7 Tips to Better Photography of Your Kids

10 year old boy on his bmx bike
Growin' up

I taught a photo class this spring. I tried my best to give the students valuable information. Most of the students were interested in getting better photography of their children. I do a lot of photography of my family and have tried every type of location, light, situation and camera. I’ve learned a lot over the 13 years that I’ve been photographing my own children. I’ve learned a lot about what I like to shoot and how I like to do it. Like anything in life, my photography has been a journey. I’ve distilled my lessons into what I feel are my 7 major philosophies with shooting my children and family.

#1 Wait and be ready

I don’t force photography into my family life. I’m ready to shoot all the time but I wait for the right moment. I learned this principle from my surfing days; wait for the good waves. If the light is bad I don’t shoot. If I can’t get what I want in a photograph I don’t shoot. If I don’t see it I let the moment pass. I wait for the right time, it always comes.

If you want to adopt this philosophy you have to be waiting, not forgetting. Keep your camera handy. I keep mine on a tripod in my bedroom. I can be shooting within seconds if things are perfect for a photo.

#2 Include context

I used to follow the “less is more” line of thought. Years ago I always zoomed in closely on my kids faces. Now my older kids have hundreds of detailed close ups. What I learned later was that those photographs are boring. Well, not boring, but close to boring. I’ve learned that 10 years from now the house, the chairs, the books and everything that supports the image builds a lot of value into the image. Photography is a generous medium. Let it embrace your images.

I also learned that including adults in the image of kids are often more interesting than the kids are. Maybe it’s just me.

There is a balance, though. Too much context can be crazy. My post looking at trampolines shows an example of an image that shows a good amount of context.

#3 Shoot non-events

I used to pull out my camera whenever we’d go to the zoo and to the amusement park and to grandmas birthday party. Now if the light is good and I see opportunities I’ll shoot. If things aren’t good I don’t shoot. I don’t worry about it because usually there are 5 other people with cameras that will cover big events anyhow.

I like to shoot when things are good for photography. The light has to be good and I have to “see” the images in my mind. If those conditions exist I’ll take photos. I do make exceptions if my wife really wants a good photo of something. I’ve also learned how to set up a birthday party in a location and time that is ideal for photography. Kimi’s birthday party this year is a perfect example of setting up the shoot for success.

Bathtime, bedtime, homework, reading, talking, hanging out, and ordinary old daily activities are what I shoot now.

#4 I shoot film

Noone shoots film anymore. I know that  it’s out of everyone’s life and for a lot of good reasons; it’s expensive and you have to wait for the film to come back from the lab. I shot digital for three years (2003-2006). It was hard to switch back to film after shooting digital because I got used to instant gratification. I switched back to film because I reviewed my files and discovered that all my photography was better with film. I’m not sure exactly why but I think it’s because I shoot more carefully when a little money is on the line with each click.

I’ve thought a lot about the digital vs. film discussion and have come to four conclusions:

1. My photography is better because I shoot more carefully. Each image has a little weight behind it because I had to buy the film and processing. I also go slower and act more methodically with my Rolleiflex FX (my film camera of choice). Therefore the images are better.

2. The skin tones look incredible. Kodak and Fuji spent nearly 150 years and billions of dollars developing color film. The current stock of portra 160 was just released earlier this year (2011). It’s incredible stuff. The skin tones are delicate and rich. I just don’t find that quality with digital imaging yet. People have made photoshop filters to mimic the look of film for years now. The easiest way to get the look of film is to actually shoot film.

3.Film is much more permanent than digital files. When I shoot film I get paper photographs, negatives and digital scans. In my last portrait studio we made reprints from old negatives originally shot in the 60’s and 70’s. The prints looked brilliant. Almost like new. Color negatives are incredibly dependable. Contrast that with some of the images I shot digitally just 5 years ago. Some of them have stripes through them or look broken. It’s just that I like the permanence of film. When I get my film processed I get a CD with scans.

4.I like paper photographs. The digital photograph usually only lives on the hard drive. Paper photographs are going the way of the phone book and printed book. I still like to sort them and look at them and put them in a box. Photography has always been the print to me.

#5 Smiles are overrated

Of course we want to see our loved ones happy. But if you think about it how often do we walk around with a big, goofy smile on our faces? People have many moods and the smiling face is only one of those moods. I actually prefer a dramatic, moody expression to a fake smile. It says so much more. A post I did earlier this year of my wife Samantha would be entirely ruined with a big grin. Smiles are definitely overrated.

#6 Look for anchors

I’ve used up a lot of film trying to capture my kids running, jumping, crawling, etc… I’ve rarely gotten a good photo of them doing these things. These days I look for times when they’re anchored before I pull out the camera. They need to sitting or lying down or at least immobilized before I pull out the camera. If you go through my portfolio you’ll see what I mean.

#7 Work Hard

It’s cliche to say work hard but it’s the only way good photography happens. If you go lazy on your photographic pursuit it’ll stop. It is literally a perfect reflection of the effort you put into it. Many times I’ve had to force myself to get the camera out and shoot. But I’ve learned that I’m always glad that I did.

As my journey progresses I’m sure to change and add to this list. But for now it suits me just fine.

– Photo taken with my Rolleiflex FX onto Portra 160 film on a gorgeous afternoon in Boise, Idaho.


One comment

  1. Previous Answer (2 downvotes): For me, the question is whether or not you’re doing this as a hobby, or professionally. As someone who has done pro event photography, the downsides of film are just too great to shoot with it compared to digital. Consider that with digital, when I’m taking a shot of the bride, the groom, seven bridesmaids, seven groomsmen, and a two-year-old ringbearer, spamming that shot is critical. Someone always looks away at the worst moment, and so getting a three to five shot burst means I don’t have to worry about it. I can also chimp through those shots and make sure that I got something reasonable.

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