The very top question I get in emails, Facebook messages, and in workshops is, “HOW do I take better photos of my kids?!” They’re always on the move, hate standing still, cop a fake smile when you pull out the camera, and you can never seem to capture the moment in its real magic. Well, I can’t make it perfect for you, but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve that can help. Grab some coffee and a pen, and let’s get to work.
1: Stop saying “smile”!!
This is SO important. When you tell kids to smile, two things happen without fail: 1) the moment ends, and 2) you lose the genuine expression. What do I mean? Well, let’s say your kids are playing together sweetly (it doesn’t happen often, I know; just use your imagination). You grab your camera to photograph the moment, and say “hey guys, smile!” Your kids’ attention is interrupted, they’re brought back to reality, and the moment is over. It’s probably back to bickering and chaos. And those genuine facial expressions and body language that convey their connection, curiosity, and affection – they’re replaced by cheesy, awkward, pasted-on smiles. The moment is gone.
2: Put down the camera and join in.
I know, this one is counterintuitive. How, you might ask, are you supposed to photograph your kids if you’ve put down the camera? Well, friend, you don’t. Instead, you have a genuine bonding moment with your kids, digging in the dirt for worms or splashing in puddles. And that’s ok. But the outcome of this is that NEXT time they’re doing something photograph-able like that, they won’t be on high alert for your reaction (“STOP PLAYING IN THE MUD!” “Don’t jump on the bed!” etc), and they’ll be less likely to immediately quit the cuteness when you show up on the scene. Bonus: you build a better relationship with your kids.
3: Be intentional.
This takes practice, and it’s a little more abstract. What I mean here is to practice “seeing” the moment, so you can recognize it instantly when it happens. When you can see the right moment for a photograph, you’ll grab the shot, then put down the camera and be present. You won’t need to be behind the camera shooting nonstop and missing the fun. Bonus: you won’t clog up your camera roll with ten million pictures of the same basic thing. Minimalism, people. (For more on how to see a great shot before you take it, look for my upcoming blog post on just that topic).
4. Adjust your shutter speed.
Hi there, left-brained friends! If I lost your attention with the esoteric right-brained tip above, I’ve probably got it back now. This is concrete and actionable. If you’re using a DSLR (or SLR for you film nerds; I see you there), this one is for you. If you’re using your phone, this won’t help you. A quick camera lesson: inside your camera body (not in your lens) is a shutter (picture a door) that opens and closes to let light in to hit the sensor (or film strip for analog cameras). The speed that it opens determines how fast your sensor can capture movement (it has other effects as well, but that’s another blog post by itself). You may have noticed, but kids move quickly, which means if you’re not shooting with a high shutter speed, your children may end up as just streaks of light and color in your photographs instead of sharp, crisply focused subjects. — Which may not be a bad thing! If done well, it can be a cool effect that tells a story about your life. But I digress. For quickly moving kiddos, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed as high as possible for your given light conditions; a good standard is at least 1/250 (which represents the amount of time in seconds that the shutter opens; this would be 1/250th of a second. Finally, an exact measurement that proves your children are speed demons).
5. Teach them photography.
If your kids are involved in what you’re doing, they feel invested in the outcome. Take a trip to the library and check out some books of great photography (watch out; most great photographers have at least a few nude series). Talk to them about lighting, and balance, and symmetry, and whatever else you love about photographs. Show them the pictures you take and teach them to see what you love about each (“Look at your eyes in this one – they’re so bright.” “I love how this one shows your freckles” “See the sunlight streaming through the trees here?”). They’re never too little to be involved in what you love; they may or may not develop their own love of photography, but they WILL love getting to know you better and spending time with you. Once you foster this process in them, they’ll be more likely to cooperate when you pull out the camera next time. Knowledge is agency, agency is confidence, and kids thrive on that.
6. Get on their level.
If you’ve had a session with me, you may have noticed that I spend a lot of time lying on the ground. I’m not just lazy – that’s just where the best shots usually are (also I ruin a lot of clothes this way; oh well). Being on a child’s level when photographing them gives the viewer of your work the perspective of the child. If you’re into meta-analysis: when you photograph a child from your own grown-up viewpoint, you’re psychologically looking down on them (note: this doesn’t have to be a negative thing; it can be done in such a way as to exaggerate their tiny size, to evoke an impression of helplessness, etc. Rabbit trail: if you notice in ads that are aimed at getting you to show compassion on a person or thing – such as those HORRIBLE Sarah Mclachlan SPCA ads – the advertisers photograph/video the person or thing from above to evoke that feeling in you that you need to reach down and save them.) If you’re not into meta-analysis: getting down on a child’s level is often an unexpected and welcome change in perspective. Mix it up.
7. Don’t stress.
It’s just a photograph. If you miss it, oh well. But if you stress over it, you definitely won’t get it. And you know why? Because kids sense stress like tiny bloodhounds, and they do not react well to it. Some kids react by closing up (a turtle hiding in its shell); some kids react by running away (they’re on to another room, another activity, or just gone); some kids react by acting out; some kids just do the opposite of whatever it is they sense you want them to do. But I’ve never met a kid who reacts in a positive way. So just stay calm. If you miss the shot, whatever. If your kids realize that a missed photographic moment has no power over you, they won’t be tempted to ruin it for you on purpose in the future (maybe your kids are angels and this would never happen in your family, but that’s not the case in my family).
8. Get those pictures on your walls.
Seeing themselves and their family on the walls of their home instead of a tiny device screen has actual psychological power in a kid’s life. There’s a sense of connectedness and belonging and purpose that family photographs bring. They’re conversation starters, salve for hurt feelings, and encouragement on hard days. Get them where your kids have visual access to them. It makes a difference in their willingness to be involved in the process of making more pictures.
Emily Lapish is a lifestyle photographer in Chattanooga, TN specializing in all things family-related. She spends her time
fending off wild animals raising three boys with her husband, and enjoys long walks through Target while cradling a hazelnut latte.
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