Ask a Pro: How Can I Take Better Photos of my Kids? (Part 2)
Strewn across my dining room table is the remnants of several board games, a 4 lbs plastic container of red vines, a half eaten bowl of frosted flakes, and my two year old son wearing no pants. Yep, it’s summer vacation. My kids are devout fans of the Phineas and Ferb Tv series on Disney Channel. So this year we decided that our summer vacation would be filled every day with a new adventure. Now, we probably won’t go to outer-space, paint a continent, or find a do-do bird, but so far we have gone to the zoo, children’s museum, library, and biked the Centennial Trail. I would be remiss as a parent and photographer if I left my camera at home for all of these memory making moments. And while reviewing the recent images of my kids I noticed that many of them are good examples of things any photographer can do to make the photos of their own children look a little more professional.
(Disclaimer: These are snap shots of my kids… not my best work ever, but I think they are worth looking. These techniques can easily be applied by any novice. If you want see more of my best work, check out some of my recent photos on my Facebook page.)
Tip #1: Think before you shoot.
Just as a writer creates an outline, and a architect draws a blue print, an artist needs to visualize the work prior to production. In photography the act of creating an image is normally a split second process. It’s important that our planning of images are not also split second decisions. No planning leads to a paparazzi style approach that more then not, fails to deliver. It’s a good idea to ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my subject?
- What message am I trying to convey?
- Or what story I am trying to tell?
The image on the right is of my youngest son while we were eating lunch at the zoo. As you can tell, he was hungry. Because I’m a trained photographer it’s hard for me to go anywhere without assessing the lighting, backgrounds, and textures for the most optimal photographic combination. By answering the questions above I naturally gravitated to a table that was shaded and near a backdrop of trees. The shade provided a soft even light and the trees are always an appealing background to blow out of focus behind a subject. I placed my 50mm lens on my camera and set the aperture to F4. These settings are a good combination to separate a person (at a medium to close crop) from the background. The person stays in focus from eyes to ears and everything else becomes a pleasing blurry wash of color. Keep in mind, that each lens is different. Experiment with your own equipment to find the right settings for you. The simple act of thinking about my image before shooting provides an opportunity for something spontaneous to be captured in a thoughtful manner. Once we had chosen our table and I had my camera ready, all I needed to do was wait for my son to be himself.
However, it’s important to remember that 9 out of 10 times you follow this pattern of planning out your photographs you will not receive the desired results. That is the nature of the medium. But like any other creative process, time and practice will always reward your efforts.
Settings to remember: Aperture priority mode allows you to choose the aperture and control the depth of field. The camera will automatically choose your shutter speed. Choosing a wide open aperture (or low number) will make less of your image in focus. For this image I used aperture F4. If I wanted more in focus I would need to use a closed down aperture like F11 or F16.
Tip #2: Look for the light.
At the Woodland Park Zoo there is an indoor exhibit where people can feed different species of birds that fly freely through an indoor enclosure. Luckily for me, the roof is covered in skylights. Upon entering I noticed there were patches of sunlight streaming down through the frosted glass. I knew instantly that my photo-op had to be in one of these spots for my camera to get the best exposure. I also knew that because of the number of people in the exhibit that if I wanted to get the shot I would need a wide angle lens. Shooting at 16mm I could see my son, and the bird on his outstretched arm without backing up a great distance and leaving room for other patrons to walk through my shot. Also, I needed to be aware of the crowd behind Tyler. The last thing any photo needs is a random person (always wearing neon colors of course) to stand in the background. This meant paying careful attention to what was going on behind my subject as well as doing my best to keep the framing in camera tight on him and the bird. If I had zoomed out for a full body shot of my son you would have seen a number of passers by also enjoying their bird feeding experience. Sadly, they were not apart of the image I had imagined. Now the draw back to a wide angle lens is an increase in depth of field. As you can see from the image, the plants in the background are slightly out of focus, but still recognizable. I was using an aperture that on another lens would have given me a lot of blur in my background, but depth of field is impacted by both aperture AND focal length. The wide angle lens needs a great distance between subject and background to show the variations in depth of field. Once the framing was right, there was no one in the background, and the bird was happily munching on his midday snack, I took a moment to review my exposure. My end exposure was F3.5 at 1/200th of a second. ISO 400. I could have used a slower shutter speed and ISO but I was unsure about how quickly the bird might move. The faster shutter speed was my insurance policy for a sharp image with stop action. The ISO 400 increased the visible light on the background and decreased the contrast between the ray of light bathing the bird and my son. And it paid off because no sooner had I snapped this shot, a bird pooped on my head, thus ending our visit to the bird sanctuary and a initiating a trip to the closest ladies room.
This next image is an example of what to do when the light you want isn’t available. Photographing indoors can be a challenge at best. Every space comes with it’s own unique lighting situation. Most of the time it’s too little light in avariety of strange color temperatures that gives you images with blue, green, or yellow color shifts. The answer to this can often be to bring your own light source, and by that I mean a compact accessory flash unit. There are several ways to use these devices. Most commonly you can tilt the flash head to point directly at the ceiling. With an average ceiling height in most homes of 9 ft. and most ceilings painted a shade of white, your chances of a decent image are pretty high with this configuration. Plus most accessory flash units have a TTL (Through The Lens) metering system. This simply means that the camera communicates to the flash what the appropriate power setting for the current exposure should be and the flash provides the best output possible. While this is a great, quick fix, it’s not my favorite. Natural light has direction. If you live outside of the Seattle area and can see the sun’s regular path across the sky, you know that depending on the time of day the light comes from different angles and creates beautiful shadow patterns. This directional quality provides dimension and shape to two dimensional images, again separating our subject from the background and helping us answer the questions asked in tip 1. Using an accessory flash unit that can be fired remotely from off camera will allow you to mimic the look of natural light. For this image I placed my flash unit on a shelf next to the wall. My Nikon uses “commander mode” (under your settings menu–>flash/bracketing) to set the flash output in remote mode. I then walked away from my flash (about 90 degrees) and photographed Tyler doing an art project at the Imagine Children’s Museum (Everett, WA). BTW, if you haven’t been there it is by far the best place to spend a rainy afternoon with kids! Heck, it’s a good place to go as an adult. I always have a great time.
