Some of the best amateur photographers are parents. They delve into the hobby because they have a new addition to the family, and soon realize that their digital point-and-click cameras are just not good enough. Not only are these cameras too slow to capture a child’s fleeting expressions, they can’t quite capture the subtle mood of, say, a toddler asleep in a pool of sunlight on the floor. Instead, flashes reflect off this and that, shadows appear that never existed before, and skin tones look washed out, blown out, or altogether unnatural. Here are some helpful hints on taking frame-worthy kid pictures, every time you pull out your camera.
Step 1: Invest in a DSLR
A lot of people think that DSLRs are for serious or even professional photographers only. The dials, the features, the lenses, the prices . . . all this can all be very intimidating to the average guy. If you are one of these people who think that “F-stop” is a dirty expression and not a measure of how open or closed the aperture on a camera is, it’s time to reconsider.
A DSLR is faster, allows you to do more creative things with your photos by offering infinite control over composition, will have an inherently longer lens, and will take better pictures nine times out of ten, even if you simply use “Auto” mode and let the camera do the rest. Sure, these cameras are more expensive, but the quality of the images will be worth it for years to come.
Step 2: Get to know your camera
The more you know your camera, the better your pictures are going to be. First, familiarize yourself with all the different modes on your camera. For example, my Nikon D60 has a portrait mode and a kid mode; both are very useful in getting excellent pictures of my little guys. Take a few minutes to peruse the owner’s manual. Yes, I know, as a parent, you don’t have the time. But at the very least, skim it. You might actually figure out what all those buttons and knobs do, and some manuals even help you learn the very basics, like the difference between shutter speed and F-stops, and what ISO means.
If you can’t be bothered, we’ll break it down for you here: Shutter speed is how long the lens stays open to allow light through to the sensor. F-stops are how much the lens actually opens. Both will help you control how much or little light hits the camera’s sensor. ISO is how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to that light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera will be to light. Often, pictures taken at high ISOs are a bit grainier.
Step 3: Explore depth of field
Now that you have purchased and investigated your camera, it’s time to have fun with some of its strong points, such as depth of field. Depth of field is the amount of your image before and beyond the focal point that will appear in focus. Playing with depth of field in a DSLR can be really fun when shooting children. I love to take photos of kids with shallow depth of field, making the child’s face perfectly in focus while blurring the background. This is especially helpful when you are, say, in a nursery full of toys that can distract from your photo. “A compact camera’s sensor doesn’t allow for shallow depth of field, or any depth of field for that matter,” says Steve Heiner, Senior Technical Manager at Nikon Inc. “The longer the lens, the higher the focal length, the more this shallow depth of field is possible.” For example, if you zoom out to the 55mm end of your 18-55mm kit lens that is most likely included with your new DSLR, you can get a very nice softening of the background. If you shoot with the 18mm end of the lens, the background will be in focus. For more fun with depth of field, you can purchase an even longer zoom, such as a 55-300mm lens, to further decrease the depth of field. These telephoto lenses are also wonderful for snapping very candid photos of your kids, who often go into turtle mode or mug for the camera if they know they are being photographed. With a telephoto lens, you can take secret, interesting photos from afar.
Step 4: Explore Scene Modes
You can take some incredible shots of your kids with your DSLR’s scene modes, believe it or not. For example, my camera’s portrait mode opens the aperture to let as much light in and adjusts to a higher shutter speed to account for that increased exposure. With this mode, you won’t get any movement in camera, and photos will have a narrower depth of field, giving that fuzzy, out-of-focus appearance to the background while keeping your kid’s face sharp.
Also play with the kid modes that might be available on your camera. These modes usually put a higher emphasis on shutter speed and slightly boost or saturate background colors while leaving skin tones alone. Translation: You can take pictures of your kids running and jumping and freeze the motion, while making the backgrounds more exciting.
Nikon’s new Guide Mode (found on the D3100) takes any question about what mode to set your camera in out of the equation by letting you choose how you want to compose a shot, such as “Show Water Flowing,” “Freeze Motion,” or “Soften Backgrounds.”
Sure, I’m no Anne Geddes, but I had fun taking these jumping and running shots with my camera’s kid mode.