I don't pretend to know how to solve your discipline problems or how to get your kids to eat their Brussels sprouts, but I can give you a little assistance with some of your most common kid photography issues. Children are not known for being the easiest subjects to photograph, although there is certainly a sliding scale of simple to difficult, depending on the individual child. Some kids ham it up for the camera, which may or may not be a good thing, and others run as soon as they see you and your camera coming.
The thing about taking photographs of kids is that kids grow up fast, so what you don't want to do is avoid taking photographs in challenging situations, because you don't get a chance to go back and do it again once those kids are grown up. So let's take a look at some of the most common challenges you're likely to face when photographing those wonderful little people in your life, and how you can cope with them and overcome them.
1. The cheeky grin
That cheeky grin is pretty adorable, but the problem with the cheeky grin is that it's a programmed response that some kids automatically throw on as as soon as they see the camera. I won't go so far as to say that the cheeky grin doesn't represent some aspect of your child's personality—that's the expression that he puts on his face when he wants to show you that he's having a good time or that he is amenable to the camera. But what you don't want is to have an entire family album full of nothing but that face, because it gives your viewer a lopsided impression of what your child is actually like. He does have different moods and different facial expressions, and I think your job as a family to capture all of them, and not just the one that he automatically puts on for the camera.
One of the biggest mistakes that parent photographers make is asking the child to look at the camera, or to say “cheese.” That’s what signals him to put on that cheeky expression, the one that he's likely been using since he was little. So the first trick that you can employ is to avoid asking him to look at you or at the camera, but instead ask him a question. If it’s a question about whatever it is that he's doing, then you will be able to capture that eye contact that you're looking for when you say the words “Look at the camera,” but it won't come along with that cheeky expression.
Let's take a look at an example. Let's say that you and your family are releasing the butterflies that your daughter raised from caterpillars. She has one of those butterflies on her hand and it's getting ready to fly off to its new life. Instead of saying "look up at the camera," when you take that once-in-a-lifetime photo, ask your child to tell you something about the experience. You could ask her to make a wish for the butterfly, or to say some parting words, and that is not only going to avoid that cheeky grin she might have otherwise been tempted to give the camera, it's also going to give you an opopportunity to really capture some of the emotions that she's feeling at that moment. You can do this in just about any situation—just ask a question or get your child to engage with you about the subject at hand so that the emotions you capture are genuine and reflective of the moment.
2. Blurry photos
Kids are always on the move, and that's a good thing. An active child is a healthy child, so movement, sports, running, playing, jumping—these are all things that you want to encourage your child to do. They're also all things that you want to take pictures of, but you may find that you often end up with blurry pictures of those fast-moving kids. Fortunately, there are plenty of things that you can do to fix this problem.
Dance 4 Me ¬ 4842 by Flickr user Lieven SOETE
Blurry photos are caused by speed—both the speed of your child as well as the speed of your camera’s shutter have an impact on whether or not you’ll end up with a blurry photo. If you're outdoors and you're photographing a sporting event or just general play, make sure you check your shutter speed. If you're using a point-and-shoot camera, just setting the camera to sports mode should resolve the problem. If your camera has more manual settings, use shutter priority mode and then pick a shutter speed that is relevant to the action itself. Kids who are walking or moving slowly only need shutter speed of one 1/125 or higher. Kids who are walking fast need up to 1/250th, while kids who are running, jumping and playing may need up to 1/500 or even faster.
Now, there may be situations where you're getting blurry photos even though your kids really aren't moving that fast, and that usually has to do with the light. If you're indoors or in a dimly lit location you're going to get some blur in your subjects even if they are sitting quietly just because your shutter speed will have to drop down so low that it is no longer able to freeze even very slow action. To cope with this problem, try adjusting your ISO. If you bump your ISO up to 1600 or even 3200 then you will be able to capture sharp photos in low light situations. Keep in mind that the higher your ISO, the lower the quality of your photo will be, although this is becoming less and less true as camera technology improves. Most modern cameras are capable of capturing images at very high ISOs that don't show any image quality degradation at all, so it's worth knowing what your camera can do in low light situations. To do that, try taking a series of photos at different ISOs and then check out the images on your computer monitor at 100% magnification. Pay attention to which ISOs start to produce a lot of noise, or a sandy or gritty texture that can soften details. If the noise bothers you, avoid shooting at those ISOs.
