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

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Hillary Grigonis

Parenting is messy and exhausting, yet, it’s one of the best reasons to learn photography. Some of the best amateur photographers are parents. They delve into the hobby because they have a new addition to the family, but soon realize that — like many other aspects of parenting for first-time moms and dads — they have no idea what they are doing. Flashes reflect off this and that; shadows appear that never existed before; and skin tones look washed out, blown out, or altogether unnatural. Thankfully, learning how to take kids photos creates a fun, simple hobby you can enjoy without hiring a babysitter — and what parent doesn’t need that?

The gear you’ll need

While some elements of taking photos improve by getting a new camera, you don’t really need to spend a dime if you master the gear that you already have. Sure, upgrading from a smartphone camera to a DSLR or mirrorless variant will offer even more improvement as you learn how to photograph children, but don’t spend the diaper fund on a new camera just yet.

So what do you need, ideally, to take good photos of kids? Kids are fast — if you have a child above crawling age, that’s stating the obvious. But fast subjects need a good autofocus and a fast burst speed. Many of the most memorable kids moments also happen in less-than-ideal lighting conditions — a bright lens will both help in low light, and create that creamy, out-of-focus background.

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.

Okay: A zoom camera with manual modes. Try the Nikon P900 or Panasonic FZ2500.

Good: An entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera with a kit lens. Try the Nikon D3400 or Canon EOS Rebel SL2.

Better: A mid-level DSLR with a bright prime lens. Try pairing the Nikon D5500 or the Fujifilm X-T20 with a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.

Best: A speedy shooter with a bright lens. These are pricey, but if you have a big budget, consider the Nikon D500, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, or Sony A7R II.

Stuck with a smartphone until you’re no longer buying diapers? Download a free photography app with manual modes and follow the next steps to improve your photos with technique, not cash.

Step 1: Get to know your camera

The more you know your camera, the better your pictures are going to be. Do you know how to take several photos in quick succession? How do you pop up the flash? Does your camera offer RAW files for more control over photo edits? Take the time to sit down and notice where all the dials and buttons are and dig through the menu of other settings. For learning how to photograph kids, in particular, you want to find:

Burst mode: This takes several photos in a row instead of a single photo. This is essential for getting the timing just right, from catching a baby’s smile to capturing that first t-ball practice. Even the iPhone has burst mode.

Flash: Most new photographers are afraid of flash, but you’ll want to find out where yours is located for low-light shots and even improving outdoor photos in the middle of the day.

RAW: If you have a photo editing program, shooting in RAW is a good idea. If you don’t have the software (or, for many parents, the time) then stick with JPEGs.

Autofocus modes: Take note of where your autofocus modes are. When your kids are moving, you’ll want continuous autofocus or AF-C (Canon refers to this as AI Servo). But on those few occasions when they are actually sitting still, switch to single autofocus, or AF-S (AI Focus on Canon).

Exposure compensation: Photo too light or too dark? Exposure compensation allows you to adjust even before you’ve learned how to use manual modes.

Step 2: Explore shooting modes

Most dedicated cameras have a kids mode inside the different scene options that’s a good starting point. But, to really take control over the images, start digging into manual mode. Don’t try diving in headfirst to full manual. Start with aperture priority mode, usually the A on the mode dial. A small aperture or f-number lets in more light and creates those soft, out-of-focus backgrounds, perfect for blurring that pile of laundry in the background to oblivion. Most of the time, when photographing children, you’ll  want a low f-number. To keep more of the photo sharp, like if you are photographing multiple kids in one shot or if the scene is particularly interesting, then you’ll want to use a larger f-number like f/8.

Once you’re comfortable with aperture, dig into shutter speed — higher shutter speeds are best for fast kids, but you’ll need slower shutter speeds indoors and in low light. The general rule is to double the shutter speed to your lens — so, a 50mm kit lens would need to be at least 1/100. Active kids, though, generally need at least a 1/250, so play around with the shutter speed. The final piece of the puzzle is ISO, which is how sensitive the camera is to light. If there’s plenty of light, keep it low, but in the darkest conditions use those high numbers like ISO 1600. Dig more in depth into using manual modes here, then head out and practice, watching how the different settings change your shot.

As you shoot in manual, the meter inside the viewfinder tells you if the photo is too light or too dark — essential for when shooting in full manual. If you never make it off aperture and shutter priority modes, don’t sweat it — those modes, mixed with exposure compensation will work fine for photographing kids 95 percent of the time.

Step 3: Zoom

Aperture isn’t the only thing that affects depth of field, or how blurred that background is. Using a zoom lens creates that affect too, and also helps parents capture more candid photos since kids are less likely to notice the camera out when you’re standing farther away.

“A compact camera’s sensor doesn’t allow for shallow depth of field, or any depth of field for that matter,” says Steve Heiner, the 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.

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