Piece of Cake: Best Practices for Photographing Your Children
Twice a month we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in December, 2009.
Kids are absolutely the funniest little creatures on the planet. One minute, they're laughing, the next minute...well...total meltdown. And when you are a momarazza like myself, camera in hand, you will never miss an opportunity to capture your children in action. As simple as it may seem (or perhaps you don't think it sounds simple at all!) this can be a difficult task which requires cunning skill and patience. Try these tips to get your creative juices flowing.
1. Don't Forget the Tears
Kids aren't always smiling. There are plenty of tears to go around: scrapes, bumps, fights with siblings - it's all part of their everyday lives (and sometimes all of the above can be crammed into one hour) so why stop clicking the shutter when they happen? Providing I'm not neglecting them in their time of need, I don't hesitate to take photos of the less glamorous portions of our day. This photo of my son, for example, is a great memory for me and it isn't for the reason you are probably thinking. This photo reminds me what a completely blissful and happy day this was and I laugh when I think of the fact that this pout literally lasted one-half of a second and I happened to catch it all while his brother played behind him happily. I love it!
2. Focus on Parts
I love photographing my kids' hands and feet. I've always felt that hands and feet can tell stories and sometimes do it better than all the other parts combined. If my kids are doing something really great (digging for worms, decorating cookies or in this case, about to dive off the end of a picnic table) I look for what their hands or feet are doing and I often go for those bits when snapping a photo. Not everyone 'gets it' when I post a family album online and it's full of things other than smiling kid faces, but when I look at these photos, they make me feel something. Just give it a try!
3. They're Little
I like to try to always photograph them in their natural state (unless I'm purposefully trying to make them look giant or miniscule for a reason). One obvious way to do this is to always shoot at their level. If you have a baby, lay down on the floor and shoot from there. The reason I chose this photo as the example is because when I look at it, I don't only see a photo which is composed at a level which speaks of his size, but the distance from which I shot it gave him space to have a moment of solitude to be a little boy without mommy hassling him for his photo and I just really feel that it captured the real 'him'. It also reminds me to suggest that when you are photographing from far away, try to bring in a little element of something else to make it interesting. Perhaps there is an abandoned sippy cup or beloved blankie in the foreground. Allow your photos to be more than 'pics'. Let them have a voice and let your children have a voice in their photos. Often times in photos, my children are simply saying 'I'm still only little'
4. Give Them Purpose
I like to try giving them something to do. Especially when they're just standing there with their plastered 'cheese face' waiting for you to 'take the stupid picture'. Give them a little assignment (jump off the table) or purpose (hold this sign) and they soon come alive in your photo. In this case, I said I needed them to do a really important job for me and hold this sign so they could join the cause at not-a-crime.com and help photographers and they were totally into it!
5. Take a Zillion
This photo was completely unintentional. I was taking photos of him looking at ducks and in my usual style, was just click-click-clicking at the speed of light and later on when I went through the images on my computer, this one jumped out at me. I didn't even realize I'd taken it. It was only because I'd taken a zillion photos that I caught this totally angelic moment of our day at the park. Don't hesitate to fill up a few memory cards if that's what it takes to capture the one perfect shot.
6. Leave Them Alone!
Sometimes it pays to just leave them alone and let them ignore you. Get out of their space and zoooooom right in. Half of the joy of beautiful photos of your children is the memories behind them. I'll be honest - I've staged a few 'tender' moments between my two sons and although you might think the photos are pretty cool, I have no memory to go with them and they just sit somewhere in my hard drive. But this photo? It makes me happy because I remember standing back while the boys climbed trees and I will cherish it always.
Try a different point of view. It can add an edge to otherwise same-same photo situations and give your kid shots a whole new life of their own.
8. Get in the Triangle
When you get out of the auto modes on your camera and set it to manual, you are catapulted into a new, confusing world. It's only for the brave, I tell you! If you want unmatchable rewards and to get the most out of your camera and photographic situations, you MUST learn to shoot manual and get out of those auto modes. There are 3 factors in manual: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Think of your camera's sensor like an eye. ISO is how sensitive your 'eye' is to light. Aperture is how wide your eye opens when you press the shutter and shutter speed is how long your eye stays open. When you find the perfect balance between these three, you make magic. My personal triangle places priority on speed and aperture (also known as f/stop). Unfortunately, this is sometimes leads to higher ISOs (the higher your ISO number, the more grain/noise you can experience in your photos). I like a high f/stop because everything will be in focus and when you've got kids running around, that's a must. A fast shutter speed is also a must because they are so fast!
9. Sunny 16
“Sunny 16” is an excellent rule to know when you photograph kids because you'll be out in the sunshine a lot. Set your camera to AV ('aperture value' mode which places priority on aperture) and set to f/16. The ISO and shutter speed will do the rest. Remember before, I said the shutter speed needed to be fast for kids and if it's sunny, it will set itself to a fast enough speed. f/16 on a sunny day will give you crisp shadows and detail.
10. Auto Modes
If you're not ready for shooting in manual mode just yet, my favorite auto modes for my kids are sports and portrait. Sports for when they're naughty and portrait for when they're little posing angels. Sports mode places priority on fast shutter speeds to stop motion. This can lead to spectacular images when you get them to run, jump, do a flying leap on the bed, etc. Portrait mode is beautiful for head-and-shoulders portraits because it uses a low f/stop to produce an image with a crisp subject and a soft/blurred background which draws your attention to the child.
Finally, just think like a kid. Kids don't like being manipulated and they can smell it a mile away. They're flexible - try to be flexible too. Think outside the box and you will end up with beautiful mementos of their childhood long after they have grown.