How to Take Great Pictures of Kids

August 23, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

I thought Zoe’s post yesterday was excellent — and the picture she used to illustrate it was apt in more ways than one. Yes, it gives you a behind-the-scenes peek at what goes on at some of our SlowMama photo shoots, but — as with blogging in general — it can also give the (very) mistaken impression that I know what I’m doing behind a camera.

Most of what I know about taking pictures (and it isn’t much) I’ve learned through trial and error, or following the advice of other bloggers and my photographer friends. Still, when Ann asked me once if I had any particular tips for taking pictures of kids, I realized I had learned a thing or two through photographing my many adorable nieces and nephews.

I should make one disclaimer right off the top: All of these pictures were taken with an intro-level DSLR camera, and almost all with a fixed focal-length lens designed for portraits and close-ups. (It sounds fancy, but it’s actually quite affordable. If you already have a DSLR, you should absolutely snatch up this lens.) Among other things, it lets you take very shallow depth-of-field pictures (meaning only the subject is in focus), which is just what you want for portraits. You can certainly get good photos from cheaper cameras these days — even cell phones — but generally speaking, the better your tools, the better your pictures.

That being said, there are still some principles that will always be the same, no matter what your camera. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:

Natural light is your best friend.

This is true for every picture always, but particularly for people: Turn off the flash and try to work with the natural light available. If you set your kid near a window, it will usually give you all the light you need to capture great details without the harsh light and shadows caused by the flash.

The only time when more natural light isn’t necessarily best: when you’re outside in full sun. Direct, overhead sunlight can cause some of the same problems as a flash, so if you’re trying to get a particular shot in the middle of the day, try setting your subject in a shady spot, or some place that isn’t in direct sunlight. Cloudy days can be perfect for pictures for just that reason: This shot of my niece Ana was taken when the sun was behind a cloud, and you can see more of the (smooshable) details on her chubby little face because of it:

And don’t forget about the “magic hour,” the time right before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon and creates beautiful, diffuse light and warm tones. It’s my favorite time of day for pictures.

Get on their level. (Or behind them, or underneath them…)

The perspective most adults have of kids is usually a view of the top of their heads — so getting pictures from that height can be a sweet reminder of how they looked to you when they were little:

But if you take all your pictures from this angle, you miss out on a lot of other little details. Try getting on your kids’ level, so you can see the world from their perspective. John was actually above my head when I snapped this picture of him climbing a cherry tree in his front yard, but the perspective gives a sense of what it feels like to him to climb the tree — exhilarating, adventuresome — even if he’s only 6 feet off the ground.

It’s fun to play around with different angles and close-ups; instead of ordinary head shots, try focusing on some of the little details that usually go unnoticed in pictures but change so quickly — chubby hands, tiny feet, soft little ears…

On a more practical level, kids will simply be more comfortable when you’re down on their level — and if they’re more comfortable, it’ll show in the pictures.

Don’t tell a kid to smile.

Whenever I tell four-year-old Thomas to smile, he purses his lips, squints his eyes, and juts his chin out at me. That’s what he thinks smiling looks like. Not helpful.

Of course, he has an adorable natural smile — but almost no one can give you their best natural smile on cue, least of all kids. So instead, I try to think of ways to get a smile out of them. With babies, playing peek-a-boo behind the camera works wonders: They won’t smile into a faceless camera, but they will smile at you. Just set up your shot, then pop out from behind the lens to get their attention and press the shutter as soon as they start smiling:

With older kids, you can make a game out of it: Have them hide under a blanket, or behind a door, and then jump out and surprise you. Kids are super pleased with themselves when they think they’ve surprised adults (Thomas especially), so the smile will come naturally; just make sure you’re ready to catch it.

What if you’re not even trying for a smile — just hoping to get your kid looking at the camera without some painful, frozen expression on his face? Go for the sneak attack: Set up your shot while he’s busy ignoring you, then call his name. As soon as he looks up — click.

Let them do their thing.

We all love the idea of kids sitting sweetly for the camera for posed shots — but honestly, how often are your kids actually sitting still and smiling beatifically at you? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

Instead of fighting with them to sit up and hold still and for the love of Pete, stop poking your brother, go for the photojournalism approach: Try catching your kids while they’re immersed in their own kid-world — running, digging, reading, whatever. It will be a more accurate representation of what their little lives actually look like — because we all know that no one’s life looks like the Christmas card.

Take lots and lots and lots of pictures.

This has a few very important benefits: One, it makes your kids more comfortable around the camera if they see it all the time. Stalk them like the paparazzi, and soon they’ll be little champs at ignoring it, or loosening up in front of it.

Two, having more photos to choose from means you’re more likely to end up with just the shot you want; you can always go through them and pick out the winner later. If you’re trying to get a particular portrait, consider setting your camera to take “rapid fire” pictures (where the shutter snaps several shots in quick succession); it’ll give you the option of choosing the best out of the lot later — much easier than trying to get your kid to smile five times in a row.

Finally, the more pictures you take, the more practice you’ll get, and the sooner you can figure out which of these tricks works best for you. (And, of course, don’t forget: Photoshop is always your friend.)

Your turn to share! Anything you do to get great kid shots?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss and some of her better-photographer family and friends

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