Marisa and I have worked together for 8 years and have photographed hundreds of different types of people in countless settings, so we have a trick or two up our sleeves for capturing the moment we're going for. Kids and families are subjects we shoot often at the studio, so you could say we're pros on the topic of photographing children. Buuuut...we're also both moms of two squirming baby girls, sleep deprived and often grabbing for our smartphones to grab a quick pic as easily as possible.
Although I'm a professional photographer, I'm not a real techie. YES, of course, the quality of a camera, and particularly a great quality lens, can make a world of difference in the quality of your photography. But we're all tired and busy - and sometimes that smartphone tucked in your back pocket is the one thing that can mean the difference between capturing the moment or not. Whether your using a medium format film camera or last year's version of the iphone, there are a few things you can do to upgrade your photos just by changing how you shoot them. Here are some of our tips for increasing your chances of success when photographing children.
1. Get down on their level. If they’re playing on their bellies in the grass, you get down on your belly too. Kneel, sit, squat, roll around – a photograph shot from a child’s eye level evokes a sense of their personality and perspective in a way that a typical shot-from-grown-up-height photo just doesn’t. *Play with your angles in general...while eye level is always a good idea, getting really high and shooting straight down on them, or really low- beneath a tower of blocks, for instance- can be playful and unique.
2. Get as much natural sunlight as possible. This is most important with the lower quality camera you use. I know how hard it is to carve out time for a project like a family photo shoot – to get the moods right, the naps taken, the battery charged, and your energy high enough all at the same time is no small task. But if you attempt a portrait in a dark room at a dark time of day, you’ll just be frustrated by fuzzy, drab photos. Shoot at a bright time of day, open the shades as much as possible, and use a reflector, if possible. You don’t need fancy photo equipment (although a pro-quality reflector like this one is affordable, simple to use, and easy to store) – any light surface will help bounce more light onto your subject. Some simple ways to brighten your "set":
- Position the child next to a bright white wall
- Drape a white sheet on a piece of furniture next to her
- Prop a piece of white poster board next to him, perpendicular to the floor. Even better, angle it so it's picking up on light from the window and bouncing it in the direction of the child (the way you might use a mirror to shine light in someone's eye...if you were a 1950's-era bully).
*When shooting outside, however, it's easiest to achieve the best light by shooting in a bright-but-shaded area, rather than in direct sunlight, which can produce harsh shadows on faces.
3. Shoot them in their natural habitat. I always say that photographing children is a lot like wildlife photography - the point is to find them in a natural setting and catch the moment as it happens. Overly posed children look like stuffed raccoons (do people stuff raccoons? I'm not really up on my taxidermy). Give them something real to do – something they like, that occupies their hands and attention, but let’s them still sit in one place. Here are some action ideas to keep your little subjects occupied:
- Building blocks
- Daydreaming (you’d be surprised how readily children will sit still for a minute to imagine something if you give them the idea to. Ask him to think about the best dream he’s ever had, ask her to name the 5 best players on her soccer team, have them think about birthday wish lists, unicorns, pirate stories, etc.)
- Decorating ice cream sundaes
- Playing with a toy train
- Coloring (but watch out for shooting the top of his or her head)
- Eating something iconic, like a slice of watermelon or a messy ice cream cone
4. Skip the face all together. Are a case of the grumps interrupting your photo sesh? You don’t even need them to smile or open their eyes to grab a cute photo. Delicious little parts, like close-ups of hands, butts, or pigtails, often tell the child’s story better than any portrait can. And these are some of the parts we’ll miss most when they’re grown. Even a little body running away from you in a blur can be a photo-worthy moment.
5. Please never ask them to say cheese! Of all the cultural norms worth breaking, this one is high on my list. It goes along with the point about natural habitat: there’s nothing more unnatural than the crusty, stuffed position of a child’s mouth while he groans “cheeeeeeese” for the 18th time in a row. “Hey” or “yay” are much better words to tell them to shout, as those words open the mouth in a natural smile-ish position. But even better, you do the work to get a genuine natural reaction out of them. Make a sudden noise, say something surprising, throw something in the air. Be silly. Tell them to give each other a quick, tight squeeze or to jump in the air. Whether you snap the photo or not, making a kid truly giggle is one of the most satisfying things you can do in your day, so it’s always worth it.
6. Enlist help. This sounds so simple, but focusing your camera and focusing the child at the same time can be a tall order. At the studio, I have Marisa, who’s one of the best child-wranglers in the biz – she’s patient and silly, but stern when she needs to be. But anyone willing to hang out while you shoot can improve your chance for getting the shot. An extra hand is particularly necessary if you want to photograph a child in a bathtub, with a messy prop like an ice cream cone, or if you’re dealing with a crawler or escaping toddler who has to be scooped up and returned to the starting point every second. But your helper can also help set the mood to create giggles, doing the work of being silly (just make sure he or she stands as close behind the camera as possible) while you concentrate on getting your frame. If all else fails, a trusty tickle can often do the trick – and that’s not easy to do when you’re the one holding the camera. *If you’re shooting someone else’s children, I’ve found that it’s most ideal if your child-wrangler is someone other than the parent, if you can swing it. Even if you're shooting a child and parent together, it doesn't hurt to have another helper on your side of the lens.
F-stops and ISO's aside, there's no wrong way to approach photography - the finished photo will be as unique and creative as you're willing to be when taking it. You don't have to be a professional to develop an eye for capturing the kiddos you love. Do you have any tried and true photo tricks you've found successful?
(all photos, jamie grill photography)