Lancaster Family Photography: Spring Session with Janet & Kai


I have been antsy to get out and take photos to get my creative juices flowing after being cooped up all winter and adjusting to life with a newborn. With the spring blooms everywhere and Mother's Day coming up, I asked my friend Janet if she and her son Kai would model for a mother-son session with me at Buchmiller Park, just outside Lancaster City. The light was absolutely perfect and the cherry blossom curtains made for some fun playful images. I've been photographing Kai since he was a newborn and I can't believe how much he has grown into a little boy. 

I also want to take this opportunity to remind all the moms (and dads) out there to get in the frame with your kids. You won't regret it and your kids will appreciate it years from now. My mom was the picture taker and documentarian in our family. We have carefully organized photo albums from all of our childhood years, thanks to my mom, along with detailed baby books and binders of our childhood artwork and other school papers, even "love notes" that boy crushes wrote to me. I know I have appreciated looking through these memories over the years and hope that I can do just as good of a job documenting life for my own kiddos AND also make sure that I appear in the frame from time to time. So here's my pitch to you; make your spouse or your friend or your dog take some photos of you and the kiddos interacting (selfies don't count!). OR hire a photographer (pick me!) to photograph your family. In fact, I've got gift certificates available and mother's day is just around the corner...

Personal: Nolan Avery's Birth Story

 Nolan Avery, four days old

Nolan Avery, four days old

Ever since I became a mom to my daughter a couple years ago, I have loved hearing (and sharing) birth stories. I always tell people that I have never felt the mind, body, soul connection more deeply in my life than I did when I was giving birth to my daughter. And I've never felt more vulnerable, yet more strong and proud of what my body can do. It was truly a spiritual experience for me, and I remain in awe of the mystery and miracle that is birth. 

I would say that my second birth experience was equally as powerful as my first, everything just happened a little faster. The following describes the 24 hours leading up to Nolan's birth. Just to lay a bit of background, I should mention that this pregnancy was less complicated than my first for a few reasons, the main one being that I did not have gestational diabetes. There was no diet regulation, no checking my blood sugars four times a day, no extra ultrasounds or non-stress tests. I also didn't have the swollen feet or get the charlie horse leg cramps in the middle of the night like I did when pregnant with my daughter. So all around, it was an easier pregnancy, other than the fact that I had a toddler to chase around.

Tuesday, March 27th, 24 Hours Before Nolan's Birth

On Tuesday evening, March 27th, at 40 weeks and 6 days pregnant, I headed to my routine prenatal appointment. My doctor checked my cervix and found that I was 3 cm dilated and 50% effaced, which meant I was a good candidate for a membrane sweep. This is a simple procedure where they use a finger to sweep between the membrane of the amniotic sac and the uterus. It is a good way to get labor started without drugs or other interventions. I was anxious about this because I had Googled it and read about other women saying it hurt, so when the nurse took my blood pressure and saw it was high, I wasn't surprised; however, when the doc did the sweep, I did not mind one bit. I remember asking her, "Did you do it? Wow, that didn't hurt at all!" I then did a non stress test and baby boy passed with flying colors (which I knew he would because he was extremely active throughout my entire pregnancy).

That night I had menstrual-like cramps in my lower back and in my lower abdomen. I figured this was due to the membrane sweep since cramps are fairly common following that procedure. I had been having these cramps and Braxton Hicks contractions periodically during the last month of my pregnancy as well. When I woke up the next morning and still hadn't gone into labor, I felt a sinking disappointment. I was SO sure that I would go into labor in the middle of the night when the time finally came and I was hoping it would happen that night.

Wednesday, March 28th, Nolan's Birthday

Being a week overdue at this point, I was feeling nervous because I did not want to be induced. I had an ultrasound scheduled for Wednesday afternoon to check on baby and since I don't like extra testing, I was not looking forward to it. I convinced my husband to work from home to babysit Cora so that I could swim laps at Franklin and Marshall College over lunch to destress and get some of my favorite type of exercise (I am a mermaid, after all, remember?) The cramps continued to come and go periodically that morning and were painful enough that they were annoying and hard to ignore so I decided to meet up with friends at Commonwealth Kitchen & Cafe for a distraction (also I felt like I had to poo and knew that a mocha latte would probably do the trick, and it did :-p). 

