Photographing military homecomings is one of the most rewarding and wonderful types of shoots there are. I consider it a huge perk of living in a military town that I get to shoot them on occasion. However, the first time I was asked to photograph one, I was clueless! There was only one blog that roughly outlined a ”how to” so I turned to trial and error. I do understand why it's hard to make a guide for this because every homecoming is different so there's no one size fits all session. However, I will try to give aspiring photographers and friends who were ”voluntold” to hold a camera, a basic rundown of how to get shareable photos. First of all, my disclaimer: I know that I am not the authority on this subject and every homecoming is different so take my plan with a grain of salt! Homecomings are different between branches, bases, units, and deployments. I am sharing my experience with a Marine Corps air station where most of my experience has been with squadrons flying in.
Let me first define the type of shoot I am talking about. A military homecoming is when a service member comes home from a deployment and their spouse, significant other, family sees them for the first time in months. It's a very emotional day with tears, flag waving, and photographs to remember the day. Often the service member has missed holidays and important dates and even the birth of their child.
Before the day:
Be prepared for all plans to change at the drop of a hat. Homecomings are notoriously late/changed at the last minute/3 weeks late. They also can come in at
all hours of the day. It can be similar to planning for birth photography in the block of time you must be willing to be available. Most people will be looking for a photographer once they have a general idea of when their service member is due home. Be sure to keep in contact with the client and stress it is important to keep you updated. Also, a note here: homecoming date, time, who, where, is all secret stuff. You can't be putting this information out anywhere! Have a plan of how you will get on base and to the area of the homecoming. If you do not have a military ID, the spouse will need to sponsor you on to base and this will need to be planned ahead of time.
I like to be there 30 minutes before the service member is supposed to be there. Rarely are they early, but it is terribly nerve racking to think about missing it!
Any camera will work! It is not the gear that matters! Personally, I shoot with a full frame dslr. For portraits I am a prime lens user but for homecomings I get out my 24-70mm zoom and 70-200mm zoom. The reunion happens so fast (and everyone runs!) that I find that when I have shot prime I didn't have enough time to ”zoom with my feet” fast enough to catch the action. For evening time, I also bring a high speed sync flash that I put on my hot shoe with a circular flash diffuser. Shoes you can move quickly in are a must! An extra I always like to bring are little American flags. There's not much that's cuter than a little kid waving a flag waiting for their parent and it also makes back of the head hugging shots more useable with the addition of a flag in their hand. Also, make sure to check the weather! Homecomings happen rain or shine (as you can see from the example homecoming I used) so bring the appropriate rain gear.
The big day:
After weeks of coordinating and schedule changes, you're finally at the designated homecoming area and the service member is on their way home. Now what? First thing, get your gear ready. Like I said earlier, things change and change fast! Get your settings set ahead of time (taking into consideration changing light) and make sure you have a charged battery in. Second, focus on your client. The significant other will most likely be nervous. Doesn't matter if it's their first homecoming or forth, most everyone is nervous. They are worried about if they got everything on their cleaning checklist done, if they'll recognize them, if the kids will be scared of him, etc and on top of all that they realize how ridiculous it is that they are nervous to see their significant other. I like to talk them through exactly what will happen and what I want them to do so that they have something to focus on rather than worrying about how they look. If they have kids I try to play with the kids because a) it is hard to parent when you are so nervous yourself and b) if you bond with the kids, they are way more likely to point their happy smiles in your direction.
Capturing waiting pictures:
It can be easy to go overkill on the waiting pictures, especially if you're waiting for 30 minutes plus. If there is kids, I keep most of my focus on the kids because that's what the clients care most about. I do make sure to get ones of the significant other because they can't get those images on their cell phone. A tip: the client standing just inside of the hanger/building looking out at you as you stand outside the building makes for some gorgeous light! Shots that I always try to get:
● standing and watching the sky/distance where they're coming from
● Signs if they made/brought them
● Significant other's hands (many people nervously play with their ring or the flag you gave them earlier)
● Portraits of the kids
● Kids playing
● Pointing/waving to the plane/bus
● Aircraft flying over if they are coming in on one
The big moment:
As I am talking through expectations, I ask the client to move to the side of the crowd so that we have more space to work with. I explain it as I would hate to miss THE shot because someone stepped between me and the couple. However, I'm always prepared that they will forget all of that and just beeline when they see their service member. Usually I have on my 24-70mm so that I can be pretty close to them. If it's only a few people I might put on my 70-200 so I can give them some space, but honestly, they will barely realize you're there even if you're only a foot away. I like to keep an aperture of f5 or f5.6 but going up to f8 if there's a number of kids. This is just my shooting style because I like to isolate the client against all the other reunions. I see it as this is the reason that they hired a photographer instead of just handing their phone to someone standing around. Then I like to boost the shutter speed to keep up with the clients running and compensate for my fast movements as well. ISO I will often set to auto if there's a chance the client will move from sun to shade. Once we are given the go ahead to meet them, we start walking slowly and I ask that the client wait until they see their service member before they start running. I keep my camera's focus on their face so that I can capture that moment when they see their service member. A good thing to remind clients beforehand is to find out which aircraft/bus they will be arriving on. It saves a lot of uncertainty that way. Then I start to book it towards the person they're smiling at. I like to be behind and to one side of the service member so that I can capture the expression of the kids/significant other as they run to each other (#1). Then I try to move in a semi circle around them (2-3)to get a side view for their kiss (4) and then his expression as they hug (5). Below is a crude drawing where I am yellow, service member is dark blue, significant other/family are light blue:
After that first embrace, I will continue shooting as they talk a bit. If it's not intrusive, I will introduce myself. Then after a few minutes I will try to take a family picture in front of the aircraft/unit insignia, making sure to also get one of service member and each kid if there are kids there. Other shots I like to include:
● Closeup of holding hands
● Service member playing with kids
● Shot of aircraft if they flew in on one
● Service member's bags
● Family walking away
● Unit insignia
Once I have those shots I will usually just wave to my client and leave. I don't want to intrude on their special time and the service member usually just wants to get out of there :) I will talk to the client beforehand as we're discussing priority shots to let them know that's what I will be doing. Another situation that occasionally happens is the service member will arrive home
on a commercial airplane. So meeting the service member will take place just outside of security at an airport. I recommend calling the airport security to ask if there's any restrictions. I have never had a problem but they certainly appreciated knowing I was coming with camera equipment. For this kind of homecoming I will usually bring my flash and bounce it as the airport near me has low ceilings and low lighting.
Hopefully this has given you the confidence to try your first military homecoming shoot! I tried to be as detailed as possible because I appreciate details! Please don't let this overwhelm you though! Most important is this: the client will not care about the quality if you capture generally what happened. They will not notice grain, or harsh shadows, or uneven lighting, or any other condition that makes photographers cringe. All they will notice is that you captured one of the most emotional and special days of their lives! If you take nothing away from this article but this, I have accomplished my goal! Good luck shooting!
Kim Habecker is a mom-tographer and military spouse currently living in North Carolina. She is a portrait photographer on the weekends and mom to two little girls the rest of the time. You can find her on Facebook (Kim Habecker Photography) or her website kimhphoto.com.