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(Note: the original images from this article have been removed and replaced at the request of the subjects)
Notice something about the title of the article? It doesn’t say how to take “portraits” of kids! Kids, especially those five and under, pretty much dictate how the photography session is going to unfold, and it usually involves moving. Fast! Over the years my style has evolved from format portraiture with medium format film camera (which is NOT conducive to movement) to 35mm, and finally to digital. Digital allows much more freedom of motion and with a few tips you should be on your way to some great photos of kids.
When photographing kids sometimes you get a whole lot of nothing for a while, or they may be shy to start, or play coy. Even kids that know you may decide they don’t want you to take their picture and say so. My three year old niece did just that when I spent the day photographing her. “Don’t take my picture Auntie!” she said as soon as I pointed the camera at her. She’s a regular ham for the camera usually and I knew she’d warm up. Eventually she was giving me “the wave” that you see below which sort of means “don’t take my picture but I’m going to act like I’m the star anyway just in case you do”.
So if you get this kind of behaviour don’t rush or force it. Just keep hanging out with them, play and interact and eventually they’ll come around.
This is almost a given, but be ready for anything with kids! Expect the unexpected and be ready to shoot it. One of the things I say to my students is that photography is about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right lens on – there’s a lot of truth to that! So learn to anticipate what might happen, and where you need to be to capture it. Have the right lens on and make sure your settings are all good. Be ready technically, and in all other aspects. Be ready to move fast if something happens.
Part of being ready also means to stop looking at the images on the back of your camera! If you are looking there you are missing something happening live. You can review them later, so stop chimping!
When you photograph little ones doing so from an adult perspective makes them look even smaller. Getting down to their level puts you more on equal ground. Get in the mud or sandbox with them, don’t stand over top looking down. Crawl around on the floor and play trucks.
Get down to their level literally, and figuratively. You nee also to get skilled at holding your camera and playing, coloring, or any number of other interactive things with the child.
“When should I use flash?” is a common question I get in my photography classes. My answer to that is two part:
Part one, not enough light, is fairly obvious. It’s too dark if you have the aperture on the lens as wide open as it goes, and you are still getting a shutter speed that’s slower than your lens focal length (see Tips for getting Sharper images for more info on that). It helps to use a lens with a large aperture either an f/2.8 zoom lens (but they’re pricey) or even better an f/1.8 prime lens like the handy little 50mm f/1.8 or 85mm f/1.8.
But what about part two, what is “good light”? How do you know if you have bad light?
That part is a bit subjective but tough lighting situations like backlighting, or strong overhead light would be some times where you might want to add flash to balance out the light or overpower the natural light entirely. I tend to use flash to supplement natural light whenever possible, and to try and correct the lighting where necessary. Notice the image above (image has been changed from original article) – there is NO flash used for that image. The light coming from the windows in the living room on the right provided a nice soft directional light on his face. Selecting a large aperture allowed me to use that light.
Flash was used for the image above (image has been changed from the original article) because the windows behind him were leaving his face in deep shadow. So I used a flash bounced off the ceiling, angled slightly behind me. Avoid direct flash whenever possible as it flattens out the subject and produces harsh shadows. Bouncing off walls and ceilings is ideal if you can do so. In this case I aim my flash backwards slightly as well so the result isn’t light coming straight down on him and making dark eyes. I use this technique a lot at events, even with 15-20′ high ceilings.
Capturing moving subjects of any kind requires the right camera settings, practice and trial and error. Most cameras have different Focus Modes – read your manual to find out more. Select the one for continuous or tracking focus. What that means is the camera does not lock focus when you push the shutter button halfway down. Instead it “tracks” any moving objects as they come nearer and farther away from you. If you hold the shutter button down the camera continues to look for focus and if the object is moving towards you some cameras actually anticipate their speed and prefocus in front of them so when you press the shutter fully your image is sharp. There are too many camera brands and models and each are different and offer different choices, so I can’t tell you what to choose. Just know that when shooting moving objects you want the tracking option.
You may also want to shoot in burst or high speed shooting mode. That’s when you press the shutter all the way down and hold it, the camera takes multiple images until you let go or the camera can’t hold any more information. Most SLRs have this feature but vary in the frames per second rate they are capable of shooting. Even three frames per second will give you more options than just shooting a single frame at a time.
I’ve often been told that I’m good with kids during sessions because I get silly with them. I make fart noises and silly faces. I play with puppets with them. I get down in the sand and play. Too often we adults worry about our dignity and how we “look” – throw all that out the window and get over yourself and let go a little, Give yourself permission to be a GOOFBALL for a little while. Who knows you might actually have some fun!
The image below happened because we were blowing raspberries at each other and having a face making competition of sorts. He won, but I got the shot! He was also soaking wet from running through the hose several times and the read dye in his hair was running down his forehead, which just adds to the image! (original image removed from article)
Really, you will never be in control anyway so why not relinquish it right from the start and call a spade a spade. The child is in charge and will run the session, so the sooner you accept that the more fun you’ll both have. Here’s a few DOs and DON’Ts.
I was literally putting my bag in my car to leave, camera all packed away when the sidewalk art began and the light was so perfect. So out came the camera again! This image follows pretty much all the points above: be ready, get down on their level, use the natural light when it’s good, play with them. (original image removed from article)
I just can’t resist good light! I have a slight case of Photography Compulsion Syndrome, perhaps you suffer from it too?
If you photograph kids or have some of your own, go out and practice using these tips and tell me how you did. Do you have any additional tips you’d like to add, please share in the comments below.
Now get out there and go do some photography! Happy shooting.
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