You probably like to take lots of photos of your kids. I know I do. If you’d like to improve your kids photography, there are a few things you can try that can really make a difference in the quality of your images. The more you practice these techniques, the more even your iPhone grab shots start to look better. Check out my list below, and if there are other strategies that you like to use, leave a comment below and let us know.
1. Get on Their Level
This list is in no particular order – except for number one. This technique is number one because it is the single most important thing you can do to improve your kids’ photos. If you do nothing else on this list, do this one. Always bring the camera down to your kids face level, or below, when making photos of them. This gives the impression to the viewer of the photo that they are looking at them face to face rather than looking down on them. You can do this by taking a knee, or if you have a flip-out screen, you can flip it up and compose the image using live-view and holding the camera down at your hip to take the photo.
2. Take Several Photos
When I was a child, my parents would buy a roll of film with 34 exposures, and it would have to last an entire vacation. These days you can buy a 32 GB memory card for around 10 bucks, so the amount of photos you can take is virtually unlimited. This comes in handy when you are making photos of your kids. You can take as many photos as you want in order to get that ONE photo where they are all looking at the camera and smiling. Then you can delete or archive the rest.
3. Shoot During Golden Hours
The “golden hours” are roughly considered the hour just after sunrise, and the hour leading up to sunset. Without getting too scientific, this is the time when the sun is low in the sky, so the sunlight has to travel through more atmosphere than when it’s high in the sky. This reduces the intensity of the light and softens it, and also causes the light to appear more reddish and warm. All of these characteristics make it very appealing as light to use when photographing people.
4. Find Clean Backgrounds
Pay attention to the background of your images. If you want your kids to stand out in your photos, make sure you compose the images so that they are not competing with the background for the viewer’s attention. You can do this in several ways, one of which is making sure they are in a position where the clutter behind them is minimized. In some cases where you are just making a quick grab-shot, this can be tougher than other times. At the very least, move the camera around where your child’s head is in a clean area of the background. Sometimes this can be as simple as moving a little to the right or left before you take the photo.
5. …But Not Against a Wall
Yes, a wall is technically a clean background, but it’s also a boring background much of the time. Many times people line their kids up against the wall in the hall or entryway, and the photo comes out like a prison lineup. If you use a flash, there’s also a good chance of casting shadows on the wall, something else you should try to avoid. I’m not going to say a wall is *always* a bad option, but if you have other choices I’d explore them before resorting to it.
6. Zoom In for Compression
This is the third tip in a row that is about clean backgrounds. This is because backgrounds are that important when composing an image. Sometimes the background is busy all around and you just aren’t getting the clean portrait that you are looking for. In this case, you could try backing up and zooming in. This has the effect of “growing” a small clean area in the background to better fill your image and isolate you subject. One final word on backgrounds: if you find yourself in a place where there isn’t a clean enough background, at least eyeball what’s behind your subject, and try to leave out anything unsightly, such as garbage cans, port-o-lets, or light poles positioned as if they are coming out of somebody’s head. 🙂 These are all mistakes I’ve made in the past.
7. Use Flash to Fill Shadows
Have you ever heard someone say, “You don’t need a flash, you’re outside?” This is certainly true sometimes and you can make perfectly fine images without it. However, using the flash can fill some shadows and add some brightness to your subject’s faces. If your camera has a hotshoe, I highly recommend investing in a separate flash. Not just for kids photography, but for all photography. It doesn’t have to be expensive; there are plenty of 3rd party flashes that are less expensive than the name brands and work just fine. Just make sure they have high-speed-sync for use in daylight. I’m in love with my Speedlite flash. I’ve taken thousands of photos of people outside during the day, and I would estimate I’ve used it on 99% of them. An on camera flash is one of the first items I recommend to my friends who are looking to buy accessories for their DSLR or mirrorless camera.
