I Believe That The Children Are Our Future…
Have you taken a look at your childhood photos? Recently? There are some pretty good shots in the collection that is the history of me and some that could be improved. I love my parents and they did the best they could with the photo gear they had. They had quite a cute baby as their model though which helped. It’s easier now than ever to take photos of your children. Cameras are cheap, you don’t have to worry about the expense of film along with getting it developed and you get instant results. You never get the moments back of your children growing up which gives each smile or frown importance. Each day they grow and change and capturing those moments in photos is a precious opportunity. Luckily I’ve presented here just a few simple techniques you can employ to get results that will help you make images worthy of these memories. The real beauty is you won’t have to buy a single piece of extra equipment to improve your photos with these techniques.
Technique #1- Get On Their Level. This is probably the simplest yet most important thing you can do when taking photos of children. One of the best ways to make an interesting and memorable photograph is to take it from a point of view that you normally don’t see. If you take a photo of an every day object from the same mundane angle that you normally see it you’ll find there is no power in the image. To your brain it’s just the same old, same old. How do you normally see children? Usually it’s towering over the kid looking down at them as they run around. When you stand over a child and take their picture it’s just more of the same to your brain. It lacks a sense of intimacy between the photographer and the subject and makes the child look small and unimportant. This is very easy to solve. Bend that knee, get down to their eye level and see how much a difference it makes. Don’t be afraid to even lay down and shoot up slightly at them giving them a sense of size and power. Getting down on their level is a window into their world and transforms them from a tiny child into a full grown person. It’s a different point of view that you usually don’t get to experience with them and it will give your photo much more impact. Get on the slide with the kid at the park, crawl around on the floor with the baby, or sit on the ground to watch them play. This one simple technique will transform your child’s photos from mundane to memorable. It’s easy to take a photo in your usual standing position, but taking the extra step to get on their level is worth the effort.
Technique #2- Fill The Frame. This is a technique that is useful for most types of photography, but especially so with children. You want to fill up as much of the frame as you can with the child by zooming in with either your lens or the good old fashion foot zoom. Filling the frame is also easier now that you’re down on eye level with the child. Making sure that your child fills the view finder has a lot of positive effects on your image. It helps to emphasize the subject by leaving no doubt what the photo is about. With the child taking up most of the frame there is little room for distractions in the background. I’m sure we all have some childhood photos of ourselves taken from across the room and it’s hard to even tell what or who the subject of the photo is. A busy background filled with clutter or random people takes away from the focus, just how cute your kid looks. The personality and emotion of the child really shines through when shot from up close. Subtle facial expressions are picked up and the eyes, which tell the story, are easily visible. Try even taking it to the extreme and filling the frame with single body parts. This is wonderfully effective with babies in focusing on just their tiny hands or feet. With older children try zooming in really close on the face making sure to capture the eyes. Maybe focus on their mouth as they laugh or their feet as they tie their shoes. Isolate your child from the rest of the world in your photo and you’ll capture a wonderful moment in time.
Technique #3- Posed Vs. Candid. I recently had my own run in with this conundrum (I’ll write about it when I finish the project) and anyone who has photographed children has run into the problem of posed vs. candid. Since the day parenting began children have refused to listen. It’s not their fault, but they are completely uncooperative. If you’ve ever tried to get them to pose just the way you want with a nice natural smile and eyelids open you know how much an impossible task that is. One of the problems with posing children is the forced smiles and the unnatural posturing it brings. Saying “Cheese!” and having them pose is a magical recipe for cheesy grins or awkward what do I do with my arm moments. There are however times when you want to make the effort and pose kids in a situation to get the exact image you want. I wish you the best of luck in those situations 🙂 But I’ve found it easiest to just let the photos happen. I love to just let kids do their thing and silently observe with my camera. Watch them through your lens as they run around in the back yard. Sit and observe with your camera as they play make believe and jump about. It’s exciting to let the moments develop organically. Doing so brings natural expressions, genuine smiles and true captures of the moment. I feel this is really where the emotion and memories shine through in the photo. A photo of a child laughing while playing will have more emotional impact than a posed portrait of a child in a suit and tie sitting in a chair. This technique however takes some patience and can be hit or miss. But if you take the time and look for those small moments with the perfect expression you’ll walk away with memorable and natural images.
