Ask a Pro: How Can I Take Better Photos of My Kids? (Part 1)
As parents, we think we “know” our kids. We are POSITIVE that no one, not a single soul on God’s green earth, could possibly understand them the way we do. The simple and unforgiving truth is that we see our kids through the lens of our own experience. Parents are designed to nurture, protect, and adore their offspring. To step back and evaluate them for all of their character flaws would be an act of heresy. Because we are bound by love and biology, we come into the relationship carrying a substantial load of expectations for who we think they “should” be. We all want them to be successful, well balanced, functioning members of society. Yet, we reach for our cameras and are stunned to find that our once shinning example of obedience has regressed into a sugar crazed sociopath with an anger management disorder. I’ll admit, this has happened to me with my own children. The question isn’t “If?” or “When?”, it’s “Why?” and “How can I photograph my pint-sized tyrant?” Today’s blog will provide a few insights into the psychology required to photograph your children.
Step 1: “Admit That We are Powerless Over Our Children”
It’s important to note that when our kids are young we tend to want the most photos of them. Parents can’t help but feel the rushing of time as it speeds past us. We are keenly aware that eventually there will be no more “firsts”. The desire to capture every life event can become all consuming at times. The value of these snap shots is obvious to us, but sadly, sitting for a picture is not a high priority for our smallest family members. From their perspective, time can’t move any slower! The world is full of possibilities that will only be unlocked after a growth spurt. No wonder words like “painful”, “exhausting”, and even “torture” are commonly used to describe a family’s last portrait experience. (Not with me of course- my clients are pleasantly surprised by the ease of their sessions. ) The problem lies in our expectations. It’s easy to let the portrait become a symbol of what our lives should be like; physical evidence of a rose colored world. When we move past the need for perfection we can start taking portraits that are fun for kids and parents alike.
When ever I meet with a client for a portrait session I ask each parent the following questions:
- What do your children like to do?
- Where do your children like to go?
- What is your child’s favorite toy? Color? Book? Movie? Soda? Etc.
- What games do your children like to play?
- Do they play any sports?
- What are your child’s talents?
- What excites your child the most?
- What does your child like to wear?
I ask a version of these questions to my own kids when we plan a photo session. I took this video of my daughter during our “client meeting” to show the process. You can tell by the amateur quality of the video that it was shot in a single take. I did not prep her at all prior to asking the questions. What you’re seeing is raw and uncut (in a G rated way of course).
Step 2: “Believe that the Power of Play Can Return Us to Sanity.”
Kids don’t care how much money we make, what clothes we wear, or what we drive. More than an expensive gaming system or extravagant vacation, our kids just want our time. It’s that simple. They want us to get down and dirty with them. They need us to be interested in their world. Creating time out to photograph our children on their terms can be the perfect compromise. The child gets to choose an activity that you both participate in and you get photos that express a part of your child’s true self. Instead of creating a reality based on our adult perceptions, we document genuine play. The images on today’s blog are samples of the shoot we created based on my daughter’s suggestions.
Not only did I get photos that remind me of her exuberance for life, but she left the experience delighted and covered in ice cream.
Step 3: “Make a Decision to Improve”
Now is the time to expand as an artist. What is the point of documenting each experience if it’s done poorly? Don’t be afraid to experiment with exposure, lighting, and perspective. A good rule of thumb is first shoot what you know will work, then try something new. If you fail in your attempt, at least you have images to fall back on. If you succeed, you’ve grown as an artist and a person. Believe me, your child will be enjoying your portrait session so much that it will be easy to extend your session to as much as an hour. I highly recommend going no longer then one hour. After that point the novelty has worn off and your child is probably near meltdown.
Step 4: “Make a Plan for Photographing Prior to Picking up Your Camera”
Now, I’m sure someone reading this is thinking, “I don’t want to manufacture all of my child’s memories. I want to take great pictures of real life as it happens.” I assure you I am not suggesting choreographing your next family function. I shoot a lot of event photography and I always go into each event with a plan. If the event is in a new location I visit it beforehand to pre-visualize the lighting. A little forethought gives me a baseline for what my camera settings will be. I can also choose the correct lens beforehand so I am never miss a shot. Parents can do this as well. Try photographing in different parts of your home at different times of day. Find the best light/lens/settings for any particular room and repeat them as necessary when your child does something worth immortalizing. Besides, can you really look at the portraits of my daughter eating her ice cream and think, “that looks fake?” Her joy is authentic. Why wouldn’t it be? Her mom said she could eat a three scoop sundae in the middle of the afternoon! I feel images like these have more of my daughter’s personality then any of her photos where she’s simply smiling for the camera. This directly ties into step 3. When we are prepared we allow a space for creativity to bloom.
Step 5: “Admit That People are More Important”
It’s easy to become obsessed with documenting every single moment. It’s hard to put down the camera and be present in our own lives. Don’t allow the camera to be a substitute for real interaction. It is a tool. It can’t love your kids the way you do. And while you won’t recall every detail of the moments that go unphotographed, you leave a legacy of love that will permeate future generations. Sometimes the odds will stack against you. The door bell will ring, your child will need a nap, a sibling will use toothpaste to decorate the hallway, I could go on. Don’t forget, it’s okay to put the camera down. If you’re child becomes disengaged with the scenario don’t force the issue. I always have a plan B waiting in case a child becomes bored or upset. If plan B fails it’s an appropriate time wrap up the shoot. Continuing to push yourself and your child will only damage their enthusiasm for future sessions and stall your creativity.
Not exactly 12 steps, but you get the idea. Technical tricks for photographing children will be on the blog next week. I’d love to know/see how your sessions go when you apply these concepts. Please post a link to your photos that you’ve uploaded to any social media site (Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, etc) or email me your photos at email@example.com .