As I was swimming laps over lunch, I noticed the cramps were continuing so I decided to time them on the digital wall clock as I swam. I was a bit surprised to find that they were happening consistently 4 to 5 minutes apart. By the time I got out of the pool and had my hot shower, I had the sense of urgency that I should probably get home and figure out if this was the real thing. I had been anticipating labor for so long that I was in disbelief that it could actually be happening now, and like I said I was convinced it would happen in the middle of the night. I called into my doctor's office on my way home and spoke to the phone nurse since my doctor was not in that day. After describing my symptoms she suggested I go into the hospital and get checked.

Even though I had been prepared for this for weeks, I was a mess when I got home and forgot to pack several of my toiletries and clothing items that I meant to throw in my hospital bag. I was choking back tears as we rushed around to gather our things. I sobbed as I hugged Cora goodbye, knowing that the next time I saw her we would be a family of four and everything would be different.

Upon arrival in triage they found I was 5 cm dilated, which surprised me because even though the contractions were starting to become more intense, I remember 5 cm being a lot more difficult to endure when I was in labor with Cora. Lancaster General Women and Babies Hospital was packed that day, so it took them a little while to get us into a labor and delivery room. I never had a chance to eat lunch and I think the caffeine and anxiety of being in labor and not quite ready made my blood pressure go super high, which meant they had to check it every half hour while I was in labor and do some blood work. Thankfully everything was fine.

Once we got into our room, I was relieved that my blood pressure came down enough that I did not have to get a hep-lock in my hand. Being able to move freely and change positions during labor was one of the most important things to me, so I did not want an IV nor did I want to be hooked up to monitors. I also did not want any drugs, epidural or pain killers. It may sound crazy, but as I said with my first birth, I wanted to fully experience this thing that women have been doing since the beginning of time. Side note: I'm also a big fan of Ina May's Guide to Childbirth and that book very much impacted my desires for my labor and birth experience. Second side note: I think all moms are heroes, no matter how they gave birth. I know many friends whose birth stories did not turn out as they desired or imagined; regardless I just want to acknowledge that every mom who has ever given birth has done an incredible thing. 

My mom and doula arrived soon after we got settled in the room and labor continued to progress and become more intense. During contractions I spent a lot of time rocking on the birthing ball, on all fours and sometimes lunging or squatting. I also spent some time in the tub. Dave and my doula Meghan of Village Birth Collective were awesome at encouraging me and applying pressure to my back and hips. The ambience was set just as I desired with folky music playing, dim lights and lavender essential oil diffusing through the air. I tried my best to focus on relaxing my face and mouth through every contraction, knowing how important it is to help relax the pelvic floor muscles and help labor progress.

Below I'm posting some super low quality photos and video that my mom took while I was in labor. When I look at these, I think I appear a lot calmer and more peaceful than what I was feeling inside.

In no time at all I had entered transition and the deep moans coming from within me grew louder and wavering. This part of labor I find to be the most intimate and transcendent; entering into that space where mind, body and soul are so intertwined and focused on nothing else but bringing that sweet babe into the world. The doc checked me and I was 7 cm dilated and as she was in there poking around, my water broke. Within the next half hour I was having the urge to push. I tried to surrender to my body and let it do all the work but the little guy still came fast and furious and I ended up with a second degree tear. After probably 4-5 contractions and less than 10 minutes of pushing, Nolan Avery arrived earthside, born at 5:50 p.m. weighing 7 pounds 10 ounces after less than 5 hours of labor. Now, a month later he is becoming a chunky little piglet and we all adore him so.


If you want to see Cora meeting her new baby brother for the first time, click here to view the Fresh 48 video and photos by Vanessa Shenk of Vanessa Joy Films. Hearing Cora's sweet little voice saying, "You want to hold him Daddy?" gets me every time. We will treasure this always. 

NOTE: The photos and video above of me in labor were taken by my mom with a low quality point-and-shoot camera, not to be confused with Vanessa's professional work.

