People often ask me about the best way to photograph kids. First of all, I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I’ve been generally happy with my results. Here are a few tips that have served me well me over the years.
I love to photograph children in natural surroundings. In fact, I prefer candid shots over portraits. I have found that children can be some of the easiest subjects to photograph if you follow a few simple rules.
Spend a little time getting to know the child on their level. I strive to show I am “genuinely” captivated by the child’s interests. At times, I'll even get down on the floor (getting much harder getting back up these days) to look them in the eye or shoot from a position that provides me with the child’s view of the world. At times, I’ll experiment by shooting directly down or up at the child. It’s merely a matter of “using your creativity or mind’s eye” and trying something a little out of the norm.
Lack of vanity. I’ve discovered that children are traditionally not as vain as adults. Candid and spontaneous is better than posed and planned. Children don't seem to worry about hair, makeup or what they're wearing. Less posing often times reaps better rewards.
Children are uninhibited. And therefore are not afraid to display their emotions i.e. laughing, being happy or silly; sad, angry, pensive, curious, or surprised. Their facial expressions immediately reveal the way they are feeling at any given moment.
I like to shoot children in fun and/or natural surroundings. I’ll photograph them at a park, a zoo, a birthday party, in their room, while their singing, playing games or make believe or when participating in a sporting event. In essence, a comfortable environment.
Crop, fill the frame, and focus on the face. I try to remember the rule of thirds when composing a picture, but more importantly, I try to shoot from a variety of positions while changing my camera’s aperture and speed settings. Changing the depth of field and speed can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.
Click, click, click, click, and click! Since my camera is capable of shooting 4-5 frames per second, I shoot a lot of pictures. It doesn’t cost any more, plus I’ve found that it improves my chances of capturing a money shot.
Invest in quality optics. Over the years, I’ve discovered that the camera body is merely a box and if I want to invest in equipment, I save my money to buy a variety of good quality lens. Taking good pictures with your camera is more about focal length, focal point, speed of optics, and light. Since I am not an internationally renowned and highly compensated photographer and the industry has yet to develop a camera that will automatically shoot what my mind sees, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in a photograph shot from a camera body that cost $6000 or one that cost $500.
"Open your mind’s eye.” OK, so what’s “Your Mind’s Eye!?” Quite simply ….The phrase “Your Mind's Eye" refers to the human ability for visualization, i.e., for the experiencing of visual mental imagery; in other words, one's ability to "see things with the mind .” before you click the camera. It’s what makes my photographs different than other photographer's. Not necessarily better, but different. That’s because I see the world differently than others. That is God’s doing, not mine. I don’t know any other way to explain it, but “Your mind’s eye” is a gift. It’s up to each individual to learn how to find it, develop it, explore it, use it, and apply it.
As an example, photographing a little girl on a swing while wearing a Cinderella costume is a fairly routine snapshot. More than 90% of the world would simply snap a picture of a young child sitting on a swing wearing a colorful princess costume. So how does a photographer go from taking a picture to making a picture? By focusing on her feet, the viewer is now drawn into wondering what happened to the lost slipper. So what’s changed? By changing the focal point, a paradigm shift occurs - which not only alters the photographic dimension, -but changes the story line.
Camera settings? Although the camera is merely the vehicle a photographer uses to “make pictures”, there are some technical aspects of photography, and specifically in photographing children, that I've honed over the years. Here are a few tips on how I set my camera up when photographing children.
Aperture Priority Mode- I start by switching my camera to the Aperture Priority mode. This will let you have some creative control over depth of field which can be an important factor, especially when shooting portraits. If your camera doesn’t have aperture priority mode – it might have a ‘portrait’ mode which can be worth shooting in to get those nice fuzzy backgrounds.
Aperture – I typically set my aperture at f5.6 to start with (you can adjust it up and down as you start shooting). This will throw the background out of focus (unless your kids are right up against a wall) but will give you enough depth of field that every detail of their face will be in focus.
ISO – Depending where I am shooting (inside or out) and the type of available light – I manually set the ISO to 200 (lower is better if you have lots of light). If it is too dark and this makes my shutter speed too long I can easily push it up – but I try to keep it under 800 or I start getting a lot of pixilation). If at all possible, do not set your ISO on automatic because the camera typically takes the easy way out and boosts your ISO to compensate for the lack of available light. Shooting at 1600 to 3200 are going to cause graininess during the enlargement process and the colors won't be as vivid either.
Shutter Speed – I try to keep an eye on the shutter speed automatically chosen by my camera. I make an effort to keep it at 1/200th of a second or faster if I can (if the kids are running around, jumping, swinging, playing in a park or participating in a sports activity – I’ll push it up to 1/500th of a second or more). Like I said – if it’s too dark and if necessary, I can always increase my ISO or even push my Aperture up a little. If I’m not confident with shutter speeds and my photos are coming out blurry because the kids are moving too fast – I might even try putting my camera on the ‘Sports Mode’. (On a Nikon there is a little figure of someone running.)
Focus Mode – I go to Menu and set my Auto focus to “Single Point Focusing”. I could leave it on the "Multi-Point Focusing" mode but I find with kids that move around a lot that it’s better to know my exact location of the subject's focal point.
Lens – I like to take a couple of approaches when it comes to lenses. The main approach I take is to use a lens with some real zoom capability. I usually use my 70-200mm lens. This enables me to shoot from a distance and yet still fill the frame with the child I’m photographing (this lens also has the advantage of being fast while maintaining image stabilization) Note: (I also turn my lens VR setting to the "on" position. (Vibration Reduction (VR) systems compensate for image blur caused by small, involuntary movements (from unsteady hands, shooting from a moving vehicle, etc.) Also known as camera shake.)
Another approach that can be fun is to shoot at the other end of the spectrum. Shooting with a wide angle lens or the widest setting of your zoom lens provides a whole different perspective. I typically use my 18-300mm lens because it provides me with more options. Getting in nice and close with a wide lens can produce all kinds of fun distortion (which when used creatively can lead to some amazing shots). If shooting indoors or in poor lighting you might also want to go with the fastest lens in your bag.
Flash/Lighting – I’m not sure if you have an external flash unit, but my preference is to limit the use of my camera’s built in flash as much as possible. If you do have an external flash and you’re shooting inside – bounce it off a roof/wall (if they are white) or use a diffuser to give indirect light. Otherwise I try to find situations that are well lit with natural light – this is my preferred situation – if I can do it in natural light I’m placing myself in a position where I do not have to worry too much about using artificial light (flash). Existing light is always softer. If I’m shooting into the sun I will often times use a flash to provide a little “fill flash” that will lighten up the shadows? A good example of this is when I photograph a child wearing a baseball cap and the brim of the hat projects a shadow over half of the subject’s face. By adding a little" fill flash", I eliminate the shadows or a photo where the child only has half a face.
Focus on the eyes. Last, but not least, I try to focus on the child’s eyes. The eyes don’t lie, they are the key to the child’s facial expression, and technically, if I get the eyes in focus, the rest of the details in the face will be in focus.
As I said previously, I certainly do not have all the answers, but these little tips have worked well for me over the years. The one thing exciting about photography is that there is so much to learn from other photographers and I'm all ears. Remember, a camera takes pictures, but a photographer makes them!