One of the best photography tips I have so far from the online digital photography course I’m doing, is ‘get comfortable’. As far as I can gather, this is true of all things photography, especially portrait photography. To take a good shot:
you need to feel physically comfortable yourself
you need to make your subject feel comfortable
you need to feel comfortable yourself with your subject
you need to feel comfortable with your camera.
Comfort. Could it really be that easy? Ah, yes and no…
Many parents are exasperated when taking photos of their children. “He just doesn’t like having his picture taken,” they say. I know I certainly used to feel this about my own boy. But these days I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve and he’s now very comfortable with the whole process. Rather enjoys it even (she says, hopefully).
Here are five ways to bring some comfort to your children’s portraits.
1. Natural lighting
Great children’s portraits capture the spirit of the subject first and foremost. The cranky child, the light-hearted child, the loving child, the tired child.
While studio photography definitely has its place, if you want to capture that irrepressible spirit, it’s generally best to avoid studio lighting or even flash. Children clam up very quickly when they are faced with complicated technical apparatus and a formal environment.
2. A familiar environment
Which neatly brings me to my next point… comfort is often about familiarity. Try to take your shots somewhere that the child has explored many times and knows well. That might be in their bedroom, backyard or a favourite beach or park. Somewhere where they feel in control and can take the lead.
3. A familiar photographer
Spend some time becoming a part of the child’s familiar environment (easy if you’re their parent!) – engage with them by asking them about themselves and the area where the shoot will take place. Spend a good amount of time getting to know each other; it will be time well-spent. Don’t forget to include them in all aspects of the shoot. Ask them where they think the best photo might be taken. What will they be doing? What will they be thinking as their photo is taken? What if they didn’t have to worry about any of that and could just play for a while?
4. Don’t be put off by ‘the pose’
These days lots of kids are so used to having their photo taken that as soon as a camera is produced they hit “the pose”. Here is Max’s standard ‘bucky beaver’ pose. We call it the ‘goober’.
If a child insists on giving their “best pose” (which generally involves some kind of strange mouth treatment, bug eyes or cutesy hands), make a joke about it and take your shots when they laugh. Then tell them to run off and play and then, you know… stalk them a little bit. Click, click, click. Keep clicking for longer than you think you need to – the best photos are often the photo you take after you think you’ve got the shot.
5. Check your focus
Many modern DSLR camera’s have multi-focus point – anything from 3 – 45! These are the red squares that light up when you half-click the shutter button. My Canon EOS 60D has ten points, which are handy when you use your camera in auto-focus, but probably unnecessary when you switch to using your camera in manual mode. Check your camera guide – you can turn off the multi-focus and choose a single point of focus (generally the single point in the middle). While this takes some time to get used to, a single focus point puts you in control of your image, not the camera.
6. Try a higher aperture
A low depth of field will blur the background of your shot, making your subject the clean focus of the shot and reducing visual clutter. We talked about aperture here and I made an exposure cheat sheet to download, but the rule of thumb for us laymen is the lower the f-stop number the higher the aperture. The higher the aperture, the shallower the depth of field and the more blurred the background. Geddit?
7. Think different
This is the fun bit. If you want to take interesting shots full of life, you’ll want to avoid what I call the “PixiFoto Effect”. With respect to the institution that is PixiFoto (and all those who love their style), just about every home in Australia has a framed picture in the hall of the kids directly facing the camera, wearing a “say cheese” smile and sitting in one of five regulation poses. You really, really don’t want that…
There are lots of “tricks” for a flattering, creative composition, but the best one is to go back to our very first point: get comfortable. Do the Pixikids look comfy? I mean, just look at the face on the little fella in red stripes. And big sis on the bottom up there? Not especially comfy, no.
Capturing kids sometimes means capturing just a very small element of them, or even an image of something they find precious. You don’t need to see the ‘whole person’ in order to take their portrait. There is magic in squirreling away the details through your lens.
Shoot from above, below, the side, the ground. A wonderful image I once saw was taken by a Dad lying on the ground at his son’s feet. The son looked suitably gigantic and the shot was simply called “Growing up”. Beautiful. This is a particularly effective approach when shooting at the playground – swings overhead and slippery dip feet coming towards you!
Too many gorgeous kids are shot from so far away. “He’s so lovely…um… back there…” you say, squinting to find the child amongst the trees. Bring the camera closer, or invest in a zoom. The subject should be the biggest thing in the shot.
The ‘unportrait’ is a favourite for Tahnee. Remember to snap the ‘little things’ to truly capture the essence of your child at any age. Here a pot of yoghurt, some adorable pink stripes and a very messy girl beautifully sum up what it means to be a toddler.
Tahnee took this shot on her daughter’s very first day at big school. Capturing her as she did up the buttons on her uniform for the first time, Tahnee shows us that a ‘moment’ often makes a better portrait than a ‘smile’.
Tim Coulson is a master of capturing children’s personality and spirit in his shots. This photo of Che (if he looks familiar it’s probably because Che’s mum is blogger Jodi from Che and Fidel) works beautifully. He is in his natural environment, captured candidly as he sits down to breakfast with his family and lit with gorgeous soft light from the window to his right. The intensity of his father’s expression beside him brings emphasis to Che’s serenity and provides wonderful atmosphere.
My Lottie captured by Tim mid-yawn as the family prepared to leave for the park. The soft light, harmonious colour and natural capture make this shot a winner. A reminder to not stop clicking once the picture has been taken – often the shot you take after you’ve ‘finished’ is the one you really wanted in the first place.
A delightful moment, the squirting water takes equal importance to Eulalie, who is quite simply having the best time ever. There is such movement and joy in this stunning shot by Claire, a reminder to snap away merrily while you’re children immerse themselves in their own world of play.
These shoes take the ‘unportrait’ to a whole new level, but what personality they capture. Children’s precious clothing, toys and objects are often as important a part of their childhood as growing up will be. Photograph every aspect of your child – they don’t even need to be there.
Do your children like ‘having their picture taken’? Do you think these ideas might help?