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May 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Military Homecomings

9 min read

A military homecoming can be the most exhilarating event a photographer shoots. The energy is overwhelming, the emotion is raw and authentic, and the experience is wildly humbling. Shooting military homecomings can also be incredibly daunting. How do you know when, where, or how your client’s service member will arrive home? What should you charge for homecomings? How do you even find homecoming clients? 

As someone who’s shot 48 military homecomings in the last two years – and experienced a few of my own as a Marine Corps spouse – I have you covered! 

military homecoming

What is a military homecoming? 

A military homecoming is when a service member returns from a deployment. Deployments can be any length of time – in the Marine Corps, many deployments are about six months – and can be all over the world. Service members can return from a deployment in any number of ways: as a large unit on a big military plane, by themselves via a passenger jet, on a huge ship, etc. They can be on a military base, at a civilian airport, or even at the service member’s house. Sometimes the service member will be in uniform and sometimes they won’t.

Are you starting to sense a pattern?military couple reuniting

No two military homecomings are the same but one thing is for certain: they will never go exactly as you expect them. If you’re someone who likes to have certainty, to guarantee you’ll have good light and a gorgeous backdrop and perfectly styled clients, homecomings may not be your jam. 

If you thrive on capturing big feelings and don’t mind a bit of chaos, read on for my most frequently asked questions from photographers about shooting military homecomings!

military couple hugging

I’ve received an inquiry for a military homecoming! What do I need to know?

The first questions I ask a potential client about shooting their military homecoming are: 

  • The deployment type (ship name, MEU, IA, etc.)
  • Where they are returning
  • If there is a return window 
  • If I can be sponsored on base

I book by deployment type and not by date. Why? Dates can – and will – change. Your client will have a date range before their service member deploys but by experience, deployments can be extended.

couple kissing

For example, for my husband’s last deployment, he was expected to arrive home in early January. In December, I got a message saying that the deployment was extended indefinitely. Thankfully, it was only extended eight weeks. But this is why many homecoming photographers don’t book without a secured date a few weeks in advance and even then, dates can change.

I’ve had many homecomings pushed a day or two because of broken planes or weather or missing equipment. Because of this, I don’t book other portrait sessions during the return window. 

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If you’re a civilian, you also need to ask if you can be sponsored onto base, if necessary. If the client is a dependent, they can sponsor you on to base, or they can ask to have you added to a gate pass list. But always let your clients know ahead of time that you will need base access! 

military homecoming celebration

What do I charge to photography a military homecoming?

What to charge a military homecoming client is up to you and your own cost of doing business. Personally, I price homecomings based on the type of homecoming and where it is.

San Diego has seven military bases for three different branches. When I first started out, I priced all of my homecomings the same: $150 for unlimited photos. The problem was that at some homecomings, I was waiting with my clients for four hours at midnight and at other homecomings, we’d arrive, wait five minutes, the family would be reunited and that was that. 

Last year, I shifted my pricing structure to charge differently based on the type of homecoming. I’ve found that homecomings with more military personnel – aircraft carriers, large ground units and battalions – typically require us to wait longer or can be at rough hours versus returns at a civilian passenger airport or at an airfield, so I charge the most for those.  

couple embracing at military homecoming

I’m booked! Now what?

Awesome! Now is where things really get exciting. 

Upon signing the contract and paying the deposit, I ask my clients to fill out a questionnaire that has basic information: folks who will be at return, how the deployment has gone (this informs how the return may go), anything specific they want photographed, etc. I also send them a “homecoming outfit guide” blog post from my website.

I ask them to tell their service member to, if they can, text when they land/dock and, if applicable when they actually leave their landing location.

If the service member is unable to communicate, I tell my client that we should arrive at the reunion site at the time their unit liaison suggests. Finally, I let them know that I am available to communicate with as much or as little as they want for support. 

family military homecoming

It’s Homecoming Day! What do I need to do?

I hope you got a good night’s sleep because today is going to be amazing! The main thing to keep in mind is that homecomings require a lot of hurrying up and waiting. You may rush to get to the reunion site only to wait around for a few hours.

Be patient; you may be anxious but I can promise that your client is even more anxious. There are so many emotions surrounding the reunion: excitement, trepidation, anxiety, joy. It’s an emotionally-charged moment and keep that in mind during every interaction with your client.

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To help keep me organized, I have a homecoming day mental checklist:

  • In the morning, I check in with my client about arrival time and arrive at the reunion location when they do or shortly thereafter. 
  • I wear layers, pants or a hoodie with pockets, closed-toe shoes (or sandals in which I can run), bring a hat and sunscreen, a bottle of water, and plenty of high-protein snacks. We could be waiting for five minutes to five hours, so I want to be prepared! 
  • Make sure batteries are charged and ready to go.
  • I put my 24-70 lens on and set my shutter speed to 1/500.

Then, I mentally go through my shot list: 

  • Waiting for the reunion: I get a mix of both candid and posed shots (in front of decorations, with signs, with friends, etc.) along with any detail shots. 
  • The actual reunion 
  • I try to get in between and off to the side of clients reuniting. If I can’t, I start behind the client facing service member head-on, then do a rotation around the reunion, getting a mix of zoomed-in and distance shots.
  • A few posed photos after the reunion of the service member in various iterations with those in attendance 
  • I also make sure to take this photo on their phone so they have a quick one to send to family.
  • Note: If you miss “the moment,” don’t be afraid to ask them to redo it! Ask them to kiss (but be mindful that PDA in uniform is frowned upon) or cuddle up.

military couple

What do you do AFTER a session?

You did it! You photographed one of the most exhilarating moments of someone’s life. 

The first thing I do when I get home is immediately cull my photos. I send a sneak peek within 24 hours and the full gallery within two weeks. 

Yes, you took (I’m sure!) some beautiful photos. But you also provided support during an emotional experience. You captured memories that will last a lifetime and will cherish long after their service ends. 

Written by Jen Jordan | Photos by Jen Jordan Photography

Mar 2024

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