What is high energy, curious, and loves to run around and play in grassy open yards? If we exclude puppies, the answer is – kids! Images of these mini-people are among the most popular on the Internet, from the fashion-forward Instagram feeds of future style bloggers to the stunning websites of some of the top kids’ photographers in the industry. Mastering the art of children photography is, therefore, not only a nice skill to have for your family photo shoots, but a potentially profitable service to offer clients.
Alas, capturing beautiful, in-focus, and frame-worthy pictures of kids poses a unique set of challenges for even the most experienced photographers. (And let’s not even get started on the challenges of puppies and kids together). Their boundless energy, curiosity, and unpredictability can leave a photographer frazzled and frustrated by the resulting images. But if you take a unique child-led approach to your shoot, as well as keep a few basic photographic concepts in mind, the resulting images have the potential to reach even beyond your photography website – and into your favorite picture frame for all to admire.
Who says you have to have a studio with a crisp white background in order to get a beautiful shot? Kids are happiest, most emotive and photogenic when they are engrossed in their favorite activity, be it swinging in a playground, reading a book, or showing off a new lightsaber toy.
This energy lends itself beautifully to documentary-style photography. The goal here is to enter the space of your child subject and capture the world as they see it. For kids, the world is an endlessly fascinating place; things that adults walk past without a second glance can hold kids captive for hours. Take advantage of that by setting your photo shoot where your child subject is happiest rather than trying to force a certain location or photographic vision onto them.
Camera height is a pretty basic concept in photography, but it can be utilized in especially fun ways when photographing kids. Here’s the summary: when the camera is about the same height as the subject’s face, the subject will appear more or less true to size in the image. Shooting a subject from above, camera aimed down at them, will slightly dwarf their size. Shooting a subject from below, with the camera aimed up will make them appear larger.
Do you want your child subject to appear bigger than the atmosphere around them? Get very low to the ground and shoot up from there. Want to emphasize the small stature of your subject, especially in comparison to the scene they are surrounded by? Stand at your full height or climb onto a chair and aim downwards. Even when you’re aiming to shoot more or less straight on, you’ll need to get down to the child’s level. Be prepared by carrying a cushion for your knees or to sit on since that’s the height you could be at for the majority of the shoot.
The same concept as above can be applied to objects in your frame. The size of an object can be used to either make a kid look small or make them appear larger than they are. Play with this concept by placing your subject and other scenery at varying distances from the lens and see what comes out. These ideas about camera height, object size, and lens length aren’t rules meant to be religiously adhered to; rather they are concepts to keep in mind that you can use to your advantage during your shoot.
In my years of photographing children, I can say the moments where they sit perfectly still are few and far between. So right off the bat, I narrow my aperture and increase my shutter speed in order to decrease the chances of a blurry subject as we both settle into the shoot. Once you and your subject have a comfortable repertoire going, then you can get creative. But at the beginning, and any time there is running, swinging, or any kind of fast movement involved, it’s better to play it safe and ensure that your images are in focus.
Now is when you want to go for the beautiful “soft-focus” look you get when your aperture is all the way open, you have one spot in focus, and the rest of the image is blurry. To prepare for this shot, I’d recommend changing your settings to allow for a more open aperture and then waiting for your child to enter the area where you have prepped to photograph them.
When I first started photographing kids, I’d find myself losing a lot of shots because I was so busy changing my settings around to keep up with the kid. If they were sitting, I’d hustle and change my settings to a more open aperture. But often by the time I had my settings where I wanted them, they had already moved on to the next game and my old settings quickly had to be adjusted. At a certain point, I suggest switching to a more passive shooting mode, where you plan the shot in a child-friendly environment in advance, and patiently coax them into your desired frame.
Your most important accessory when photographing kids isn’t a fancy tripod or thousand-dollar lens – it’s the people who are there with you! Be it parents or an assistant you bring along, the more is definitely the merrier in this case. Besides just generally helping to entertain the kid, use other people to draw kid’s attention to your camera lens. One key thing to remember here is that if a parent is behind you, trying to get a kid’s attention, the kid will look to them wherever they are, which means you may end up with a bunch of pictures of a kid looking up and over the camera. Have your “attention-grabber” stand as close to the lens as possible to increase the likelihood of the child looking into the lens rather than all around it.
Let the parent be an accessory in your image as well; kids are happiest in the arms of someone they trust – and that pose happens to photograph very nicely.
Like any person you are photographing the bond you form with your subject will dictate how smooth the shoot is. This is especially true for kids, who wear their emotions on their sleeve even more so than adults.
Take the time to get to know the child before slowly introducing the camera as if it’s a cool new toy you want to show off to them. I often show kids how my camera works by showing them pictures of themselves on the LCD screen after the first few shots. I even let them press the shutter button and look through the viewfinder. It turns the photo-shoot into a fun game, and no one appreciates games more than kids.
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