Again, I used my 50mm and a wide aperture (F2.8) to blur the background. I’m okay with the other boys being in the background this time because they are out of focus and they actually add to the sense of place. However I do wish that I had used a faster shutter speed. I was shooting at 1/60th of a second to capture some of the florescent light. The goal was to balance the light hitting the background with the light from the flash unit. I miss judged and over exposed the background. I better shutter speed would have been 1/90, or 1/125. I also chose to use black and white instead of color because the mix of the flash and florescent lighting was not pretty. If I had more time I would have placed a filter on the flash unit to tint it the same color as the ambient light. Sadly, when you’re working with kids, time is not on your side.
Settings to remember: Wide angle lenses often let in more light because they have a wider field of view. They also can distort an image around the edges of the frame. This effect is subtle until you put someone’s forehead too close to a corner and they start to like Frankenstein. Examples of wide angle lenses are 10mm, 16mm, 24mm and 36mm. 50mm is considered “normal” because it’s the closest to what our eyes see. Larger then 50mm is known as telephoto.
Tip #3: When is doubt leave it out.
Who says that every photo of your child needs to be a smiling close up? Don’t forget the details. These images in combination with others from the same event add nuance to the photographic series. If you’re a scrapbook-er then you already know this. You look for the textures and colors that will help fill the pages of your never ending project. It’s also important to note that images like this are transcend space and time. It conjures up feelings of summer, childhood, and the innocent fun that can be found during a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. When the lighting is bad for a portrait (ie harsh overhead light that creates deep shadows) it’s probably perfect for a detail shot. Also, when your kids are tried of taking pictures, but you’re not, it’s a perfect time for a detail shot; that is, if the shot doesn’t require much from them. Here are some additional detail shots that work in tandem with portraits of my kids at the zoo to help the viewer (you) to live out our adventure.
By cropping in close to the giraffe’s head while using a tilted perspective to show his massive body, I’ve accentuated his size in comparison to my daughter’s tiny little hand at the bottom of the frame. Plus how often do you get this close to an 18ft tall, 6 year old, tree trimmer, like this one? The image was actually shot at a medium depth of field ( F8 ) but the very size of the animal quickly creates a sense of blur as your eye moves back though the image to his haunches.
My penguin friend waddled right up to the glass and began checking out all the people. I love when this happens at the zoo!
Settings to remember: Detail shots are close up and often use shallow depth of field. Try a macro filter on a normal lens for a less expensive way to create really dramatic close ups.
Tip #4: Provide a sense of place.
Back the Imagine Children’s Museum Tyler gave a bobcat a check up. The image shown here is actually an application of several of the previous tips. First I used flash off camera again, but this time I did a better job balancing the exposure and natural light. ISO was raised to 400 to help the light box and overhead lighting fill in the background. If you’re asking what does ISO do it simply allows the camera sensor to expose an image using less light- the trade off is more pixel noise, but at 400 it’s easy to correct. The higher your ISO the more noise (red and green pixels) you’ll see on an image, so moderate your ISO and only raise it as a last resort. Additionally I waited until all of the other children were no longer playing in the background of this photo so there were less distractions. Finally, I chose to use the wide angle this time, not out of necessity, but a desire for more depth of field and information about where my son was. You see, there are two different kinds of portraits: classic portraits that focus on the facial features and less on what’s around the person, and the environmental portrait that includes more of the background. The background is then used to say something about the person photographed. In this case, it’s telling the story of my son using his imagination to give a bobcat a check up. You can tell by his expression that he’s deeply engrossed in what he’s doing. For me this kind of portrait says so much more then a smiling close up! (Not that I think those are bad, they just lack a plot line). When I look at this photo in 20 years I will remember more about my little boy’s character then other images taken that same day. Between the off camera flash (pointed at the ceiling and directly 45 degrees off camera) and other lighting sources I have a well lit image and overall composition. It was also important to see the glare of the lightbox on the wall hitting the table. It’s the details often that make an image more powerful. The designers of this space put a lot of effort into making it realistic. I wanted my photo to reflect that sense of realism that fosters imaginative play.
Settings to remember: The above image was shot at F8 @ 1/30th sec. ISO 400. Because there wasn’t room for a tripod and I’m terrible at holding still for slower shutter speeds I brought my monopod. I also leaned against the wall while shooting. Between the monopod, my sturdy position, and a purposeful exhale right before clicking the shutter, I was able to get a sharp image in low light. My wide angle lens also has vibration reduction. This is a very handy feature when hand holding. Still, all of these techniques don’t guarantee stop action. I tripod is always the best way to reduce shake. Increasing the ISO can also help create stop action because you will be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds.
Tip #5: Practice, Practice, Practice.
During our trip to the zoo I gave my oldest two children each a disposable camera. (Pictured at the top of the blog). The three of us came up with the idea of letting them photograph at the zoo as well. It made the trip a learning experience for everyone. The best part was developing their film and explaining to them a little bit about how a camera works. Think about your lighting, depth of field, and creative intent. Now don’t just read about it, get out there and try it! If you are interested in participating in one of my photography classes please email firstname.lastname@example.org for a schedule. I have classes starting July 19th for beginners and portrait specific classes coming up Fall of ’12. One on One mentoring also available.
It’s gonna be a fun Summer, stay tune for more of our adventures!