Here are my top tips on how to photograph children so that you get to take the kind of pictures of children that you really want.
While children are mercurial subjects, they also tend to take their own time coming into their elements, especially when you are hovering around with a camera in your hand. They will tend to get stiff, look at the ground and hunch their shoulders, or act overtly coy and artificial if you push your lens in their face too fast. Instead, give them time to get used to having you around with the camera in your hand and at your eyes. Children don’t take too long to lose interest, and no matter how interesting you think you and your camera are, in the course of time, they are just as fascinating as yogurt setting.
If you are not a close family member or a friend, or if you are photographing children in a public space, take time to build a rapport with them, get them playing and laughing, and let them touch and feel the camera so that it loses its novelty. Wait till they drop their guard and start enjoying themselves naturally. Try and blend into their environment rather than sticking out of it.
If the kids and you have gone to a new place, allow them to familiarize themselves with the location and the surroundings. You can use this time to scout around for interesting backdrops, objects, and perspectives. If you find something that you want to use as part of your picture, lead the kids into playing around that location, or object while you frame your shots. It is much easier to get spontaneous shots than choreographed ones. However, sometimes you may need to get them to pose for a pic. See the tip below for best posed photos.
Don’t Take Time
Most of my pictures of children at play would turn out blurred. This was not such a problem with very small kids who would not move around a lot, but as the kids grew older, and were restless and unpredictably active, this became a major problem area. You will be able to fix this with these two easy tricks for capturing candid shots of active children. The first is to use the higher shutter speeds on your camera. If you have manual controls, set your speeds over 250 for best results. If your camera doesn’t have manual controls but has preset modes, choose the ones that are suggested for sports, or for kids and pets. This will allow you to record a sharp image with minimum blur, and capture the essence of the moment.
The other trick is to use the burst mode. You can use this feature on your camera to take continuous frames as long as the shutter button is held down or a fixed number of frames per click. Many of the newer cameras give you bursts of up to 25-30 high res images per second!! Older or lower end cameras will give you much less than that, but even bursts of 4-6 images per second can give you sharp and candid pictures of children that you might have otherwise lost to blur. Some cameras will allow you to fix the number of shots per burst while others may just let you shoot in continuous burst as long as you hold the button down.
You will want to remember that the ability of the camera to process bursts is linked to a variety of factors like the amount of data in the image, the speed at which it is able to write on to the storage device etc. However, with most good cameras, this is a feature that you can benefit a lot from in order to take crisp snaps of fidgety kids.
One of my favorite hacks for getting nice pictures of children is to get them to pose, count down to say cheese, and then pretend as if you have got the picture taken, but take the picture a moment after the subject/s break out of the pose. This works really great with groups of children since they all snap out of the pose and snap into their spontaneous selves and make for a memorable picture.
I often use the burst mode for doing this too, so that I get a candid posed picture, as well as a number of clear spontaneous pictures of children as they disassemble from the pose.
Don’t Take Time
Keep talking and playing with the kids, as you frame your shots, and keep clicking even as you ask them to do some things, or get into a certain pose. As they process what you are telling them, and look at you and the camera, it makes for some very intense, and natural pictures of children. Giving instructions with your fingers pointing in the direction you want them to turn their heads is also a nice trick that you can use. Get them accustomed to your looking through the viewfinder while you are talking to them to make them appear relaxed and natural when you do click.
I tend to avoid using the flash altogether except for poorly lit situations. This way you can shoot without the subject becoming guarded and stiff.
Allow the children to settle into their own world. Most children, from infants to preteens, tend to have a rich fantasy world of their own, and it takes very little for them to switch off from the world around them and to enter into their world of make believe. Take your time and blend into the background, staying a little distant from them and their fantasy games. Once they are immersed in their world, use the zoom to get close ups. These turn out to be the most natural, intense, and endearing pictures of children.
