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Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean we can only shoot indoors. It may be cold (and rainy if you’re in London) most days, but when the winter sun shows its face, it fills the earth with a beautiful warm glow, especially late in the day. This bring us to what is known as the golden hour – typically about an hour before sunset. The further you are from the equator, the more time you would need, in my case about 1 – 1.5 hours, before sunset.
Here are my 10 top tips on how to get stunning winter portraits of your own kids:
Choose a sunny day and plan to get to your shooting location a good hour or so before sunset.
Wrap your children up nice and toasty so they won’t complain. Tell them you are taking them out for one hour to the park or the playground (or your chosen location) but that you would like to take a few photos of them before you get to the actual promised site. The easiest for us was the playground, as we have to walk about 10 minutes from the entrance to the park to get to there. It is a good idea to choose a halfway point to stop.
Either bring a snack or warm drinks in a thermos (keep it light and simple though), promise to take them for a nice warm drink in a nearby cafe after your little trip to the playground, or make them hot chocolates when you get home (whatever works for you).
Halfway to the playground, your kids would already have been having fun running and chasing each other. Remind them of the photos you want to take, and show them the light is so beautiful and perfect. Ask for their suggestions where you could stop and take some nice picture. Make sure there is light coming from one side, but that they are fully in the shade of a tree (open shade) to avoid hotspots and mottled faces.
Keep it quick! Kids get bored if you take too long so just aim for a few portraits. Ask them to stand, cuddle and tickle, or make each other laugh, swap places, do their own poses and click away like nobody’s business.
Techie tips: If shooting in semi-automatic mode, choose a wide aperture or set it to Aperture Priority (and choose a large aperture, small f-number) so you get the blurry background effect. Always focus on the child’s eyes if possible.
Shoot with the kids backlit. The best time to do this is during the golden hour. The sun is low, the sky is a reddish blue and the light is softer, more diffused, and indirect.
Shooting backlit is really quite a difficult technique which requires some mastering. This is when the sun or light source is in front of your camera, and behind your subject. The late sun gives stunning soft light, that illuminates your child’s hair or clothing like it has just been kissed by the sun.
You would also need either a really wide aperture, a flash, or a reflector to bring light back into your child’s face. A reflector can be a large white/silver/gold sheet that you angle towards their face, to bounce the light back into it. Or, you can choose a location with a natural reflector such as a white, or light coloured wall, facing the sunset and position your child in front of it, at an angle, so that part of their face gets the reflected light. I suggest a wide aperture for portraits as that helps give a nice glow to the skin, spot metered, and focused on the eyes.
This is really quite difficult as you don’t want to be looking straight at the sun. When you see the sun’s rays streaming through the viewfinder of your camera, that’s a sure sign that you are capturing flare. Flare floods your camera with light and everything else becomes a muddy, hazy silhouette. So try to get only a very small bit of flare right at the top or side of the viewfinder, and you will still get some good details, rather than a completely hazy image, devoid of any definition or detail.
From personal experience, my imperfections, mistakes, and lack of skills fuel creativity. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes and have imperfections; they are a blessing. Use them and learn from them.
When the portraits are done, capture some contextual details such as the sky, trees, plants, grass, flowers, etc. Years down the line, when you look back at these photographs, details will help you remember the mood, the time, and the emotions of that day. Now that there’s no need to rush and the kids are playing, take your time and choose which details grab you, and take your breath away.
Techie tips: Don’t forget to change your aperture when shooting the sky and trees to a much smaller one, in this case around f/5.6 or smaller. I find that while you can shoot wide opened it is more prone to have chromatic aberration than if you shoot at a smaller aperture. Really, it’s personal preference, but this is what I recommend.
Promise your kids not just the playground, but extra treats like snacks and hot drinks, and even a small surprise. It reinforces having a photoshoot as a positive experience, and ends it on a happy note. Then top it with a movie night at home!
Have you done any winter portraits of your kids? Please share your images and any other tips you have in the comments below.