Alternately, you can also adjust the aperture to help you get blur-free images in low light. Wider apertures (which correspond to smaller f-numbers) will allow more light to reach your camera's sensor, which means you'll be able to use faster shutter speeds in lower light.
3. Camera dodging
Children suffer from varying degrees of this affliction, yet it seems to get worse as they approach the teenage years. By the time your child is 14 or 15, he may have a full-blown case of camera-dodging, which means that that once joyful little camera-hamming face will appear less and less often in your family photos.
You may be tempted to stock the camera dodger, however, this usually causes more problems than it solves. A kid who really doesn't want to have his picture taken is going to resent being chased with the camera, which can compound the problem and almost guarantee you'll never get any photos. Camera dodgers usually need to be approached with diplomacy, rather than all-out war.
Start by sitting your child down, preferably during a moment when he's in a particularly good mood (which I recognize may not be very often for the common teenager). Explain to him that having him be a part of the family memories is important to you, but you understand that he doesn't feel great about being followed around with a camera. See if you can arrange some time when the two of you can mutually agree upon a photo session. Let him lead the way, dress however he likes, smile only if he wants to, and choose the location. I know, these kinds of provisions can be hard to swallow when you're a parent and you really don't want to have pictures of her wearing all black and looking glum, but the alternative is often no photos of all and there is something to be said for capturing reality rather than your ideal version of it. Just rest assured that this phase is not likely to last, and as your child approaches adulthood it's probably going to be a lot easier to get pictures of him looking cheerful and wearing colors that fall outside of the rainbow of blacks and grays.
Don't go overboard—just because you convinced him to agree to a photo session doesn't necessarily mean that you should take advantage of the situation. Agree upon so many photographs and then don't go beyond that. Adhering to the rules that he established for the photo shoot is going to give you a better chance of being able to schedule future photo shoot as well.
One of the biggest problems that kid photography has, which may not be completely obvious to the person shooting the photograph, is the disconnect between the subject of the photo (the child) and the person viewing the photo. The solution to this problem is actually quite simple, and that is to make sure that you make eye contact with your subject, or at the very least that you shoot from a perspective that will help the viewer relate to her.
Kids by Flickr user Joe Shlabotnik
Adults view children from above, which is somewhat depersonalizing. When you loom over someone it's hard to really connect to them—that's why you probably get down to your child’s level and look her in the eye whenever you’re having an important conversation with her. So the next time you're photographing your toddler or preschooler, don't do it from a standing position. Instead, kneel or squat so that you are at the same level as they are. When you photograph your child from this angle, you’re asking your viewer to take on the same height and the perspective as another child, which will help her connect to your subject, and do it from a much more sympathetic point of view.
Of course the real key to getting great child photographs is not just to follow these guidelines, but also to make sure you're taking lots of photos. Don't wait for the moment happen and then take the picture—instead, take lots of photos in anticipation of those special moments. Learn to predict when something exciting is going to happen so that you can be ready when it does. And it never hurts to put your camera in burst mode either. Especially with fast-moving children, shooting lots of photos in burst mode is going to give you the best possible chance at capturing the moment in the very best way, no cheeky grin necessary.
- The cheeky grin
- Don't say "say cheese" or "look at the camera"
- To achieve eye-contact, ask your child to talk about what he is doing
- Blurry photos
- Shoot kids at 1/125 if they are not moving, 1/250 if they are moving slowly and 1/500 if they are running
- Pay attention to the changing light and turn up your ISO if necessary
- Use a wider aperture
- Camera dodging
- Don't stalk the camera-dodger
- Try to arrange occasional photo shoots on his/her terms
- Don't take advantage or go overboard
- Shoot from a child's eye perspective