8. Use Bounce Flash Indoors
Here’s another advantage of having a hotshoe flash for your camera. If you are taking photos indoors, instead of pointing your flash forward, you can point it at a nearby white wall or ceiling and let the light “bounce” back onto your subject. When the light leaves the flash and hits the ceiling or wall, it will evenly fill the room with light. So instead of lighting your subject with a harsh direct flash from the camera, you will in essence be lighting them with softer indirect light, which will in turn make your photos look more natural and, shall we say, professional. 🙂 Both photos above were taken with the exact same exposure settings. The only difference is, on the second one I fired my Speedlite toward the ceiling and filled the room with light.
9. Find the Light
Using a flash is always helpful, but sometimes a natural or other available light source will do the trick just fine, while also adding a bit of creativity to your image. Whatever you do, make sure you are taking your light source into account when taking the photo, and positioning your subject to best take advantage of it.
10. Put Them In Their Element
Instead of making your kids just stand and smile at you, give them their favorite toy and let them interact with it while you photograph them. This is a good way to capture genuine joy in their faces. Also, for the record, I also took advantage of the #9 suggestion for this photo as well. The only light I used was from a large window that was just behind me.
11. Make Them Laugh
Kids photography is tough sometimes. I’ve found that one of the hardest parts of photographing children is getting them to give me a genuine smile. I’m no comedian, but a few things that have worked for me in the past have been telling jokes and asking them questions. You could tell them to say something crazy like “underwear,” or ask them questions about their brother or sister. You could also try telling them not to smile, then make a big deal about it when they do smile. Just be sure to be prepared to snap at that magic moment when they shoot a genuine smile at you, because it’ll be likely gone in an instant. (one photo of christian w/ a fake smile, and one w/ real. caption: when i tell him to smile/when i tell him to say underwear.
12. Photograph Them In Action
When my kids play sports, I am always the unofficial (and sometimes official) team photographer. I always volunteer for this because I want to make sure I have great images of my kids in action. The benefit to the other parents is that they get great images of their kids as well. Photographing my kids competing in sports is my absolute favorite part of this hobby. As a fringe benefit, it also keeps me in good practice for my paid gigs.
13. Bring Your Camera Everywhere
You never know when a good opportunity to make a great photo of your kids will arise, so why not always be prepared? These days we all have our phones with us all the time, so we always have a camera. Which is awesome – but if you own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, I’d like to challenge you to carry that around more frequently as well!
14. Be The Only One Taking The Photo
When you’re photographing kids, it’s already tough to get them to all look at the camera at the same time. Why make it even tougher by introducing other cameras into the mix? Obviously this one is sometimes easier said than done. But if you can come to an agreement with other parents to have only one photographer for the group photo, you greatly increase everybody’s chances of making a quality image. Remember, whether your just taking a snapshot or a deliberately posed and planned image, if you are lucky enough to be the assigned photographer for the photo, try get it to the other parents as soon as possible. This will increase your chances of being trusted with this task again.
15. Photograph Them Having Fun
It seems like everytime we go out front with the kids these days, the adults normally hang out in the driveway and chat, while the kids play. Take a few-minute break from the adult conversation and find somewhere on the ground near the kids, to sit with your camera. You’ll be surprised how many memorable images you can make by just photographing kids having fun with their friends.
16. Try Different Angles
Remember “rule” #1 at the top of this list? Well, rules are made to be broken. It’s a good idea however, to know the rules before you break them. Adding variety to your photos is fun. Don’t be afraid to get creative.
17. One Final Note
Please keep in mind that this list is only a guide to help you get more consistent with your photos. Remember if you acccidently “break any of these rules”, don’t sweat it. If you intentionally break one, great! Every photo doesn’t have to be perfect. If you find one where you wished you moved slightly to the left so that speed limit sign wouldn’t be sticking out of somebody’s head, but still love the photo, don’t worry about it. We all make mistakes sometimes, and it’s up to us to just move on, continue loving the art of making images, and chalk it up to education. 🙂
Thanks so much for checking out my kids photography tips and I truly hope I helped you make better images. If you like to use any other techniques that I didn’t cover here, please leave a comment below and let us know. Happy shooting!
James is a part-time photographer in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and creator of jamesvernacotola.com. He does freelance work for corporate clients and for Jacksonville.com, but his favorite gig is covering his kids’ sporting events as a parent with a camera.