Don’t Take Time
With children in the 6-12 age group, you can get into the photo shoot mode right away by laying down the rules as if it were a game. Get them actively involved in setting up the props, and the backdrops, and working on angles and perspectives. Allow them to feel a part of the photography session by letting them look through the viewfinder and give their suggestions. Tell them a little about the basics of how to take a photograph. Let them have a feeling that they are participating in something very important and urgent and serious. Allow them to come up with ideas for shots and poses, and let them critique the results. Set targets that they will understand, and impress upon them the need for speed. You will be surprised at the amazing shots you can get from a group of kids going about such a project in full earnestness.
The most common amateur error in taking snaps of kids is to take them from an adult perspective. Not only do you need to think like a kid when you are trying to photograph them, but you also need to take pictures of children from their eye level. This is also a way to show your respect for them and approach them as an equal. Take that extra two seconds and get down on your knees and elbows. If you are shooting a baby, you will need to get down on your stomach. Of course, you can always satisfy yourself with the standard shot of a lying baby taken from directly above it.
Taking the time to shoot from the subject’s eye level lets them look at the camera (or at other objects) without having to distort their natural head and neck position. It also allows you to frame the surrounding objects from their perspective, making the picture that much more relevant. My albums would be full of subjects cowering under my camera as I busily (and very adultly) shot away standing over them. Once I started getting down to their level, I was able to fix this.
Don’t Take Time
One neat trick for getting interesting pictures of children is to break rules, and to take pictures of them from unusual perspectives. Once you have established a level of comfort with the setting and the perspective, just keep shooting frames without wasting time. You can place them higher up, such as on a swing, on a tree branch, on a wall, or a balcony and shoot from below. Or you can position yourself higher up, maybe on the landing of a staircase, on a wall, on a boulder, or on a balcony, and take their picture while they are down below. Calling out to them once in a while just before you snap can make for a nice effect as they look up at you spontaneously. However, too much of calling out can lead to stiff posed pictures, so use this trick sparingly.
Playgrounds are an ideal place to take pictures of children with unusual perspectives, but ensure it is safe or that you are permitted to climb on to the playground fixtures before you do so. It is not nice to be told to climb down by the security staff, and it is certainly not nice to bring structures crashing down with your adult body weight!
This works with all children as far as I am concerned, but you may want to try it only with older kids. Get them to make and take their own photographs. Show them the basics of framing, and guide them by holding the camera yourself, but let them take the picture. you can also help them plan the shot and then pose in it while you take the picture. Help them by adjusting the settings right so that they feel good about the result. If the results are not good, explain to them what is causing the problem. You will be very surprised at how fast and how well kids can grasp the principles of how to photograph a basic composition.
One of the advantages of digital photography is the fact that you can shoot as many frames as you want at negligible cost, and then retain only the best. However, that is not what good photography is all about. You have to aim for the lowest possible NG ratio. Use these tips to cut back on your wasted shots while photographing children. Study the work of masters in order to trigger your ideas. Think from the point of view of a child. Start looking for drama in the mundane, be it an object or a backdrop. Move around the location like a child, looking for interesting angles, lines, perspectives and artifacts.
The ultimate objective of life is to learn, and to share that learning. Once you get back from your photography session, analyze each of your photographs to learn more. Try and identify what you did right, what you did wrong, and how to improve on the frames that you exposed. Make notes. Turn them into a checklist or a list of tips and tricks, and put them to use the next time you are shooting similar photos.
1. Shooting in burst mode hogs more power than you might imagine. You will want to be prepared with fresh batteries or an option to charge your camera batteries while shooting.
2. Data cards with lower speeds will slow you down between shots. Ensure that you have the highest write speed and class of data cards recommended for your camera.
3. Carry first aid. Photographing a bunch of kids can turn into a nightmare if the kids hurt themselves badly. Always be prepared with basic first aid.
4. Take time. Kids tend to get bored and tired fast. Be prepared to have down times, when they fall asleep, or just go into a “restore backup” mode and snuggle up to get their energy back. You can use this time to review your work, change or charge your batteries if possible, and plan ahead.
5. Don’t take time. Children are not only great subjects for photography but also subjects that you can find easily. Now that you have read this primer on how to photograph children, grab your camera and start putting this tips into practice while they are fresh in your mind.