Finding the Balance: Capturing Memories Versus Making Memories

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I am more than a little obsessed with capturing and preserving memories for my family. We have a photo wall that’s regularly updated. We print photo books, both from Instagram and of photos from my “real” camera. My girls know that twice a year, we go out to a field nearby our house, and I do a mini photo session with them. I’m the type of person who easily had 5,000 photos in the first year after my daughter was born, and that’s just what I decided to keep. So whenever I see a mom taking photos of her kids at the park, or a dad taking pictures at his son’s soccer game, I want to run over and give them a high five. I want to tell them that I think they are awesome, and that capturing those memories for their family is something priceless. They’re images that will be pulled out during graduation parties, played on wedding slideshows, and – God forbid – treasured after the loss of a loved one. It’s important work, and it is work that I feel absolutely passionate about.

But there’s a catch. If you’re anything like me, it can be easy to become so focused on capturing memories for our family and of our kids that we can sometimes tend to forget to be part of making memories WITH our family. It can be hard to find a balance, so here are a few tips that I have picked up along the way that can help you find that sweet spot of capturing those important moments, while also being present for them as well.

1. Do a dry run

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Halloween is coming up later this month, and my oldest daughter Lizzy wants to be Merida (from Pixar’s Brave). I absolutely want a non-phone photo of her all dressed-up in her costume. This is non-negotiable. But, I know that on the day of Halloween Lizzy will be excited (and probably a little hopped up on sugar), and trying to have a little photo session with her on that day would probably be fighting a losing battle. So, we did a dry run. We do this every year, and it works out so well for us because I can take a few photos of her to stick in the scrapbook in a no-pressure environment, and then on Halloween night, I can leave the camera at home and just be present with my family. We all get a good outcome, and in my book that’s a win. Does it really matter that the photo was taken the weekend before the event? Not to me in this instance, because the memory that I’m actually interested in capturing was the fact that at age four-and-a-half, Lizzy thought that Merida was the coolest of all the princesses, and that she wants to be strong, independent, and brave just like Merida is.

This tip is SO easy, but it has made such a big difference for our family, and it isn’t just for Halloween – this same idea would work for any occasion in which you want a photo of your kids either in a special outfit or with a particular person, opposed to during an event. For example, doing a dry run would be a good fit for capturing your daughter in her ballet outfit, taking a photo of your kids with Mom for Mother’s Day, or even to catch your kiddos in their Christmas pajamas.  As a bonus, doing a dry run lets us know if there are any costume or clothing  issues (dress is too itchy, shoes too tight, needing six cans of red hairspray instead of one) that need to be addressed before the big day as well.

2. Make good use of your camera’s creative modes

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I have several friends who are currently learning how to shoot in manual. One of them was told by her mentor that the creative modes on her camera are cheating and that she should quit using them cold turkey and shoot in full manual, all the time, if she wants to be a real photographer. When she told me all this, I audibly groaned.

Here’s the deal – learning to shoot in manual is awesome and worthwhile. But as far as I’m concerned, if trying to shoot in full manual means that you spend all of your daughter’s soccer game (or birthday party) behind the camera trying to figure out appropriate settings rather than participating in the event itself, that’s a bummer. In my opinion, you would have been better off to stick your camera in Program mode or any other creative mode that you are very familiar with, take a few photos you love, and then be able to set the camera down and enjoy the rest of the time with your family. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t play around with settings or experiment at all, I’m simply saying that at special events like birthdays, weddings (in which you are not the official hired photographer), anniversaries, once-in-a-lifetime vacations, and graduations are the types of events where it is just as important to be a part of making the memories with your family as it is to be capturing those memories. If using one of your camera’s creative modes can help you in that way, go for it!

3. Don’t feel the need to photograph everything

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Such an easy thing to say, and such a difficult thing to put into practice! The reality is that I don’t need to photograph all three times my daughter will go to the pumpkin patch this month between school field trips, family, and friends. The reality is that I don’t need to photograph every time my kids go out to the backyard to play. Sometimes, pulling out the camera while they play is an awesome time for me to practice and play around, but it can also really frustrate my kids if I do it too often (EVEN if I’m not asking them to, “Look here and say cheese!”).

So, for my sanity and theirs, whenever my gut instinct is to grab my camera, I try to stop and ask myself when the last time I photographed this particular event or activity was. If it has been less than a month, that’s a good cue for me to pause and consider whether or not I really need to bring the camera along that day. I really encourage all you moms and dads out there to choose a similar pause point for your family – maybe it’s weekly, maybe it’s monthly, but however frequent it is, it gives you and your kids some built in grace.

4. Get IN the picture sometimes

This is the only photo with me in it from my daughter's first birthday. It's a little blurry, but it went in the album nonetheless, and it's one of my daughter's favorite photos from the day.

This is the only photo with me in it from my daughter’s first birthday. It’s a little blurry, but it went in the album nonetheless, and it’s one of my daughter’s favorite photos from the day.

