My experience shooting a bat mitzvah


Yousuf El-Jayyousi

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity of shooting a bat mitzvah, the first event that I have ever shot for money. After shooting a mitzvah once, let me share with you what I learned to do and not to do.

  • Event Structure—To start off, the family will likely want to arrive at the Synagogue early to take photos, both group and portraits. After this, people will start to arrive for the service, which is generally around 10:00 a.m. The service is led by mainly the rabbi but also by the boy/girl whose mitzvah it is. At the beginning of the service the Rabbi will take out the Torah, and in my case, Emma’s brother held it and took it all the way around the room before returning back to the front. The service continued for about one to two hours, and at the end the girl took the Torah back around the room, followed by her family. Following the end of the service, lunch was served by Emma’s family. Additionally, this family had a party at their house later in the evening that I was also asked to take photos of. The party was sort of a social gathering for the adults and more of a party for the kids, who were separate from the adults.
  • Portrait Session—For the mitzvah I shot, the family asked me to arrive at 9:00 a.m., an hour prior to the service. The issue with this is that things happen and people run late, so as the photographer, you should ask for two hours prior for the portrait session. During this session you will take group photos of the family, which can be both outside and inside. I recommend starting inside on the bimah (the platform at the front of the synagogue). Begin with the boy or girl on their own and then bring in siblings, parents and grandparents from there. Be sure to take time to position everyone to make the photo as balanced as possible. After this take the boy or girl outside to take sort of senior-style portraits. This will give you a chance to get comfortable with him or her which can prevent camera shyness later on during the event. It’s also not a bad idea to take some portraits of the mother and father, as they likely have not had their photos taken recently, and they’re the ones paying you, so be sure to make them happy.
  • Talk to the rabbi—Depending on the community the family is from, there might be differing rules on what you take photos of and when. For example, some rabbis may not allow for any photos during the service; others may allow for some photos but only from the very back. Some also do not allow photos of the Torah; you just need to communicate ahead of time with the rabbi to be clear on the rules. You might also ask if there will be a rehearsal prior to the service that you may attend to be prepared for the actual event.
  • Gear—In terms of lenses, you will definitely want at least two lenses, a camera body for each one. One lens should be wide angle approximately 17-55mm in focal length (if you have one that has a lower fixed f-stop that’s definitely better). This lens is for capturing everyone there, as well as wide angles of the family interacting with others. A second lens should be a telephoto, about 80-200mm in focal length. This will be necessary for photos during the service, as you will likely be shooting from the very back and will need a lens that can zoom quite a bit. An additional lens you might consider is a prime lens 50-135mm in focal length to use for taking individual photos of the family and the girl or boy. For the lunch and party you will likely need an on-camera flash to help light the room, especially with moving subject and higher shutter speeds.
  • Photo opportunities—If you are allowed to take photos during the service, there will be many opportunities to get photos of the boy or girl reading from the Torah, which will definitely be an important photo. Towards the beginning and end they will be taking out and putting away the Torah but will also be carrying it around the room, giving you the opportunity to get close up shots and photos of them interacting with others. Towards the end, those attending the service may also toss those gold chocolate coins at the bimah, which is a great shot from behind with everyone standing up to throw and the boy or girl bracing for impact. If there is a lunch that follows, this will be another opportunity to get candid shots of everyone. Don’t only get photos of the family, but the entire event and everyone there. The family hired you so that they can remember the event, not just themselves.

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