweek—on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon—the week before the Saturday mitzvah service. The reception typically takes place Saturday afternoon or evening the day of the service.

The portraits at the synagogue mid-week take about two hours, and then the party on Saturday afternoon or evening will be around four hours. For a busy photographer, two mitzvahs on a Saturday back to back (afternoon and then evening) is common. When you compare this to most weddings, you can see why photographing mitzvahs can be very lucrative for some photographers.

How many mitzvahs are there each year in the United States?
This is a tough question. While there is much published data on the wedding industry, this is not the case for mitzvahs. In conducting research for this book, I was amazed at how little information is available about the size of the market. You have to keep in mind that Orthodox Jewish families are a very small percentage of the mitzvah market, as they generally do not have bat mitzvah ceremonies and the bar mitzvah is more of a religious event with a much smaller celebration. With this said, it should be noted that Modern Orthodox families have grown in number and should be included in the mix with Reform and Conservative Jewish families, which make up 95 percent of the mitzvah market. The best way to come up with a guesstimate is to look at the following breakdown of synagogues in the United States.

The total estimated number of synagogues in the United States is 3900, based on a census made by the American Jewish Committee. Of these synagogues, 40 percent are Orthodox, 26 percent are Reform, and 23 percent are Conservative.

Using an educated guess, it is expected that at least 55 percent of the total synagogues have families that will have mitzvahs in any given year. Now comes the hard part. Each synagogue has a different membership size, and the age of the members also factors in when estimating how many mitzvahs will take place in the synagogue.

Assuming that there are approximately 2100 synagogues with mitzvah families, and each will have about fifty mitzvahs a year (a big guess that is probably on the low side), then we end up with 105,000 mitzvahs a year. No wonder this has become a large industry, worth millions of dollars!

What are the seasons for mitzvahs?
Mitzvahs take place throughout the year, but there is a slow season during the summer months of July and August. The reason for this is that most kids are out of school and are away at summer camps. The party following the mitzvah service is a big part of the scheduling and planning, so many families tend to wait until children are back from their summer vacations. Keep in mind that winter weather and Jewish holidays also affect the planning of dates, so don’t expect to see as many mitzvahs during the winter snow season and during Passover in the spring.

Are all mitzvahs held in synagogues?
There are many components to the religious aspect of the mitzvah, and reading from the Torah is a key item. There are many families that are not affiliated (members of a synagogue) but want to have their children participate in this rite of passage. They end up hiring a tutor to prepare the child way in advance, and they hold the service in a hotel or resort venue and have the child read or perform part of the service. This can be in the morning with a reception following or during the twilight hours with an evening reception.

Many rabbis disagree with this practice, but I have seen firsthand some beautiful and meaningful services with children who otherwise may not have had any religious orientation at this stage in their lives.

Is it okay to take photos during an actual service that is held on the Saturday of the mitzvah?
Generally, the answer is no. If the service is taking place in a synagogue, then the custom is not to have photography of any type. With that said, Reform synagogues are more relaxed about this sort of thing and allow photos and video, provided no flash is used and the photographer stands off to the side, so as not to cause a disturbance. This is why much of the formal photography is done at the synagogue midweek, when no religious service is being held.

Is it okay to use the Torah in photographs? I thought this was a very religious item and could not be touched or may only be touched by Jewish people. What is acceptable?
Reading from the Torah during the mitzvah ceremony is a key role taken on by the mitzvah child. It makes sense that the family would want pictures of the Torah and the child. Some of these will be images holding the Torah, while others will be actually reading from the Torah.

Here is where it gets tricky. The guidelines for what can be done with the Torah differ from synagogue to synagogue. Many synagogues will set aside a Torah that is not kosher (i.e., is damaged or has imperfections) and remove some of the parchment, producing a much lighter, “mock” Torah that is used only as a prop for photographs.

Other synagogues will allow you to photograph a “real” (kosher) Torah but mandate that it be handled only by a rabbi or cantor. There are also congregations that do not permit photographing the Torah, as they feel it is disrespectful.

As you can see, you will need to check with the congregation’s executive director well before the date of the session to know what is allowed. Every congregation will have an executive director that oversees the operation of the congregation. He or she will have a support staff that works with vendors, congregants, etc. These are the people the photographer will be interfacing with.

