Photographing children isn’t easy. But you can make it easier for yourself by keeping things simple and making good choices when it comes to your camera settings and lens choice.
These ideas will help you if you’re making photos of your own kids. But they’ll also help you if you’re making photos of somebody else’s.
1. Use natural light
Artificial lighting has its place, but it takes a lot of expertise to set up and use. It can be frustrating if you’re photographing young children who prefer to run around than stay still (it’s easier with kids who are old enough to pose).
One of the good things about using natural light for portraits is that it encourages you to think about making the best out of what can be a beautiful light source. If you’re indoors, for example, you can think about the way that light comes through the windows and how to use that in an evocative way.
If you’re outdoors you can observe the light and look for ways to use it to make your photos more interesting.
2. Keep your gear simple
You may think that you should take a good selection of lenses with you when photographing children, so that you’re prepared for any eventuality.
But in reality you’ll get a better result when you only take one or two lenses with you.
That’s because having too many lenses leads to indecision. If your child is doing something interesting you need to be ready to capture the moment. But spend too much time thinking about lenses and you’re likely to miss it.
Using one lens also gets you thinking about how to get the best out of it. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, for example, then you can think about using interesting backgrounds. It’s an opportunity to include the setting in the photos.
But if you’re using a normal lens, then you can think about setting a wide aperture to make photos with blurred backgrounds.
Another advantage of this minimal approach to gear is that you have less to carry. You’re less likely to get tired and more likely to have the energy you need to make photos of an energetic child.
If you’re photographing your own children consider buying a small mirrorless camera you can take anywhere. It will help you make photos when unexpected things happen, and you’ll get better image quality than you do from a smartphone camera.
Don’t be afraid to buy used gear. It’s better to buy an older second-hand camera for a few hundred dollars that you use all the time, rather than a brand new model that you hardly use.
3. Get the camera settings right
The next part of the keeping it simple idea is to get the settings right on your camera. Like lenses, if you’re busy thinking about camera settings then you’re more likely to miss interesting photo opportunities. Here’s how to set your camera up so you can concentrate on making photos.
Use the Raw format. That gives you the best quality images. It also means that you don’t have to worry about settings like white balance or color profile. You can set them afterwards in Lightroom Classic.
Set the exposure mode to Manual. Start with the aperture. Set a small aperture (like f5.6 or f8) if you want a sharp background. Use a wide aperture like f2.8 or f2 if you have a prime lens and want to blur the background.
Set the shutter speed to 1/180 or 1/250 second.
Use Auto ISO to set the ISO. Activating Auto ISO effectively takes the camera out of Manual and back into an automatic mode.
Note: Older cameras may not have Auto ISO. In this case I recommend using Aperture Priority mode and setting an ISO high enough to give you a shutter speed of 1/180 or 1/250 second.
Use your camera’s most advanced metering mode. It gives you the most accurate results. It has different names depending on what type of camera you have.
Canon: Evaluative metering
Nikon: Matrix metering
Sony and Pentax: Multi segment metering
Olympus: Digital ESP metering
Fujifilm: Multi metering
Apply exposure compensation if the camera is consistently over- or under-exposing the photos.
With these settings you can concentrate on getting good composition and capturing interesting moments. You don’t have to worry about what your camera is doing.
4. Get creative with lenses
Another way of maintaining your interest in the long term project of documenting your child’s life is to get creative with your choice of lenses. Using different lenses is a challenge that keeps you engaged with the process.
For example, as we’ve already seen you can use a prime lens to experiment with making photos with lots of bokeh. You can take this further by buying a Lensbaby lens. Photos made with Lensbabies look great in black and white, and you’ll find plenty of inspiration on Instagram.
But before you do, you need to understand that Lensbaby optics are manual focus. They’re a great option when your child isn’t moving, but a poor one when they’re running from one place to another.
I made these photos with my Lensbaby Sol 45 lens.
You can use a macro lens (or a regular lens with an extension tube or close-up lens) to take photos of interesting details. This adds variety to your images.
You can use a fisheye lens for extreme perspectives. Distortion is minimal as long as you keep the camera pointed to the horizon and the child away from the edge of the frame.
Now this idea might seem to contradict the first one, which is to keep the amount of gear to a minimum. So it’s important to point out that I’m not suggesting you take all these lenses along with you on a shoot. The idea is to think in advance about what you’d like to achieve, and then take along the best lens for the job.
For example, if I’m going with my son to a location with an interesting environment then I’ll take a wide-angle lens so I can include the setting.
Or, if I think there’s going to be an opportunity to make photos with interesting bokeh, then I’ll take my Lensbaby Sol 45. But I’ll also take another autofocus lens in case it gets too difficult to work with the Lensbaby.