Photographing children looks easy, but children typically do not want you to photograph them—at least not on your terms. Photographing your own children can be especially challenging. Here are some tips that might help.
1. Be Prepared, Plan Ahead
Children require complete focus; be-here-now must be the motto. Determine the camera settings beforehand so you are not distracted by technicalities and can focus on your subjects. Establish the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed based upon the lighting conditions you will encounter. As a general rule: Bright Sun ISO 100, bright but cloudy ISO 200, late in the afternoon ISO 400, if sports are the subject ISO 800 (provided you have a newer camera and have tested your noise factor).
For this session, I kept it simple. White backdrop, natural afternoon sunlight flooding the studio, with an on-camera flash and a Gary Fong cloud diffuser. Photographing with a Canon 5D MII, I often shoot at a high ISO so I havethe flexibility of working with a fast shutter and/or an aperture of my choice. While f/2 lenses are wonderful to own, I do not as a rule use them for children (or families). Children move unpredictability and therefore a narroweraperture (f/11 or smaller) provides a sharper focus safety net.
2. Be Patient
Photographing children requires an abundance of patience and alertness. Henri Cartier Bresson likened this readiness to the mind of a hunter, always ready for the moment to reveal itself. You too must intuit, quickly grabbing their spirit in an unveiled smile or a twinkle in the eyes.
Serendipity can bring you to the right place at the right time and you instinctively connect with the Decisive Moment, but photographing children requires waiting, coaxing, and waiting some more. Be patient, make luck happen.
3. Create an Environment that Encourages Imagination
Young children will forget about you and your camera if you create an environment that allows them to imagine. Relating to the subject is essential. How do you relate to a one year old or an 18 year old? How do you encourage your own child to go with the flow and allow you to photograph them with the new camera you received as a Holiday gift?
Ask the child to perform for you. To relax Ariel, I asked her to show me her new ballet steps. Once she was finished dancing, she was willing to sit for a moment, and during that moment I was able to capture a few great pictures.
An adult, standing tall will make the child uptight. To allow the imagination to wander, I am often on my knees or lying on my stomach to meet the children’s gaze. Once you have established the environment whereby you are forgotten, you have the ability to capture sweet moments.
Sometimes it helps to ask the parents to leave, while other times, the parents provide a safety net that adds to the environment you are creating.
4. Learn to Use the “Back Focus Button”
Most children do not want to sit still (when asked), so have your eye on the viewfinder, finger on the shutter, focus locked. Using the back button auto focus is a big help. This enables you to split the functions: the thumb locks the focus while the index finger is ready at the shutter. With practice, back button auto focus will enable you to easily focus and refocus while the child moves (without accidentally clicking the shutter). Check your camera manual to learn about this custom feature.
5. Location, Location, Location
Rather than asking the child to relax in a studio, bring the studio outdoors. Most children love the beach, the park, or their own backyard.
Children will find the water’s edge truly exhilarating.
This child was hot, tired, and pouting, so I gave her my hat and she felt a lot better.
Mindy was a doll and wanted to be helpful with her large family of 10 children! I gladly crowned her my third assistant and our bond helped create some awesome photographs.
To keep the moment spontaneous, we kept chasing the light. The constant movement kept the boys smiling (and conspiring) long enough for me to grab memorable photos.
6. Keep the Clothes Simple
A quick way to enhance your children portraits is to plan the wardrobe. If you are going out with the family, then spend a few minutes making sure that the clothes coordinate in color and that logos are minimal—or better yet, invisible. Match color value with location. For instance, if you are going to the park, bold primary colors might be appropriate, whereas at the beach, khaki or denim work well.
There are differing opinions on whether the whole family should be wearing the same colors. In these photos above, you will find that the families are dressed in matching outfits, but this is not a rule written in stone. The following images illustrate how you can successfully mix and match colors in a family portrait.
Remember, your mood will be mirrored in the photos you capture. Photograph with an open and joyful heart.
Join me for a class in 2012:
All About Color
All my best,
Author of The Art of Photographing Children
Autographed copies are available!