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Photographing Tots and Toddlers

20091120-DSC_4372They say never work with animals or children but who can resist those cherub like faces? Here are a handful of hopefully helpful pointers that one can try when it comes to framing tots and toddlers:

  1. Most children will have the patience of a fly so start by netting the ‘safe shots’ first, such as a few well composed, nicely lit portraits with a 50mm prime, before diving into the most adventurous ideas. Suggestions for such could be to: opt for some tight crops of the tot’s face, vary depth of field to avoid distraction, or get creative with shutter speed to some exciting ‘movement’ effects. When their attention levels start to dissipate, try following them around. Not only do you get a glimpse into their world but this can make for some beautifully natural shots. When kids are happy playing on their own opt for a zoom such as an 18 – 200mm to cater for up close and at a distance shots.
  2. When kids are cute it can effortless to forget technique and become shutter happy; click, click and click some more – before you know it you’ve expired a 4GB memory cards and have a heap of blandly identical images. Limiting yourself to 20-40 shots forces you to focus on strengthening your composition, as it helps you to decide what it is important and challenges you to be more creative.
  3. A towering adult is obviously a daunting prospect for a tot and the bird’s eye view perspective is only going to yield so much value. A better idea is to drop down to their level is ideal and emphasis the smallness of their stature, reinforce the connotation of innocence and if you catch them looking up you’ll be amazed at how big their eyes can appear, subtly increasing the ‘aw’ factor.
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  5. Some kids just don’t want to sit for photos. Give them a prop, toy or a task to focus their attention and you’ll be amazed by the results. There are lots of things you can try; baking cakes, gardening, building sandcastles, following a treasure trail – anything to get them to relax and this is where an on-hand parent can be of great use; helping the child to relax and bring them out of their shell. If they still don’t want to play ball catching infants at their most naughty, angry, sulky or upset can still make for powerful portraits. Be aware that cheesy grins may cause the eyes to crinkle and the impact may be lost, so catching a shot whilst the child is off guard but in good spirits is a solid antidote for this.
  6. As with any portrait consider your scene. Be sure the light falls evenly and flatteringly, backdrops featuring bright colours and interesting textures add interest and declutter your scene of distracting items. On a really bright day it can be hard to get even light, so place your subject in a shaded area such as a doorway, porch, entrance to a tent, or even under a garden table. Take an exposure reading from their face and the result will be a portrait with flattering light without the need for flash or reflectors. Alternatively if there is no shade, try taking a shot of the child walking away with the light behind you – often these shots can reveal more about their personality than the front.
  7. The beach is a wonderful location for photographing children at play. Their actions are natural and the backdrop provides a sense of place whatever the weather. Avoid shadows and squinting in super sunny conditions by bringing along a parasol or improvise with a beach towel, shooting them under the shaded area.
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  9. The clothes the child wears will have an effect on their mood and ultimately – your shots. Everyday casuals are ideal for relaxed natural shots, whereas formal wear can go either way; exude maturity or sulk because they dislike stuffy dresses and suits. Costumes are perfect for bringing out the imagination gene in your models, resulting in energetic and tangibly fun frames.
  10. Black and white images can do wonders for pictures of newborns, whereas tot shots are often better left in vivacious colour. However if you are keen to emote a calmer, softer connotation open up Photoshop travel into the Adjustments menu and either reduce saturation, hit desaturate or travel into Gradient Map and select the B&W option. Employing a high-key effect in Photoshop can also add an angelic feel to portraits of your little cherubs. Take a beautifully lit image and open it in Photoshop. Head for Adjustments and select Curves. Gently lift the line twice near the bottom and once near the top to generate a shallow ‘S’ shape. This will alter the contrast and brighten hues, but do this process in small increments as too much and you’ll lose details.
  11. Creating a shallow depth of field is wonderful for focusing attention on the child sitter. If you’re uncomfortable with using manual, flick your shooter into Aperture Priority and opt for a lovely wide aperture such as f4 or f5.6. Focus on your subject and incorporate the backdrop into the frame – use something interesting or colourful here. Alternately throw the child out of focus by aiming at an object in their hands instead.
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  13. Get creative with shutter speed! Chuck a pair of wellies on the pint size model and have them jump around in puddles. You could freeze water splashes and stop the action using a shutter speed of 1/250 or above or blur the child mid air with a slow shutter of around 1/60 (but you may need to ramp up the ISO in low light). Alternatively mix the two effects with a rear curtain sync to make the most of a long exposure whilst firing a flash – the result is a frozen subject with the motion trailing behind.
  14. Newborns grow rapidly and their features can alter as a result. Photograph at regular intervals to chart this change. Whilst they are very young you’ll find it is easy to capture stills whilst they are asleep. For the best results position the baby in a well lit room or near a large window diffused with a thin white sheet. Cropping in close for segmented body shots of newborns is quite clichéd but the results can be breathtaking: toes, feet, hands, legs, face, etc. Why not use these as a series or pick the best three to form a triptych?
  15.  Shooting children in groups multiplies the stress levels but increases the opportunities to be experimental. Ask them to interact by holding hands, rubbing noses, playing a game s, running towards the camera, jumping off a bench – anything that unleashes their personality! The encyclopaedia of expressions and characteristics that will no doubt explode out of the frame will definitely be worth the hassle. Expose for the faces and lock focus on to one of the cheeky grins for sharpness.

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Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)
Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

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