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How to photograph your kids

Rob Cruse (anitasm)

Keywords: composition, technique, guides, tips, kids, family, pets

Show pages (3 Pages)


Hey - what's the point of an article on photographing your kids? Anybody can do that. Just pick up the camera and snap away - right? Well, that is certainly true if you are looking for 'snaps', but with a little more thought your snaps can become more than a record of a moment; they can start to capture the feelings, expressions and character of your children.

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"Just kicking around"


This discussion is centered around capturing the candid (informal) moments of your childs life; in your home, at play, at a birthday party, wherever memories might be created. While the discussion assumes you have a camera that allows control over some basic functions, most of the ideas here can also be applied to the simplest 'point and shoot' camera.


Lets start with some basics that apply to all sorts of photography, including photographing your children. Of course, all the rules are there to be broken.


Not every photo of a child needs to be a 'candid' shot, just most of your shots! The true character of a child comes out when they are just 'doing what they do' (luckily this is most of the time).

Grasp these moments, and learn to photograph them. As soon as a child realises they are being photographed, their expression changes to either grim determination or 'tom foolery'. This is fine for the odd shot, but they are probably not the sort of images you want filling your album.


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Have you got bad knees? A bad back? Find some good painkillers! It is good to photograph kids from their eye level. Got a toddler? Sit on the ground. A 4 year old? Now you're on your knees. 5 month old learning to push up from their tummy? Well, this is where it gets really serious. On the ground on your stomach, propped up on your elbows. You get the idea. Of course, this rule can be broken at a moments notice.

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Get used to watching the kids through the viewfinder of your camera. Watch and observe what is going on, and be ready to squeeze the trigger when the moment comes. Don't just look through the viewfinder; actually SEE what is happening and imagine how it will work as an image. Kids don't stay still for long, and the sublime moments of an expression or motion are fleeting.


Pre-focus if you need to, or use focus tracking if you like, or focus manually if it works for you. Whatever you do, you need to have the camera to your eye and your finger mostly down on the trigger. If you have a 'point and shoot' with a long shutter delay, learn how to work around it (usually by pre-focusing).

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Don't just take one shot. Kids have an unlimited supply of expressions. If you like a composition, grab a shot (they might move on any second). If they stay, and the expression changes, grab another couple. Zoom in, Zoom out, change your perspective. When you review them, one shot will always stand out, and it probably won't be the first in the series.


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When using flash in dim light (when the flash will be the main source of illumination) it is very hard for me to avoid washed out, featureless faces with little sense of feeling or depth (this comment applies to 'on-camera' flash -the one built into your camera or that attaches to a 'hot-shoe').

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"Breakfast on Top of the World"


The flash is there for a reason: to keep the shutter speed up so that you don't end up with blurred images when without a fast lens. There are a couple of ways around this problem. With a film camera, use a fast film; 400 or 800 ASA will work well inside many homes when 100 ASA would require a flash. If you are using a digital camera, read the manual. The more advanced digitals will let you set the ISO equivalent speed. Others turn up the ISO automatically. Learn how yours works. Most digitals will give good results up to about 800 ISO before the images start to get noisy, and modern films are terrific at least to that speed. Don't forget the Black and White C-41 films like Kodak T400CN (400 ASA - developed at the local minilab).


WORK THE WINDOWS. Windows are a terrific source of natural, often diffuse; almost always appealing light. Windows can also act to grab a childs attention and create some lovely moments. A large window with an overcast sky outside can be the most sublime lighting for the soft skin of a child or baby. Get the reflections, get shots from the outside looking in, get a silhouette. You could write a book on the possibilities of kids and windows.


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A PHOTO FOR EVERY OCCASION. Many photo opportunities involving kids are repeated daily around the world. Here are some thoughts on how to take advantage of some of these moments.

AT THE PARK: Slides, swings, carousels (or merry - go - rounds, depending on where you come from), climbing equipment; they all work for a great photo. The biggest problem here can be lighting. You are now outside (probably) and in the middle of the day shadows from an overhead sun can dominate. Late in the day can be good, but this is often when the kids are at their worst. The answer: MORNING. The sun is low in the sky and provides a nice side light, the kids are 'fresh' and the air is usually clearer than in the afternoon.

In general, keep the sun behind you or to one side. As it's low(ish) in the sky, shooting into the sun will generally create problems (unless you are after a backlit or silhouette effect and are careful to control flare). Also if you have a fill-flash capability on your camera, give it a go (especially if it's towards the middle of the day). This can lighten some of the shadows under the eyes and hats -read your camera manual or a book for more info.

Longer lenses can be useful outside; certainly a 200mm or similar will find plenty of use but obviously isn't a pre-requisite. The long lense lets your kids roam and you don't need to be 3 steps behind them. You can also get in nice and tight for a great portrait when the moment arises. I'd suggest colour film (or digital captures) with the slowest film or ISO the light will allow (hopefully 100 or 200).

ON THE SLIDE (slippery dip?): Here there are a couple of approaches. Use a fast shutter and freeze the expression as they are part way down, either in profile or from towards front. Another approach is to slow things down with a shutter in the 1/15 sec range and pan as the child goes down the slide (shooting from the side). A sense of movement results with (hopefully) a reasonably crisp and suitably excited expression. This can be good from really close (with a wide angle lense) for a more abstract effect. Get mum or dad on the slide as well for some real fun. Of course, these approaches work on pretty much any moving target, even 'Wagoneering' (see image to the right).



THE SWING: This one is challenging - it is much harder than you might think to get a good shot. When the swing is static (at either end of the travel) there is a nice shot to be had, often with a good expression or the legs flying out. Prefocus is good here. To capture movement is a challenge, especially without getting thumped by the passing child (or an adjacent swing). Experiment and let me know your hints!