As an aside to this technique I wanted to share a common problem with candid photos and how one person solved it. I read about this person’s predicament years ago, but can’t find a link to it now so I’ll just share it in my own words. Kids can develop horrible camera habits and many times the parents are to blame. A mother had always taken photos of her children and when she saw a moment she wanted to capture would pull out her camera and yell the obligatory “Say Cheese!” The kids would stop what they were doing and force big, cheesy grins. The mother however over time noticed that all her photos looked similar and she wasn’t capturing the moments the way she remembered them. The problem was whenever the mother would see the kids doing something memorable, out would come the camera and they would immediately stop doing the adorable stuff and strike up cheesy poses. So the mother decided she had to condition the children to act naturally around the camera. She began to carry the camera around with her all the time, but would take no pictures. When she saw the kids doing something that she wanted to document she would pull up the camera to take the picture, but wouldn’t take it if the kids made a cheesy pose. This continued until the children learned that mommy didn’t want a forced smile, but rather simple organic moments. The camera became common place and soon the kids didn’t react at all when the mother would take a photo. This allowed her to record those precious moments just as they happened and helped her photos have a greater impact. Definitely something you can try if you’re having trouble making those candid moments.
Technique #4- Lighting. This is as much a general overall photography technique as it is specifically for taking photos of children, but it’s very critical to making a great child photo. Without great light you can’t have a great photo. It’s as simple as that. So what is great light? It is NOT the light from the little built in flash on your camera and it is NOT the harsh midday sun. The problem with a lot of child photos is they are either taken indoors with insufficient light or outside in the middle of the day in direct sunlight. The tiny flash on your camera and the midday sun are what is called hard light. This kind of light produces hard shadows, washes out color and is very unflattering. The tiny built in flash on cameras has problems because the quality of light is directly proportional to the size of the light. The tinier the light source the harder the light and those built in flashes are minuscule. There are however some simple things you can do to get better light. If you have a north facing window open the blinds all the way up and shoot using it’s light (try not to have the actual window in the frame because it will blow out in the photo). The window will diffuse the light and for once having dirty windows will actually make your life better (the dirt helps diffuse the light even more). This will give you nice even light without the harsh shadows. Avoiding flash indoors also helps you to blend in and take more candid photos. There’s no distracting burst of light letting the child know you just took their photo. If you can’t get great light indoors take the child outside. Try to avoid midday, but if you have to take photos at that time of the day shoot in the shade. It’s much cooler, nobody’s squinting and the light is much more flattering. It seems slightly counter intuitive, but a nice covered porch makes an excellent makeshift studio when the sun is blazing away. The best times to shoot outside are a few hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset. The sunlight during these peak times has a wonderful golden glow to it and shadows are subdued. There isn’t a more flattering way to take someone’s photo than in the nice golden light right before the sun sets. Photography in it’s very essence is simply light and without high quality light you can’t make a high quality photo.
Technique #5- Rapid Shots. How many times have you seen a perfect photo of your child just ready for the taking. They’re looking right at you, smiling, the light is just right and you decide to click the shutter. You can’t wait to look at the photo and you sadly realize the perfect shot is ruined with a pair of closed eyes, opportunity lost. Now that we can shoot digital and since the cost of memory is so cheap there is no reason we can’t rattle off hundreds of shots without consequence. Most cameras today have a burst mode that will allow you to take anywhere from 3 to 8 shots a second. You just press down the shutter and keep holding it down until the moment is over. Consult your user manual if you don’t know how to turn on burst or rapid fire mode. This increases your chances greatly for getting a great shot. Out of the barrage of shots that you take there just has to be one where the kid’s eyes are open, the expression is just right and your subject is perfectly in focus. Doing child photography is hard enough and if there’s something to increase your odds of a winning shot you need to take advantage. It doesn’t mean that you should just wave your camera around snapping off photos at will. You still need to compose your shot properly making sure to have the light you need, but when you do see the shot you want make sure you do an overkill and rattle off as many shots as you can. This is an absolute must for taking sports shots of your children. It’s impossible to wait for just the right pose, but if you take 5 or 6 shots of them swinging the bat at their t-ball game you’ll get at least one shot showing off the action. Don’t be afraid of taking a ton of photos.
