Tired of dark, blurry shots? Here’s how to photograph children (even if they won’t sit still)

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Step 4: Find or make great light

Lighting can easily make or break your shot. As you learn, you can make your own light, but as you are starting out, just learn to recognize good light. Outdoors on a cloudy day, taking a good photo is easy. On a sunny day, finding shade is often the best bet.  As a newbie, avoid scenarios where the light is coming directly behind the kid until you know flash and manual modes. Once you know how to add a low-powered flash or expose only for the subject, however, backlighting can create beautiful kids photos.

If you are like most parents, you find that taking pictures indoors, especially at night, results in the worst possible shots. That’s when you get the annoying flash reflected off everything from metal refrigerators to glass, not to mention those ghostly faces. First, try keeping the flash off and using a high ISO — push the ISO high enough to get at least a 1/60th shutter speed.

Of course, flashes are our friends, ultimately. They exist for a reason, and one of those is to eliminate those pesky shadows. Say you are on vacation at the Grand Canyon and it’s high noon. The harsh sunlight coming from directly above makes all your kids look like they have small eyes and long noses due to shadows the sun is casting. Turn the flash on, and it will adjust for the amount of natural light and gently fill in those shadows, making faces appear normal again. Flashes can also help fill in the detail on a face underneath that new cowboy or fireman hat.

Indoors, if you need to use a flash to prevent blur, try adjusting the intensity of the flash by using flash compensation — most of the time, you’ll want a negative number to dial down that flash and get rid of those odd shadows.

An external flash is also a good investment. These flexible flashes can be angled up up at the ceiling so that light bounces around and diffuses throughout the room, eliminating that “deer in the headlights” look. “If you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy an ancillary flash, try putting a dry, clean styrofoam coffee cup on top of the flash that is built into your camera. It will diffuse the light just enough. And you can even draw a little smiley face on the cup to entertain the kids,” Heiner says. “Just make sure that the cup doesn’t actually come in contact with the flash, which can melt it and potentially cause damage.”

Step 5: Get down on their level

One of the biggest mistakes adults make when photographing kids is shooting from eye level. The problem is, you’re probably a lot taller than your kid; in every photo, you are looking down on them, which makes them look smaller then they actually are.

To create more intimate photos that capture the world as a child sees it, adjust your height to match theirs by kneeling, sitting, or, yes, laying on your stomach to photograph that new crawler. By doing this, you’ll get a better look at the child’s face, a better background, and more detail. There are a few occasions where you may want to be taller (or even shorter) than your kid subject, but, most of the time, eye level is best. See both photos above as two examples of this.

Step 6: Play

You’ll have more success at photography and better, more creative pics, if you play like a kid while you are shooting kids. Don’t be afraid to get on the ground with your kids or tell them to do fun stuff, like make funny faces, leap, or act silly. When you play with them, they’ll let down their guard. Skip the “say cheese” and get real smiles by photographing while playing. If you’re having trouble getting smiles, recruit help — one of my favorite photos of my son was shot when his grandmother was making him smile by playing peek-a-boo.

How to photograph children
Hillary Grigonis

Have fun with different composition techniques. For example, off-center portrait shots are usually more interesting than centered ones. Look for those transition moments, where a child is about to do something, like touch a flower or jump off a step. Remember that if you want a kid to smile or look at the camera, silly words and noises are your best friends.

As you compose the shot — or determine what’s left in and what’s left out — focus on getting variety. Of course, take lots of photos including their face and entire body, but don’t forget to get even even closer on the details and photograph chubby hands grasping the seashells they just collected or bubbles clinging to their hair at bath time. In the same manner, get some wide shots too. When junior is in college, you’ll probably want to remember that teddy bear he always had, or that your daughter was once able to fit inside a bucket.

Step 7: Earn trust

One of our favorite photographers is Richard Menzies, who takes incredibly candid pictures that are as far from portrait photography as you can get. Menzies, who still prefers film to digital, trained himself to shoot quickly. He never raises the camera to his eye until he was sure of composition and exposure. “My Aunt Belva, by contrast would stand there peering at me through the viewfinder for what seemed hours. As a kid I dreaded having my picture taken, and unfortunately, I still do. Why? I don’t trust the photographer,” says Menzies. “With a digital camera that does most of the work for you, there’s no excuse for standing there holding your camera to your face while your subject grows cranky and the decisive moment melts away.”

Menzies’ expertise, it seems, is crystalizing those captivating moments when kids aren’t “mugging” for the camera. Menzies recommends not making a big production when taking a photograph, but rather, have your camera at hand, ready to go at all times.

Menzies also stresses the economy of frames. With digital cameras, there is no end to the amount of frames you can take, but that doesn’t mean you should subject your kids to endless hours while you try to capture the right shot. “Win your children’s confidence by taking good pictures of them. Don’t exhibit the ones that aren’t good. Move normally, work swiftly and smoothly. And just because your camera will shoot 10 million frames before it’s time to reload, doesn’t mean you need to shoot 10 million frames,” says Menzies.

Step 8: Edit

While it’s always easy to get it right in-camera (especially when you’re a parent and there’s never enough time), a few minor edits can make a big difference, whether that’s using a desktop program like Lightroom or a mobile photo app. Stay away from so-called beauty edits and keep those chubby faces just as you remember them. Focus on improving the photo overall by adjusting exposure, color, contrast and sharpening. Use the crop tool to eliminate any distractions and straighten the shot (since it’s hard to hold a camera perfectly straight).

Just remember, kids are great subjects. Have fun, know your camera, experiment, earn the trust of your subjects, and learn a few basics and you will take some fantastic photos  that will definitely worth hanging on the wall.

This story has been updated to include additional tips.

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