Children are among my favorite subjects to shoot. They are charming, expressive, fun to be around, and create snappable moments constantly. They are also very challenging to shoot. Though, with the right technique and tremendous patience, the results can be spectacular.
The tips below are concepts and techniques that have worked well for me. Of course others have found success by doing things differently than my suggestions. If you like my photos of children, here are some ways you can get the same results.
Do not alter the situation
Avoid altering situations and environments to recreate a moment that has already happened. This is a tough concept for some. Many parents and grandparents find something that has happened already to be so cute they want a photo of it. They wish to recreate it by forcing the child to do what they did already. By doing this, they are limiting opportunity for other actual authentic moments to occur. Children live in the moment, and will quickly show their frustration if you try to get them to redo the shot you missed. Even the most behaved children will have difficulty making a recreated situation look authentic. If you want real emotions reflected in your photos, wait for an authentic moment to happen and be ready. Which brings me to my next tip.
Be Prepared and Be Patient
When photoing children, patience is a necessary virtue. They are wild and they move quickly. Snappable moments come and go quicker than you can take your camera from the bag. It is important to prepare yourself by adjusting your settings right away so that you are ready when the moment happens. When their bright eyes look at you with their big smile you love is certainly not the time to rethink your strategy. That’s when you just have confidence in your settings and snap away. Only minor adjustments you can do in a split second should be done while the moment is happening. More tips below regarding technical strategies.
Interact to create the moment authentically
As mentioned earlier, you cannot force the child to act as they did shortly before getting your camera. Though, you can interact with them to stimulate other situations. Simply talking to them, pointing out toys, just about anything to connect with them will get them to look at the camera and make the faces they make in real life as opposed to the cheeky smile they make when you tell them to.
Always consider the Law of Thirds
This is an important rule to follow anytime you’re taking a photograph. Imagine your frame were separated into 3 sections horizontally or vertically (this is art, not exact science. just use your head.) Your main subject of your photo, in most cases, should end up in 2 out of the 3 sections. Never center your subject like you’re hitting a target. We’re not shooting paintball, we are framing a photo.
Of coarse you will find great photos that clearly break this rule. Rules are meant to be broken. Though, I suggest you practice this and understand it well until you know when breaking this rule can make for an impactful shot.
Use a Prime Lens
This is what I preach most to beginner photographers. They are much more challenging to use, but the results are much more rewarding. If you don’t own one, get one. Start with a 50mm for the cropped sensor cameras (85mm equivalent). The cheaper 50mm prime lenses can get an aperture of 1.8. You won’t need your flash to get a good exposure, and you can utilize natural light in most decent conditions(we will get into more about that later).
Turn the flash off and use natural light
It seems to be generally accepted that using natural lighting usually makes for a better photo. The flash can be an excellent tool, and should be explored. If it is not used properly, there are a number of issues that will cause your photos to look unnatural with harsh detail. When the flash is directly above the lens, it shoots directly onto your subject eliminating all of the beautiful shadow detail you see in natural lighting.
The flash is a very small light source which makes for hard details. Natural lighting has lots of very large light sources, like shaded windows, or light bouncing from walls, coming from every direction but directly above the lens. Natural lighting tends to create very soft shadows because of all of it’s large sources (except for direct sunlight which creates very hard shadows, because it too is a very small light source. Sunlight is, to a photographer, a tiny super bright pinpoint in the sky.
The flash has it’s color own color temperature, which is meant to match daylight. When used in any other environment, the flash color never matches it’s surroundings, which is why everything looks strangely yellow and unnatural.
There are a number of techniques that can be used to improve flash photos. For me, the least complicated way to get the best results has always been to stick with natural lighting and leave the flash off.
Tell a story using the scene
A picture is worth 1000 words. Especially when you include the things that are taking part in creating the emotion you’re capturing (is that a run on sentence?). If the child is making eye contact with someone, include them in your shot. If they are playing with a toy set or building something, be sure to include it in your frame. With a narrow depth of field, you can hint at the secondary subjects by having them out of focus in your scene. We will get more into that on our next tip.
Utilize a narrow depth of field to isolate your subject from the rest of the scene
One great reason to use prime lenses is for their narrow depth of field. A busy backgrounds can move attention away from your subject. With a narrow depth of field, you can have sharp focus on your subject and have your background out of focus. This isolates your subject from any busy scene that may be happening. It makes it clear what the subject is that the photographer intended. If you are utilizing other secondary elements in your scene to “tell a story” you can have them fall out of focus and maintain attention on your primary subject.
Select the right auto focus mode
On most DSLRs you have a few different auto focus options. First and foremost is the auto focus mode. Usually it’s something like “One Shot”, “AI Servo”, and then some useless hybrid mix of the two.
“One Shot” will lock focus when you half press your shutter, and as long as the shutter is held and the half level it will wait for the one shot to snap. The camera will not fire unless it has focus confirmed on “One Shot”. This is useful to be absolutely sure of where your focus is, especially when they are holding still or sitting in place.
“AI Servo”, as it is called on canon DSLRs, will constantly adjust focus and snap as soon as you are ready whather or not the focus is confirmed. This is useful when the kids are all over the place, running towards or away from the camera making it impossible for “One Shot” to confirm focus.
Select your focus carefully
Chances are your DSLR has somewhere between 8-19 auto focus points. Most times, people leave their camera set so that it will automatically chooses which point to select focus. Despite the 19 auto focus points on my 7D, I like to have a single AF point right in the center so that I can choose my focus instead of the camera choosing it for me. This is especially important when using a prime lens with a narrow depth of field.
The technique is simple. Utilize the center AF point to confirm focus. Hold the shutter half way down and quickly reframe your shot (remember law of thirds, you’re not skeet shooting, you’re framing a photo). Then just wait for the right moment to snap as long as your subject remains in focus.
In portrait style shots, I like to focus on the closest eye to the camera. Sometimes parts of your subjects face may be slightly out of focus, so it is important to choose the point you want in focus.
The 11th bonus tip. Have Fun!
Most importantly… have fun! Kids are silly, goofy, easy, playful and fun. So if you want to connect with them and take good photos, you should follow their lead. Happy shooting!