We've all been there. At a friend's house, a photo album is plopped down in your lap. You try not to roll your eyes. It's the dreaded vacation album, full of snapshots of kids - kids at the Old Spaghetti Factory with some kind of generic pasta sauce slathered all over their faces. Kids sitting in car seats, not really doing anything. Kids sleeping in hotel beds and posing in front of theme park signs. And somehow, that parental photographer has managed to get a bazillion shots of said kids at otherwise interesting places that still look, well, boring.
Now if you're a parent, you probably hate the thought of someone rolling her eyes at those photos of your wonderful children. After all, they're the cutest kids in the world--how could anyone not want to look at pictures of them?
Well, the very good news is that even the cutest kids in the world can appear in boring photographs, so don't take it personally. And there is hope. You can take amazing shots of those adorable kids for your vacation album and not bore the hell out of your long-suffering friends. Here's how.
[ Top image Splash by Flickr user StuSeeger]
Get down to their level
The number one way to improve your kid photos is to get your butt dirty. That's right, sit down in the dirt, sand or on the pavement. Shooting kids from their perspective is an almost certain way to make those images more interesting, because most of your viewers probably haven't seen kids from that angle since they were, well, kids themselves. Adults are always looking down on children, so photos that look down on children (unless they have some other compositional element going for them) are going to be pretty ordinary.
Think of each photo as an opportunity to capture personality, not just place.
I'll never understand the standing-next-to-a-theme-park-sign photo. You don't really need to have a shot of the kids at the entrance to Legoland to prove that you went there. Photos of the attractions, entertainment and rides should be enough to convince all those skeptics, assuming anyone would really accuse you of faking your vacation. But that's not the point of your vacation photos, anyway. The point is to make your viewers say "wow, that looks like so much fun!" or "your kids are adorable!" and mean it.
Yes, you want your vacation images to have context. But the ideal vacation/child image connects that context to your child's personality. Here's an example of what I mean: say you are at a water park. Your toddler is in the spray pool going up and down the kiddie water slide. The best shot may not be of him careening into the pool. It may be that shot of him sitting at the top of the slide, his face bright with anticipation (or unsure if he's going to like it). Or maybe even impatiently waiting in line to get on the slide. The best shot is always going to be of your child connecting to an experience, rather than just being there.
Don't tell your child what to do
The Beach Waterpark in Ohio - Hidden Rapids by Flickr user Warren County CVB
The worst vacation photos are often the ones where you asked your child to stand next to something and smile at the camera. As a general rule, whenever you ask someone to do something for the purposes of taking a photograph (smile or otherwise), you are almost always going to end up with something fake. Because that kind of photo is fake. You want that smile to come naturally, which means that you need to wait for the right moment rather than trying to create the right moment. Unless your vacation destination is the Festival of Former Congressmen Playing Cribbage, the chances are very good that they're going to see or do something that will make them smile. So keep that camera raised and wait, and you will almost certainly be rewarded.
Don't just snap one or two photos at every spot
You're shooting digital now, so don't be shy. Let's say your kids are swimming at the pool and they get into a splash fight. Don't just whip out your camera and snap a shot or two before returning your attention to that hamburger. First of all, make sure you've got your waterproof camera or housing and get down in the water with them. Or above them like in the shot above. Now, shoot as many shots as you can. Try to catch those sheets of water mid-air. Capture the expression on the splasher's face, and the expression on the splashee's face too. The more shots you fire off the more good ones you're going to have, and a series of photos from the same moment makes for a great visual collection.
Water park blues by Flickr user allspice1
Don't neglect the meltdown
All vacations come with meltdowns (sometimes it's even the parents). It's OK to include a shot or two of your kids at the end of a long day, mid-meltdown or screaming because you didn't stop at the gift shop on your way out. Family vacations are never perfect, and it would be a lie to keep these images out of your album. And let's face it, no one wants to look at a bunch of photos of the "perfect" (fictional) vacation. That photo of your child tantruming in front of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland is almost certain to make someone smile (though probably not you).
Bring the longest lens you have
Big E 2011 by Flickr user Rusty Clark
There's nothing like that ubiquitous photo of a spec. You know, that spec that someone claims is a bear at Yellowstone, or their child on a roller coaster at Six Flags. If you know you're going to be shooting subjects at a distance, you might want to think about investing in a telephoto lens. If this isn't an investment you want to make, then just avoid those long shots. A good rule of thumb is, if you have to tell your viewer what he or she is looking at you probably shouldn't have bothered taking the photo in the first place.
Pay very close attention to your settings
You're going to be very disappointed if your child waited in line for an hour to get on that flume ride and the only shot you managed to get was blurry because you forgot to change your shutter speed. Before shooting any part of your vacation, consider what is happening in the scene. Is it moving fast? Opt for a faster shutter speed. Is there a lot of ugly clutter in the background? Use a smaller aperture. Is the light low? Turn up your ISO. Make sure you get these settings dialled in correctly at the beginning of every event, so you don't miss something.
Vacations are once-in-lifetime events, and you won't get any do-overs. Regardless of where that family vacation takes you, remember to find that balance between what you want to remember and what you want your viewers to see. Capture as much of the fun as you can, and choose only the most compelling images to put in that vacation album. All those memories will remain intact, and best of all, when you put that album down in your friend's lap, you'll be rewarded with smiles instead of eye-rolls.
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