The ABC’s of Photographing a Barmitzvah

    The ABC’s of Photographing a Barmitzvah…

    … may not be for everyone, but with enough practice and experience, it becomes second nature and is an amazingly fun day.  If the congregation is Reform, I can photograph on a Saturday in the synagogue, if Orthodox or Conservative, I cannot photograph in the synagogue on Saturday… but I have photographed many a Bar Mitzvah on a Thursday morning. It goes something like this.

    The night before, gather all photography gear, pack bags, choose clothes, and head to bed… it will be an early day and I need some sound sleep.

    8:00 a.m. Wake up, shower, dress, eat, head to the synagogue to meet the family.  My assistant and I meet at the synagogue at 8:45 a.m. We have pre-ceremony photographs to take before the morning service begins at 9:45 a.m.

    I usually start all my Bar Mitzvah coverages at the synagogue on the afternoon of the last rehearsal, usually the previous Thursday night.  There are plenty of family photographs to take, and splitting the shooting between two days allows me to capture great sets of images.

    On the day of the service, things can get moving quite quickly. So quickly, in fact, that by trying to get all the images on that one Saturday morning would simply result in running out of time. Its just that there can be so many families and family members to photograph, that’s why I like to get my “head start” at the Thursday rehearsal.

    If the services begins at 9:45 a.m., we are on site by 8:00 a.m.  I need to get photographs of our young Bar Mitzvah and his immediate family before the service begins.  Next we get images with the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.  Sometimes a few of the relatives may run a little late complicating the schedule a bit, (we will deal with them later).

    The Rabbi arrives about 9:00 a.m. for the final run through with the bar mitzvah.  I have to be finished with my photographs around the time he arrives.  The walk thorough with the Rabbi is my opportunity to get close up images of the Torah and Bar Mitzvah boy which I will intertwine with photo of the service.

    Since the Rabbi is conducting the walk through, all is quite relaxed.  I just need to get my shots quickly and efficiently without holding him up in any way. By 9:35 a.m. the run through is complete and the Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah boy retire to the Rabbi’s study to relax for a few minutes before the service begins.  The rest of the family take their seats up front.

    I finish up with several detail photographs of the Torah, flowers, program, guests arriving, and what ever looks promising and interesting for coverage.  I’ve got to be finished and out of the way by 9:40 a.m.  I have prepped two cameras, one long lens on a tripod (usually my 70-200 f2:8), and the other camera on my body with an 85 f1:2 to shoot in the sanctuary without a flash. If I am photographing with an assistant, I would have him or her in the balcony to photograph wide angle shots of the sanctuary.

    The service starts simply enough with Rabbi’s opening welcome remarks to the congregation and the Bar Mitzvah.  We are now underway and our young Bar Mitzvah steps up to the Bimah to conduct the service.  At this time, I usually get a few shots of both the Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah interacting with each other.  There will be a few instances of both singing and prayer and I simply follow the action.  The next big thing to happen in the service is bringing the Torah to the Bimah for the Torah reading.

    Next all parents and grandparents join the Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah on the Bimah .  Rabbi then passes the Torah from person to person – symbolically, as if passing it from generation to generation.

    The Torah ends up in the arms of our young Bar Mitzvah.  At the Rabbi’s signal, everyone on the Bimah follows Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah off the Bimah as they process the Torah through the synagogue.  It always makes for great photos as the congregants reach out and touch their prayer books to the torah to show their reverence and respect.

    Once the Rabbi and our Bar Mitzvah are back on the Bimah , the Torah gets undressed – which means removing the protective decorative torah covers.  The service continues with the Torah readings and aliyahs from special family members asked to join the Rabbi on the Bemah.  After the aliyas and haftorah readings, the Rabbi will share a few words with our Bar Mitzvah.  They may both make the trip to the Ark for a blessing.  Afterwards the parents will come up to make their speeches to their son; giggles, tears, hugs, and all.  This is usually followed by the grandparent’s prayer whom will be invited back to the bemah for the honors.

    Shortly afterwards, the Torah will be returned to the Ark and final prayers will be said.

    There may be a few presentations of gifts from the Rabbi or a few more short speeches.  The service wraps up with the Kiddush.

    It is then customary to throw sweets or candy at the Bar Mitzvah boy, symbolizing a life filled with sweetness.  

    I may then photograph more of the family if they did not make it to the early morning photoshoot.  We need to shoot this quickly as all the guests are starting to leave and heading for the luncheon.  We make the dash from the sanctuary to the banquet hall, and shoot the beautiful room setting just seconds before all the congregants and guests start filing in.  It can be pretty close timing but we pull it off.

    That’s pretty much the sequence of events on this special morning.  The key is to say alert to everything going on and not miss a thing.

    I truly enjoy hearing these young adolescents conducting the service and sharing what they’ve learned from their Torah portion and what they learned from the entire experience.  What an exciting and educational experience, but even more, what a preparation for life’s successes for these young 13 year olds!

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