If you’re the photographer of the family, chances are that there are a lot fewer photos of you in the family album than there are of anyone else. I think this is something that we ALL struggle with. Or maybe you’ve even tried to pass the camera off to someone else and have been disappointed by the blurry, too light, too dark, weirdly cropped results. I get it, and I’ve been there.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that if I’m quickly handing the camera off to a friend or family member that isn’t familiar with photography, I get the best result if I pass the camera off in AV mode, with the aperture set at least at the number of people that will be in the photo, and the center focal point selected. So, if there will be four people in the photo, make sure the aperture is set to at least f/4 when you hand it over. I usually have my 50mm lens on my camera, so if I hand the camera over in Program mode, there’s a chance that it will elect to shoot at f/1.8 or f/2.2, which would probably not yield the best results for a photo of four or five people. If you’re shooting with a kit lens that isn’t capable of shooting that wide open, it may be just as beneficial to pass off the camera in Program mode. This is just one simple thing that will help yield better results when passing the camera to someone else, but trust me when I say that when it comes to family photos, the important thing is that you’re there, not that you’re well composed and perfectly in focus.

Do you struggle with the balance between capturing memories and making them? Do you have any other tips you’d like to share?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She can also be found blogging at La Buena Vida and Meredith Clark Photography.

  • MarkW

    Great ideas! Hard part sometimes is finding someone else to take the pic so you can be in it. Also I agree with using the program modes on a camera. Manual has it uses but most of the time aperture or shutter program is the way to go. Many times you don’t have the time and others don’t have the patience to wait for you to get the aperture, shutter and iso just right.

  • Annie McConnell

    Thanks so much for this article!! I’m doing a 365 project and I’m afraid of overwhelming my family with my camera! Also, my niece was just born and I want to make sure she remembers me as her aunt and not a camera!!

  • Meredith

    I have to be really intentional about that with my nieces and nephew too, Annie! I think that’s a struggle that a lot of us deal with. It’s a fine line!

  • Meredith

    So true Mark! Sometimes, I find people are more willing to snap a photo with a camera phone than my dslr. Whatever works!

  • Janet Schilling

    I agree that a “dry run” can capture wonderful moments. As a teacher we always encourage parents to come to a dress rehearsal of an event. There are fewer parents shuffling for camera shot positions and children are more relaxed during their run through performance.

  • Hugh J

    In the end, never forget Paul Simon’s words from the “Bookends Theme”.

    “…Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
    Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you”**

    **© Paul Simon, 1968

  • Meredith

    I love that suggestion, Janet!

  • Meredith

    Smart guy, that Paul Simon 🙂

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  • Tod Davis

    i knew that i took too many pics of the family when my nieces start to look and me and say cheese whenever they saw me. Even when i wasn’t holding a camera

  • Meredith

    Oh yeah, I have so been there. Kudos for recognizing that!

  • Lynn

    I so enjoyed reading this article ! I saw myself throughout the whole thing! Thanks for the great tips !

  • River_City

    Sometimes get a great result by putting the camera on a tripod and letting it snap away for a couple minutes while we’re all in front of it… the “getting ready” shots often look better than the “cheese” pics!

  • Rachel

    My policy is to not have my camera out (in my hand) through an entire event. So, say we’re going on a family hike, I’ll take pictures for the first 10-15 minutes, then the camera goes back in my bag, and I can hold hands with little folks and just enjoy it. If another irresistible photo op comes along, it usually isn’t too hard to pull the camera back out. Yes, I miss some adorable shots this way, but I find that I’m generally satisfied with the balance of preserving memories and being a part of them.

  • Meredith

    I’m so glad you found it helpful, Lynn!

  • Meredith

    That sounds like a really healthy balance Rachel! Thanks for sharing your approach!

  • Rogerio Cazelato

    One thing I did to help with this was to buy a wireless trigger, setup the camera on a tripod and give the remote to my five year old boy. He loved pressing the buttons and making faces for the pictures, with me by his side

  • Ramneek Kalra

    Wow this is the best home shoot lesson I have learnt in many a days…
    Great article Meredith.
    Just one quick question, I face problem while photographing my 3 yr old daughter, as soon as she sees the camera, she would drop what ever she is doing and begins to pose for the camera… so I rarely get any candid shots of her playing… all the pics she is posing for the camera… and I really do not know how to get her to not pose…
    Could you suggest some trick for the same.

    Thanks for your article once again..

  • Cathie

    It’s funny, I just went to my nieces joint birthday party on the weekend. 14 & 16 y.o. and I know they get sick of me and the camera. I even hear the comments (good natured) about oh no, not the camera again. So I’ve really backed off and taken heed of a lot of the points mentioned in your post. Anyway I took it (just in case), but left it in the car. All afternoon I just sat an enjoyed the party. Anyway, as the afternoon got later my niece and sister and law both came up and said oh we really wish you had your camera… we kind of counted on you taking pics of our day. Haha, you can’t win. So the camera came out and I snapped away… without getting in their face and they absolutely loved them. Moderation is the key though. I also took some advice last Christmas where I put my camera on a tripod in a far corner of our living room and had it taking photos at 3 minute intervals of the usual Xmas morning, present opening activities. All unposed, natural pics and I’m in all of them. 🙂

  • I was looking for some tips on putting away my camera and this is perfect. My two year old has decided she never wants her picture taken anymore and I’m taking it as a cue that I need to put it down more and make memories with her instead of capturing her moments alone.

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