Here's what I think a lot of parents do wrong when it comes to capturing photos of their children: they only take the camera out for special occasions. Birthday parties, family gatherings, trips to the county fair - these are all the usual reasons that people have for taking photos. But the problem with this approach is that those special occasions aren't the only moments in your children's lives that you're going to want to remember.
It's hard to really blame the average person for thinking this way. Most people don't think to photograph the more ordinary aspects of daily life, for that simple reason—because they are ordinary. Your kids sit down at the dining room table to do their homework every single weeknight. Maybe it’s tradition for your family to eat chili on a Friday night, or play board games on Tuesday. Even more mundane is that getting-ready-for-school routine that happens every morning. None of these things really seem to inspire the average family photographer. That's because they happen every day. They’re ordinary, they’re routine, they’re boring. Most of us don't really think you should take pictures of things that are ordinary, routine and boring. But would you believe that you can, and not only that—with a little creativity you can actually make those boring things compelling? Here’s how.
Troy...again by Flickr user Snapshot Chaos
After you finish reading this article I would like you to ask yourself very serious question. When your kids grow up and move out of the house, will you think back fondly on those Friday chili dinners and family game nights? If the answer is “yes,” here's another question: would you ever think back on those getting-ready-for-school routines and kind of miss them, too? I know it may not seem like it now, but when your house is quiet and empty one day in the future, I promise there will be some moments when you wish you had a time machine so you could go back to those busy days and remember what they were like.
I am here to tell you, as if you didn't already know, that the closest thing you own to a time machine is a camera. There's almost nothing that can capture those moments with quite the same accuracy as a DSLR or even a basic point-and-shoot. So even if you think you probably aren't going to miss that getting-ready-for-school routine, I still think there's a very strong argument to be made for why you ought to be documenting it.
Make photography a part of your routine
Here's a challenge for you. Try to spend an entire week with your camera on the strap around your neck. I don't mean in the shower of course, or while you're sleeping, but I do mean that you should keep it on your person, and think about taking pictures of things that you ordinarily wouldn't think to photograph. How about your kids standing in a row in the bathroom brushing their teeth? How about your kids sitting down at the table doing their homework? You could also go into their bedrooms and take pictures of them sitting there amongst the chaos. Maybe the thought of a messy room drives you crazy now, but there's a very good chance that all of the tidiness in the future is going to be really boring, comparatively speaking.
Now remember that it's not enough to just have that camera around your neck randomly pointed at thing you think you may want to remember one day. You’re not excused from trying to create compelling photographs of those ordinary things. Remember that because they are ordinary, you actually have more of a responsibility to try to do things creatively. Start by thinking about camera angle. If I had to pick one thing that I think can dramatically improve anyone's photographs, I would stay it’s camera angle.
So let's say you’ve decided to get some homework shots of your kids. Instead of standing at the edge of the table with your camera held at roughly the height of your own eyes, think about how you could make that scene look more interesting. What if you place the camera on the table, and shoot your subject from a slightly low angle? In this image, the homework itself is going to look bigger than it would from the obvious angle. What does that say about the homework and the child's experience doing it? It’s going to look like it has a looming importance that it didn't have when you shot it from the ordinary perspective. Now go one step further and shoot your child's hand holding the pencil. Or, walk around the other side of him and shoot the homework from over his shoulder. Or shoot the homework itself up close. In short, think about all the different ways you might be able to capture the experience of doing homework that doesn't involve a camera angle that screams “mom took a snapshot.”
Now that you’ve filled your photo album up with memories of every day life, I want you to start thinking about how you can use perspective to improve the photos that you probably take every year but the same sort of events. I’m talking about birthday parties, family gatherings, and holidays such as Thanksgiving. If you go back through your photos from years past, I bet you will discover that you got a lot of pictures that look pretty much exactly the same as the pictures you took the year before. Maybe your teenage son’s hair gets a little bit longer every year, or maybe your teenage daughter’s hair changes color from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, but these little changes in people alone are not enough to make for the kind of variety you really need to have if you're shooting the same event over and over again year after year.
So let's go back to perspective again. How can you approach, say, your annual family barbecue that won't make it look exactly the same as it looks every year. Kids with hamburgers is a pretty obvious shot. So what if you mix up the kid-with-hamburger photo? Instead of just taking a picture of him eating a hamburger, why not think about the whole process of hamburger consumption? Get a picture of him staring longingly at his burger, or overdoing the ketchup. Get a picture of him afterwards which is half eaten burger on his plate and an “I ate too much” expression on his face. Get a picture of his greasy hands. Or, capture an image of him waiting impatiently for his burger. If the kids in the group like to cluster around the barbecue to look at the cooking meats, that's definitely an image for the scrapbook.
I hate to use the expression “think outside the box,” but that's exactly what you're doing—you’re thinking outside the picture frame. You are thinking about how you might ordinarily take a photograph, or how you have taken photographs in the past, and you are you going to actively avoid duplicating those ideas. I know it seems like it's going to be hard to find new ways of looking at the same event year after year, but think of it this way: details are everywhere. There's always going to be something about every event that’s a little bit different than it was the year before. There’s always going to be an angle that’s a little bit different than the ones you used in years past. Your job is to find those unusual roads, and travel down them. If you can't find something new and unique in every one of those events, then you need to rethink your approach to photography. Try talking to friends and family and asking for ideas. Or try searching Flickr for “family barbecue” and see if you can get any ideas that way. It never hurts to brainstorm or to look for inspiration outside your own head. That's only going to make you a more creative person in the long run.
Besides camera angles, what are some other ways you can capture every-day activities or even less-common events in uncommon ways? One thing a lot of family photographers fail to do is capture the details. Have a look through your family album or scrapbook and answer this question—what percent of your photos are full-body shots of your kids and family members, vs. photos that are shoulder and neck shots? Now about what percentage are of details, like feet, hands and eyes? If those detail shots are a single-digit percentage of the total number of photos you take of your family, then something is wrong.
Babies have chubby hands and feet. So why would you pass by an opportunity to photograph those details? And if you don’t zoom in close to your middle-schooler’s face, you won’t do justice to that spray of freckles over his nose. If you don’t shoot your daughter’s hand gripping a paintbrush, you will have to depend on your memory of the awkward way she always held a brush when she first discovered the joys of art.
Details mean a lot, so if you aren’t already photographing them now is the time to start.
Of all the times in a person’s life, parenthood might be the one that passes by the quickest and is missed the most. When you send your last baby off to college, are you going to be happy with a sub-par time machine? I think you already know the answer to that question. If you’re not happy with your family photos today, then today is the time to start fixing them.
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