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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tips for Taking Photos of Children

They're small, they're cute, and they're fast! For parents trying to take photos of their young children, the situation is one they can relate all too well: A 6-year-old hyperactive boy can run fast, he can be unpredictable, and he just doesn't seem to be able to stay still for a photo, right? So, what are we supposed to do? Give up on taking photos of them? Surely, no. 

Perhaps it's the equipment that we need, right? Maybe a compact camera isn't the right tool, maybe we need a DSLR. Well, that is kinda true, but misleading at the same time. My mother didn't have a DSLR when I was growing up, she had a compact - a film compact. And there are still photos of me from my childhood. But yes, this is a valid point. A DSLR is better than a compact in following action. But this is the first "Be aware" point that I will make in this article:

Do not run after technology. No, the problem is not that your camera has "only" 4 fps instead of 9, or 11 AF points instead of 51.


Not all beautiful children photos portray them running and jumping

The inspiration for this article was a discussion I had on a forum with a parent on autofocus settings for taking photos of his child. That man had spent a great deal of time tweaking settings, reading into details on autofocus techniques, and, he owned some really expensive equipment - pretty much the most expensive you can find, Nikon D4s, Nikkor 24-70, Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4, you get the idea...Still, he was somewhat frustrated he couldn't achieve the results he wanted - his child was moving too erratically, he said, and the camera couldn't cope. This is what I told him:



Don't use a camera's technical capabilities to overcome your own shortcomings. Using a camera on 9fps for bursts of 100 photos hoping one of them will turn out somewhat right, indicates something's wrong. You're approaching the issue as an AF problem. It's not. It's a problem of knowing your subject. 
You see, modern technology is great, but it also has two important side-effects - yep, second "Be aware" point coming up:

Do not allow technology to make you a) lazy; b) feel pressured.

Technology can make us lazy, because we rely on it to get results, forgetting that we need to work for the results. As I wrote above, 9fps and bursts of 100 photos are not a substitute for a single, "1fps", but well-timed and thought-of shot.

Technology can also make us feel pressured. Many people can surely relate to scenarios like these: "Hey, cousin, I see you have a fancy camera. Could you please take photos of my son's wedding next month? Thanks". Or, "[insert husband's name], our son's party is next weekend, you will take the photos, OK? Make sure you won't mess it up like last year. With all the thousands of dollars you spend on these gadgets, I'd expect you to do the job right for once".

So, what are the keys for successful photos of a hyperactive kid running up and down the garden? It's surprisingly easy. Like with other fast-action situations - like birds in flight - the key is, as I mentioned above, knowing your subject.


Photographing kids shares a lot of things with photographing birds - you must learn their habits, and you must learn to anticipate.


It's easier with your own children, of course. In the first paragraph I used the term "unpredictable" to refer to young children. That was a lie; even the most hyperactive kid can be predictable - if not anything else, you can predict he'll be running up and down constantly. Wanna hear an example of how that can be used? I was some time ago at a children's party. And surely, yes, there was one young boy, about 5 years old maybe, who just couldn't stay still. He would run, slide on the floor, then back and the same pattern again, with variations. I set my speedlight on rear curtain, shutter speed to 1/8, then waited. I saw him come running, sliding, and took the photo. I sadly can't show it to you - the faces of many children are visible and I can't find the parents to ask for permission - but take my word for it: The photo was brilliant! It totally captured what this boy was all about.

It's all a balance. Sometimes you need to work with what you have - if you can't take some specific kind of photo you had in mind, then take some other kind. In the end, ask yourself: "If I have a child whose nature is to run around all the time, why would I want to portray him as docile and somber?"
It goes back to pressure and expectations.

So, I'll end this article with a list of concrete tips, to help you remember all the things you just read:

1) Learn your child. You already do, you only need to translate this into photographic aspects. Don't chase them around with your camera or the autofocus. Simply be ready for the right moment. 1 shot at the right time is all it takes, you don't need 9 fps.

2) Pick your moments wisely. A literal walk in the park might not become a metaphorical one. In other words, if you want a calm, composed, serene portrait, it's a poor choice to have those when a small child wants to be let loose to run around. The best time for those might be before bedtime or right after exhausted play (before ice-cream; before getting cranky)

3) Forget about technology. 10 fps or a $2000 lens/camera is no substitute for knowing your child's habits and picking the right time (and timing). Sure, these can be handy, but don't rely on them

4) Think in advance what kind of pics you want. Plan. Have the picture in your mind, first and foremost, then use your camera/lens combo that will allow you to transfer it into digital form. Just showing up with a camera and lens and start taking photos won't do.

5) The most important of them all: Spend time with your children. This is not only a photography advice, it's parenting, too. Don't become preoccupied with taking photos and miss all the lovely experiences. A walk in the part should first and foremost be just that. Have the camera handy, but spend time with your child. And if s/he goes to check a beautiful flower, or to chase a little bird, you'll have that one shot that made taking the camera with you worth while.



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