Once you work with a given synagogue, keep a set of notes that outlines what was allowed in terms of photography. Note that all synagogues prohibit you from moving equipment or tables around. Photographers have been restricted from working in certain synagogues for this reason alone.

Is there a difference in photographing a bar mitzvah boy versus a bat mitzvah girl?
There may be some differences depending on the affiliation of the family and the type of service the child has. For example, Modern Orthodox girls do not read from the Torah, so pictures of her reading from the Torah are obviously not expected; in the Conservative synagogue, however, the bat mitzvah girl does indeed read from the Torah, and photos representing this are expected. Be sure to ask the family whether their daughter will be reading from the Torah so you will know what to expect.

What’s special about photographing the party/reception for a mitzvah? Isn’t it like photographing a wedding reception?
From a photographic equipment point of view, this is correct. There are the same large venues, dim lights, DJs or bands, etc. On the other hand, there will be special rituals such as the kiddush and motzi that you will be sure to stay alert for. In this book, you can find all of the common rituals, customs, and special moments you will need to be sure to capture for the mitzvah family.

How many pictures will I need to capture?
On average, I shoot and deliver three hundred to five hundred images. In general, about one hundred to one hundred and fifty images are taken at the synagogue, and the rest of the images are captured at the party. If there is a candle-lighting ceremony, the photo count will be on the higher end of the estimate. You will find that the number of images you capture will also vary depending on the type of venue, whether it is an afternoon or evening event, etc.


Glamour Portrait Makeover

Today's post comes from the book Jerry D's Extreme Makeover Techniques for Digital Glamour Photographers by Bill Hurter. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Vandella is a bubbly, confident, and giving person who needed a little bit of a self-image boost. All of us experience what Vandella was feeling when she first met Jerry. She was tied up in the day-to-day routine of her life and needed to be reminded of the fact that she is special. When her portrait was delivered, she felt as if she had been given a new lease on life.

This how Vandella looked when she came to Jerry’s studio.

Vandella’s makeup was applied using the basic principles covered in chapter 1 of this book. At the completion of this process, the image below was created. This was the starting point for postproduction enhancement.

This is the first version of Vandella’s portrait. Notice the wrinkled tulle of the background fabric and the lack of shape in the oversized shirt.

The first step was to reshape her body and adjust the size of her breasts. This was accomplished using Photoshop’s Liquify filter (Filter > Liquify). Liquify is essentially a separate application within Photoshop that is used to stretch or distort areas within the photograph. In the Liquify window, Jerry selected the Forward Warp tool with a brush size of 516, a density setting of 50, a brush pressure of 80, and a turbulent jitter setting of 50 (this scrambles the reformatted pixels). With this tool, Jerry proceeded to adjust her shape by pushing the pixels into the desired positions. The image below shows Vandella after the Liquify process. In the upper right quadrant of the image, you can see that Jerry used the Clone Stamp tool to copy new fabric into the areas that were vacated by the Liquify filter. Note, too, the reshaped torso of Vandella.

Vandella’s torso was reshaped using the Liquify filter. After reshaping, Jerry used the Clone Stamp tool to repair areas of the background that became obviously distorted.

Jerry used the Clone tool to reshape Vandella’s hips, waist and arms (image below). The tool was set to 100 opacity and flow with a brush hardness of 80.

The torso was then reshaped using the Clone Stamp tool.

Next, a duplicate background layer was created. To this, Jerry applied the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) at a radius setting of 20 pixels. Working on the Gaussian Blur layer, Jerry then made two passes with the Eraser tool set at 30 percent opacity, restoring soft detail. Finally, he made another pass with the Eraser tool set at 80 percent opacity to bring out sharp image details (below).

After applying the Gaussian Blur filter on a duplicate background layer, sharpness was restored using the Eraser tool.

Jerry next applied the Burn tool as shown in the next image. This was adjusted to a 14 percent exposure setting. This technique creates shadows, which gives the illusion of depth. With each pass, the tonal values become deeper until the final effect is achieved.

The Burn tool was applied to add shape-revealing shadows.

Then, Jerry adjusted the contrast using the Brightness/Contrast function (Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast). His objective was to deepen the blacks and lighten the whites, producing better overall contrast (below).

The contrast was enhanced to deepen the blacks and lighten the whites.