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CARROUSELS (merry - go - rounds): Slow shutters and panning as your child goes past works a treat here. Once again something around 1/15 sec can be great. If you are aboard, get that wide angle lense out and put your child in the foreground and (once again with a slow shutter) blur the background as the world goes past. If it's a particularly attractive carousel (or old and historic) the details can be superb and deserve a couple of close ups.


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Here we are talking tighter crops of your child (putting that 200mm lense to work). The kids are engrossed in something fun, the morning light is working a treat and you are guaranteed some great expressions. Use a wide-ish aperture (say F4) to reduce the background to a lovely diffuse blur, focus on the eyes, and wait for the perfect moment.




Every day you see your toddler in their high chair. In 10 years you will think back on this time as another era, but as it's part of your every day life today it's not an obvious photo opportunity. Well lets make it one!


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"At our own zoo"

As you are inside (probably), grab some fast film or wind up the ISO on your digital. Flash will reflect brightly off cups and bowls and ruin most shots. Push the high chair near a window or glass door for some natural light.


Now try some different compositions; look down from a chair, get in close for some munching shots; capture their hand in the bowl getting that last piece of melon; get the great expressions as your child interacts with a parent while being fed from a spoon. These are special moments.

Do the same with your older child who has his 'own' table and chair, or is seated at the 'big' table on a booster seat. Black and white can be great for these shots, as can colour (especially with brightly coloured food such as fresh fruit).


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Especially with infants, the details are often the cutest shots and really are something to cherish. Great lighting and a lense that focuses close are the keys here. Use natural light as always; work near a window or a glass door. Diffuse light from an overcast day, or through a sheer curtain works well. The perfect skin of your child will sculpt the light.

See how close you can focus with your camera. If you are lucky enough to have macro capability (very close focussing) then you are off to a great start. Get those toes, the bottom of the feet, the hands (both by themselves and grasping an adult finger). Get in close and grab the huge, wondrous eyes. Your imagination is the only limitation here. Black and white can really bring out the form in these images and works beautifully. Focus needs to be spot on when working up close.

Mental note: camera is not in waterproof housing. Do not forget. Repeat as necessary! Swimming pools are variable and the photo opportunities are harder to categorise. Some are inside and you will need fast film, others are outside and the suggestion for the park applies; get there in the morning. Watch for reflections that can fool your light meter. On a point and shoot or simple SLR, consider setting your camera to a Snow or Backlit mode to add a little exposure (if you are outside and it's bright). For good compositions get in close - use that 200mm lense. The expanse of water really doesn't add much to most images. The tight shots are especially good of younger kids in mum or dads arms.

Get down to the level of your subject (or maybe slightly above to get a nice simple background; the surface of the pool rather than the pool edge in the background). If it's outside and you can look down into the water there can be some nice effects (depending on the height of the sun and the finish on the bottom of the pool).

If you are feeling adventurous, get in the pool and have someone pass you the camera. Get down to water level (or as close as you dare) and have your child blow some bubbles. The resulting image with the head half/in half/out of the water can be a treat. Don't forget to capture the kids getting in and out of the water. The sense of scale and clambering required can be precious, particularly for a paddling pool where they can be left to their own means as they try to get in and out. All this applies pretty well to the beach also (but watch for sand in the camera!).

Most of what was described above can work anywhere.

FIRST BIKE? Try panning with a slow shutter, or get in tight with a 200mm lense and wide aperture to capture the expression of concentration. Or get right down on the ground and shoot up with a wide angle lense (trying not to get run over) - nothing but blue sky in the background.



Get the details, stand on a chair and look down, pick the expressions, get mum and kids together, get the finger in the mixing bowl, get a close up of licking the wooden spoon.


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DON'T IGNORE GRUMPY TIMES (After all, that is a part of a child's life and your experience). Get the unhappy expressions, either by themselves or with siblings. You don't want a whole album of these shots, but they can be fun to look back on. Use the kids as a chance to get some shots of your house and the kids in it. Take shots of the kids doing what they do. Looking out the front door in silhouette; 'helping' to hang out the washing; crashed on the couch watching TV. Get them sitting still and get them on the go (their natural state!).



Birthday party? Use your experience and get ready to work hard as a herd of kids run around. Capture the movement, sit on the floor at their level, get some portraits with a mid telephoto (100-130mm works fine inside), and of course get the cliché of the cake and candles with the birthday boy/girl about to blow them out. Black and white can work well here (especially indoors). Decide up front if you are going to try and get a shot of every child at the party.


Pets? What a challenge - kids and animals in the same shot! But seriously if you can get the hang of taking pictures of young kids, then young kids with your favourite pet is no different (whether photographed inside or out).

Ummmmm. Good luck. They have just become self conscious and no longer tolerate you following them with a camera (it's not cooool). The teenage years do however present the possibilities of sport. I don't pretend to know how to shoot sport, however any good tips on shooting professional sport will work just as well on amateurs or kids. Be prepared to buy a good telephoto if you want a serious chance of getting good images.

And there you go; it's really as simple as that. One thing can be guaranteed - as soon as you think you have mastered the art of photographing your kids, they will grow up just enough to present you with a new photographic opportunity. Of course this new opportunity will require that you expand your photographic skills, but it will also come with fresh rewards.

See you at the forums.




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Show pages (3 Pages)

Originally written on April 18, 2004

Last updated on December 19, 2017

Rob Cruse Rob Cruse (anitasm)

Awarded for his published articles in the Resources Laureate Ribbon awarded for winning a Nikonians Annual Photo Contest

Melbourne, Australia
Basic, 2325 posts