Technique #6- Focus.Of course you want all your photos to be in focus. This however is the part of child photography that I’ve found to be the most difficult. Unless you’re taking some nap time portraits the child is most likely on the move. There are however some techniques you can use to increase the odds of having an in focus portrait. The most important thing to remember is to focus on the eyes. You can have an entire photo of person in focus except for the eyes and it won’t look right. The eyes are the window to the soul and are what really convey the emotion and personality in the photo (to learn how to improve the eyes in the photo check out https://rickthestickphoto.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/bette-davis-eyes/). So when you’re trying to focus make the eyes your target. Now how exactly do you make that happen? All DSLR’s will have a continuous autofocus mode that continually focuses until you press the shutter (once again consult the manual for your camera). This is a life saver with a moving child and lets you keep the subject in focus until they’re in position. Another thing you need to do is watch your shutter speed. If the subject is moving and you have a slow shutter speed (anything slower than around 1/125) you’re going to get a blurry photo no matter how well your image stabilization works. If your shutter speed is too slow you have a few options. You can bump up the ISO on your camera, but this will degrade the pictures quality the higher you go. You can use a bigger aperture which might require switching to a faster lens (https://rickthestickphoto.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/the-50mm-1-4f-my-endless-love/ to read about the wonders of a fast lens). You can also add more light by opening a window, taking it outside, or using a flash. All the techniques in the world can’t save a photo if you don’t start out with subject in focus. Practicing taking photos of moving objects and learning how to get the focus point right on the eyes will improve your photos dramatically.
As part of the talk on focusing I should mention the aperture. Having a fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or even bigger will help out immensely. It will give you a nice blurry background really helping your subject to pop and it will increase your shutter speed helping you freeze motion. However using a really big aperture means less of the subject is in focus and if you don’t get your focal point just right you’re going to get a blurry shot. It takes practice and is something I’m still working on to get just right myself. You can use a higher aperture, if the light you have allows you to, like f/5.6 or even up to f/11 which is the standard portrait aperture. These smaller apertures will give you more flexibility with keeping the subject in focus and are more forgiving. Experiment with different apertures and see what results you like.
Technique #7- Have Fun. I usually don’t like to include cheesy stuff like this, but I have found this to be absolutely true when taking child snapshots. If you’re having a fun time and smiling then the child is ten times more likely to have a smile on their face as well. It can be frustrating trying to get a nice picture, but if you’re patient and keep your cool your chances of success will greatly improve. There’s the old photo cliche that the camera looks both ways and if you’re not enjoying yourself then your child probably isn’t either. Make a game of it. I often get requests by kids to take their picture while doing some silly pose and find those interactions to be gold mines. You can get some crazy shots, but it also makes them much more likely to let you suggest a few poses once they’ve run out of their own ideas. Besides if you’re not having fun doing photography then you’re doing something wrong.
Hopefully you’ve picked up an idea or two that can help you out. None of these techniques require advanced camera gear and in fact the majority of these could be used with just a simple cell phone camera to get great shots. Do yourself a favor and improve your technique when taking photographs of your children. Try focusing on just one technique and master it before moving on to another. If you practice enough (which costs you nothing using a digital camera) these will all become second nature. Then instead of trying to remember to fill the frame you’ll instinctively do it and can instead turn your attention towards becoming ever more creative. These are also just suggestions and every photo you take doesn’t have to follow these rules. In fact you can make some very dramatic photos by doing the opposite of filling the frame and instead making the child very small in the frame in comparison to some other gigantic object. Mix things up so that you don’t look back and realize every photo you of your children looks exactly the same. Children grow up fast and with your improved technique you will truly be grateful that you have such wonderful photos to remember those precious yet not forgotten moments. I’ve never heard anyone say “I wish my parents hadn’t taken so many childhood photos of me that look so great”.