The final step was to use the Dodge tool, at an exposure setting of 25 percent, around the edges of the body. This cleaned up all of the distracting details and gave the background a cleaner look. This image shows Vandella’s final portrait.

The completed image of Vandella.

Lighting for Senior Portaits

Today's post comes from the book Jeff Smith's Senior Portrait Photography Handbook. This book is available from and other fine retailers.

Ring Lighting. This lighting style is one that I have noticed becoming popular in commercial photography, and even television commercials, six or seven years ago. They used a large ring light, similar to the ring light used for macro-photography but three, four, or five feet in diameter. While these were initially very expensive, Alien Bees eventually released a small model that was around $600. At that point, I bought one. It is smaller than I would have liked it, but it works well for the price.

The ring light, whether it’s a larger model or a smaller one, works on the same principle as the small “around the lens” macro-photography version; you position the camera in the middle of the ring. The lighting effect can be beautiful, but it is not for everyone.

A portrait lighting setup with a ring light and trifold reflector

I call these two styles—butterfly lighting and ring lighting—my “pretty people” lights, because it will make pretty people look stunning. If, on the other hand, you try it on a girl who has a large nose, no cheekbones, or otherwise looks like Ichabod Crane . . . well, things can get ugly fast.

Spotlights. Spotlights have the unique ability to draw the viewer’s eye to the main area of interest in a portrait, normally the face. When using a spotlight for the main-light source, you have to test the amount of fill used so that you soften the harshness of the look but do not void
the effect of the spot.

One of my favorite ways to use this light is simply to pose the subject leaning on a white wall with a single grid spot illuminating the subject and background. Whether this shot is taken as a full-length or head-and-shoulders portrait, the look is striking and yet simple. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a consistent seller.

Spotlights have the unique ability to draw the viewer’s eye to the main area of interest in a portrait, normally the face.

Diamond Light. The desire to accentuate my subjects’ eyes led me to use what I call a diamond light. Because the important points of the facial plain form a diamond shape, I cut out a diamond in a black sheet of paper, put it on a mount for a projection box, and project the diamond-shaped light pattern onto the face at a slightly greater intensity than the standard main-light source. If the projection box is focusable, make sure the diamond pattern is out of focus so there are no distinct lines from the gobo. The effects are beautiful. (Note: A few years later I was watching a show on television and saw a Playboy photographer using the same technique to add a glamorous look to the face of the young lady. So much for my “original
idea.” Photographers have probably been using a variation on this lighting idea since before I was born!)

The diamond light highlights the important planes of the face.

Parabolics. Parabolics, essentially large reflector dishes, have been used in portrait photography for decades. If you can imagine combining the light from a softbox with the light from a spotlight, you would end up with something close to the lighting produced by a parabolic. The light is harder than the light produced by a soft light source, but it’s also more controllable.

I often use this type of lighting when I am going to diffuse an image. Many times, when photographers diffuse an image, they do nothing differently in their lighting and wonder why their images look “mushy.” By increasing the contrast of the image, more of the fine details are preserved when the shot is later diffused.

I also use parabolics for corrective lighting, something I learned by studying the lighting styles of a photographer by the name ofMarty Richert. He used parabolic lighting, combined with barn doors and gobos, to block portions of the main light from hitting areas he didn’t want the viewer
to notice. He used the same technique to tone down lighter areas that were closer to the main light and would record too brightly in the final photographs. This kind of previsualization and control is what it means to be a true professional photographer and a master of your craft. Guys
like this produced results in their original images that many photographers today could only re-create in Photoshop.

When I work with a parabolic as a main-light source, I typically use a flash for fill. With the added contrast of this type of lighting, reflected fill isn’t always sufficient to open up all the little shadows in the nooks and crannies of the face. If you are like me, you will also find that your fill needs to be powered up a little more (producing a lower lighting ratio) than it would be with a softer source. As you test this type of lighting, be very careful about getting proper lighting on the eyes, using your fill light to soften and control the contrast.

While some younger photographers might think this style of lighting has an “old school” look, in this business you quickly find that what was once old becomes new again very quickly. As a result, many of my younger clients find this style of lighting very “classic Hollywood.”



We'll be back next week with a new post. In the meantime, check out some new and upcoming books from Amherst Media.