And below are a few more photos taken by me of baby Nolan in his first month of life.

Melissa Engle Photography offers portrait and lifestyle photography in Lancaster, PA. Please contact me if you would like to make some photo magic together!

Lancaster Newborn Lifestyle Photography: Baby Gwen

Lately all of my sessions have revolved around newborns and babies and I'm ok with that! At 39 weeks pregnant, this was the last photo session I did before giving birth to our son. I know I've said it many times, but I have really enjoyed photographing in home lifestyle sessions this winter. I first met Melissa and Ryan over a year ago when they hired me to photograph their wedding. When I heard they were expecting a baby (just a week or so before me!) and wanted me to photograph her as a newborn, of course I said yes! All of the color in these photos makes my heart happy, and on top of that baby Gwen let me capture some of the sweetest, most ginormous newborn yawns. 

Melissa Engle Photography offers portrait and lifestyle photography in Lancaster, PA. Please contact me if you would like to make some photo magic together!

The New Brand and Making of Melissa Engle Photography

 A recent photo of my daughter and I in the alleyway across from our home in Lancaster City at 39 weeks pregnant with our son.

A recent photo of my daughter and I in the alleyway across from our home in Lancaster City at 39 weeks pregnant with our son.

I am SO very excited to finally share the new website and face of my brand, Melissa Engle Photography. First off, I am going to tell you about the magic of where it all began and the history of how this passion of mine turned into what it is today. Warning, it is quite wordy because it covers more than 20 years of my journey with photography, so if you want to just skip to my new brand story, just scroll right on down.

Glamour shots and where it all began...

At the age of 12, I participated in a glamour shots photo session with my mom and younger sister (remember those mid-90’s poof bangs and perms?). I loved the experience of getting my hair and makeup done and being wrapped in feather boas, sequins and shiny silk scarves. Of course, I have to share some of the photos below so you’ll believe me.


After the glamour shots, I started recreating the experience with my friends. My mom gave me her film SLR camera (a trusty old Canon AE-1) and I would have my friends over for photo shoots. I would do their hair and make-up and then I would photograph them. I even asked for feather boas for my thirteenth birthday and I still have them in my costume box to this day. If you know me now, you know that I still love to dress up and go to costume parties.

Below is one of my very first glamour shot photos taken of my best friend and favorite model Kristi at age 12. For the backdrop we hung a blanket over the curtain rod of sliding glass doors and I used a desk lamp to light her face. I remember feeling so proud when we went to pick up the prints at K-Mart because they asked my mom if they were taken by a professional photographer (because if they were, we needed the photographer’s permission to have the prints.)


My first real job as a freelance newspaper photographer

Fast forward to the last couple years of high school and I got a job as a freelance photographer for the local newspaper Public Opinion. I loved the opportunity to meet all kinds of people through my photography and document events from bull auctions to parades and even my high school prom! At school I excelled in my black and white film photography class and became fascinated with developing my prints in the dark room.

 Notice my name in the byline?

Notice my name in the byline?

When it came time to choose a major for college, I chose studio art with a photography concentration. During my years as a student at Messiah College, I developed a passion for photo journalism and storytelling through photography. I did an independent study during a study abroad in Ecuador documenting life there using black and white film. In my senior year I got a job working as an assistant wedding photographer and also photographed my first wedding solo (on film since this was still before digital was commonplace).

Below are two images from my study abroad black and white film series in Ecuador.

Landing my dream job with Mennonite Central Committee

In the summer of 2005 right after graduating from college I landed my dream job as staff photographer for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an international non-profit organization working in relief, peace and development around the world. I knew that this job was a divine answer to prayer. I could have never dreamed or imagined that I would have the opportunities to travel the world as a young twenty-something telling stories of the humanitarian work of MCC through my photography. Over four years I traveled to 26 countries on 5 continents and along with a writer we gathered stories and images for MCC’s magazine, a Common Place that would be shared with donors and partners of the organization. I loved that I was doing something good with my photography. I saw it as a way to not only educate others about life in developing countries but as a way to give back and portray people living in hard situations with dignity and respect. I learned so much from these experiences and was richly blessed by the hospitality and wisdom of the people I met in my travels.

In 2010 after working as a staff photographer for four years at Mennonite Central Committee and then spending a year of my life living and volunteering in Nicaragua (more on that some other time), I returned to the U.S. and decided to turn my passion into a business. I went through the SCORE workshops, created a website, got liability insurance, opened a business account and became official! Eight years later I am still learning about what it means to be a business owner. I will be honest, it is not easy. I am pretty terrible at the business side of things (budgeting, finances, marketing, etc) My strengths lie in relating well to people and being creative minded along with having a wide variety of photography experience.

The new brand and website of Melissa Engle Photography

So, in unveiling my new brand and website, I wanted to create a look and feel that is professional, welcoming and reflects who I am and the people I want to serve. I have always been a mermaid at heart, so my brand colors reflect the soft blue green hues and warm grays of the ocean. My main logo is more refined and I also have a hand lettered logo monogram “MEP” for Melissa Engle Photography that is more whimsical and flowy.

When I started my business in 2010, I was photographing a variety of people and events, mostly focusing on wedding and portrait photography. I never had the courage to go solo full time so between 2010 and 2015 I held part time jobs to make sure I had a steady income. I worked as staff photographer for Franklin and Marshall College for a couple of years during this time and really enjoyed documenting student life and doing editorial photography. When my daughter was born in 2015, my life changed pretty drastically. I decided to become a stay-at-home-mom and run my business full time (though it's definitely not a full time gig at the moment!). 

 My daughter Cora, age 2, post nap

My daughter Cora, age 2, post nap

There are several reasons for my business rebrand, but the main one is to narrow my focus to portrait, family and lifestyle or documentary photography. I've spent the past year really thinking about my photography style, vision and purpose behind my business and I hope that comes through in my new website. I know that my favorite images usually involve bright, vibrant colors, magical light and genuine expressions. The photographs that really make my heart sing are those that show connection and tell a story. I want the people I photograph to treasure their images for years to come, and to see beauty in the everyday and extraordinary moments I am able to capture for them. I hope that my clients see photography as a worthy investment and can realize from working with me that I put my whole heart into my work and that I genuinely care about serving them the best I can.


The biggest struggle with launching my new brand but also an important thing to address has been raising my prices. I know a price increase has been long overdue, not only based on my experience and what other similar photographers charge in this area, but because reality is that running a photography business costs more money than you might think. I will leave the nitty gritty to another blog post for another time, but I will just say that nearly half of my income from 2017 went towards business expenses. With what is left of that income, I need to pay myself a salary for personal living expenses (groceries, health insurance, saving money for retirement, paying for my daughter's preschool, and my ice cream fund-haha). Covering those personal expenses right now is my goal for my business and I'm not there yet. My husband pays for everything else: mortgage, utilities, and all our insurance (cars, health, life, etc). I realize that affording quality photography is a luxury for some, which is why I offer short mini sessions at least once a year. If you're curious to know more about the business side of things, ask me! I am happy to divulge. 

Thank you for taking the time to read about my photography journey! I'd love to hear your feedback. Shout outs to these talented photographers and artists who brought my new brand to life:

Jeff Frandsen for logo design

Cinnamon Wolfe for website set up and design

Melissa Engle Photography offers portrait and lifestyle photography in Lancaster, PA. Please contact me if you would like to make some photo magic together!

Lancaster Family Photography: Natalie One Year Session at Stauffer's Greenhouse

Little miss Natalie is turning one at the end of March and we wanted to find a place to do her one year session that felt colorful and fun but was also warm. We decided to go to the greenhouse at Stauffer's of Kissel Hill. Since spring is on it's way, there were plenty of flowers galore, and we sat her right among them for photos. I think she probably tasted a few too. Big brother Josiah had a great time dipping in all of the fountains while Mom and Dad took turns getting photos with Natalie.

Lancaster Newborn Lifestyle Photography: The Millers Welcome Baby Ben

My friends Shawn and Candice recently welcomed their newborn son Ben into the world and I had the pleasure of doing an in home newborn lifestyle session for them. These types of sessions are quickly becoming some of my favorites because of the candid, raw moments I am able to capture. Big sister Eva wasn't a huge fan of being in photos at first but she was happy to show off her awesome cowgirl hat and when baby brother started crying she was quick to comfort him. I have enjoyed documenting the Miller family over the years, starting with Candice and Shawn's engagement, then the arrival of their daughter and now as they have become a family of four!

Soon we will be welcoming our own baby boy into our family and I am curious to see how the transition will go with my own daughter, who is very close in age to Eva.

Melissa Engle Photography provides portrait, family and lifestyle photography in Lancaster, PA. Get in touch to schedule your session!

Five Ways to Plan for the Best Photo Shoot Ever

I often get asked for suggestions on what to wear for photo sessions as well as ideas on location and theme so I will dedicate this blog post to providing some inspiration in that regard. My hope is to portray you looking your best and also make sure you are as comfortable as possible in front of the camera to get candid, natural shots. I want to show what is unique about who you are so below I suggest five points to consider when preparing and planning for your portrait session.

1. What to Wear

For coordinating group photos, I think it works well to pick a color scheme and add an accent color(s) if you desire. It is fine if some folks wear solids and some wear patterns. I am not a fan of everyone dressing matchy matchy. Varying colors and textures adds interest. Also, think about the season and the colors around you. If its summer and the trees are full of green leaves, you might not want to wear shades of green, for example. I would also avoid wearing clothing with words or graphics because it can be distracting. Below is a good example of the Casler family using a red and navy color scheme that mixes and matches solids with patterns. You can try basing your outfits around what your kids are wearing or vice versa. You can check out my boards on Pinterest for more ideas.

2. Location & Mood

Location can also say something about who you are or the mood you want to portray in your photos. For example, I think the image below of singer/songwriter Mindy Nolt playing guitar in a field of golden grasses evokes a feeling of fall and folk music.

The photos below from Laurie and Mike's engagement session have an urban feel. They both live in Lancaster City and wanted their photos to reflect the place where they live and spend time together. While I often default to a local park for portrait sessions, I love to shoot in different locations and I'm always happy to help you come up with ideas.

3. Accessorize

I suggest bringing a favorite hat, piece of jewelry, scarf, pair of shoes, etc. that you can wear for some of the photos and take off for others. Accessories can add a pop of color or texture to your outfit and add visual interest and personality. 

Flower crowns are also a great addition to any photo session and they are all the rage these days! I like how the feminine lace of Vanessa's black gown contrasts with the burst of color in the flowers.

Another example of how a scarf can make a photo more interesting. And p.s. you can almost never go wrong with a shade of red or coral.

4. Props

You are more than welcome to bring props along to your session. I have some you can borrow as well. Suggestions might be a wagon for the kiddos, an interesting chair, a guitar, a suitcase, books to read, a blanket, a basket to gather apples or stick a baby in, bubbles, fresh flowers, balloons, your dog, an awesome car, etc. Check out some great prop examples below.

5. Theme

While your photo shoot doesn't necessarily need a theme per say, it can make your photo shoot more unique, natural and fun. Some examples of location themed photo shoots I would suggest are a local fair, a garden, an orchard, a greenhouse, a market, a pumpkin patch or a farm. Having activities for people to do is one of the best ways to get real smiles vs. fake grins. Here's a great example below of the Coleman family at the Ephrata Fair.

Leah and Jansen did a winter campfire engagement session at their historic home on the Hans Herr House property. They chopped wood, built a fire and had a picnic while snuggling in a warm blanket together. Making an activity into a photo shoot creates the opportunity for images that are more authentic and genuine and the results are less posey and forced. Think of an activity you like to do and we can probably make it a photo shoot! Ideas might be go on a hike, paddle a canoe, visit your favorite coffee shop or cafe, go to a baseball game, have a tea party, etc.

And here are some more favorites from a session with the Shirk Family at Cherry Hill Orchard during apple picking season. I love the blue, yellow and purple color combo with cowgirl boots.

I'd love to hear your ideas! Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments!