5 Ways to Take Better Pics of Your Kids

I’d never call myself a great photographer of children or anything else –look here or here for examples of what I consider superlative child photography– but I can definitely say that I’m better than I used to be. I mean, compare these pictures of Samantha:

Or these:

A note about photos in this post: Thumbnails are often cropped down to squares, so click on them to see the full-sized images.

I could find more examples, but you get the idea. Some of this is no doubt due to acquiring better gear, but that’s only part of it. In three years of taking pictures of Sam and Mandy I’ve learned a few tips on my own and picked up some more from reading books or websites. Below are what I consider to be 5 of the most basic and easy to implement lessons for getting better pictures of your kids. Or someone else’s kids if you’re a kind of weirdo stalker creep. I’m not judging. More experienced and talented photographers may sneer and sniff into their glass of port wine at these perhaps overly basic tips, but the average mom or dad with a camera may find more value.

Tip 1: Get Down, Get Close

Unlike the rest of us wrinkled and aged folks, kids –especially babies– don’t have much to hide from the lens. They look good up close almost without exception. Start the process of getting in close by squatting down to eye level with the tyke so that you can get more of her in the shot and so that you don’t look like some deranged, camera toting giant from her point of view.

From there, you have two options. The first is to zoom in with either feet or camera. Try filling the whole frame with just the kid’s face or upper body if he’s not doing anything particularly interesting. Otherwise, try to have in the shot only what’s interesting –a toy, another person, a burrito, whatever. Here’s a few examples:

Of course, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of composing the perfect shot. Sometimes you’ve got to shoot now or never and you end up with bizarre composition and things in the shot you’d rather not have. In these cases, try cropping in post production. This is the main reason why I take pics in the highest resolution I can: so that I can crop down quite a bit before losing detail. Just about any photo editing software will have a simple crop feature, so get familiar with it.

Too bad about cousin Emily getting cropped out of that second set of pictures… But of course, even when zooming or cropping in, you’re probably going to have some background elements in the shot. So on to the next tip.

Tip 2: Pay Attention to Backgrounds

Sometimes we’re so focused (har har, that pun never gets old) on the subject of our pictures that we forget to look at what’s behind them. The results are shots that we’ve all seen (and taken) where you can’t tell what the photo is supposed to be of given all the clutter and mess and lack clearly defined subjects. So, learn to pay attention to backgrounds and deal with them in two ways. The first tactic I use is to simply chose or relocate shots to backgrounds that are plain and non distracting. Hardly revolutionary, I know, but it works. Also don’t be afraid to alter the environment to improve it. Drag furniture out of the shot, take pictures off walls, and tell other people to get the hell out of the way. Here’s a few examples:

A second tactic for dealing with backgrounds is to blur them out while keeping the subject in focus. This is a little more technical and requires some practice, but it’s great for scenes where you can’t relocate or exercise any control over the environment. Before I get into the how-to, here’s some examples to illustrate:

There are a variety of ways to create this effect (called a “shallow depth of field”) but here’s some of the easiest tactics that can be used in combination for best results:

  1. Switch to manual or semiautomatic mode and use a wider aperture (i.e., smaller f-number like 4.5 or less)
  2. If you’re using a point and shoot camera and can’t do #1, switch to “Portrait” (or whatever) mode
  3. Have your subject move further away from the background, say by dangling a cupcake in front of him
  4. Move back and use a longer focal length (i.e., zoom in)

Getting the hang of this will really improve your pictures. There’s a big difference between a picture with a shallow depth of field that draws attention on your kid and one that makes viewers want to try and make out the titles of books on the shelf in the background. Also, you’ll feel all cool and sophisticated when you start talking about bokeh at your next play date.

Tip 3: Stage a Shot, Make a Shot

Look, don’t be a wuss. Don’t limit yourself to taking pictures of whatever the world deigns to present to you. Get out there. Assert yourself! I mentioned moving crap out of the way in the tip on backgrounds, but don’t stop there. Get into the habit of taking the time and effort needed to stage shots. I know, I know –kids are hardly cooperative subjects, so it’ll be tough. But you’ll surprise yourself with how many fun pictures you can get out of providing your kids with some simple props (like, I don’t know, TOYS) and letting them go at it. And if you’re going to do something like wash the car, bake cookies, or rob a liquor store, get the kids involved! Even if they aren’t really helping, it’ll entertain them and give you a chance to photograph them doing something other than just sitting there.

Tip 4: Do Some Basic Post Processing

I cringe every time I see digital pictures with “red eye” in them. You can’t buy a camera these days without it coming with some basic photo manipulation and touchup software, and even if you don’t want to pay for better programs like Photoshop Elements there are free ones you can download like the excellent Google Picassa. Most of them come with one-step red eye removal tools that will clear that case of demon possession right up. Use ’em, at least just a little. Because you were going to crop anyway, right?

But wait, there’s more. These programs also have tools for doing things like boosting contrast or color saturation (though don’t overdo it), sharpening (please don’t over do it), and even straightening out those shots where the horizon line leans like a drunken toddler. Spend just a few minutes polishing up your pics in these programs and the results will be worth it. And eventually you may even want to move into more advanced stuff.

Here’s some before and after shots to serve as examples of what I mean:

Tip 5: Pay Attention to Subject Placement

For some reason, it’s just really tempting to center your kid in the viewfinder and snap away. It’s unfortunate, because it’s often boring. Try to pay attention to where your subject (or parts of your subject) are in the frame when before you stab at that shutter release button.

First, don’t put the kid dead center, including for close-up portraits. Instead, try placing him a little off center, probably to the right:

Second, experiment with the use of empty space above, below, and next to the subject. Empty space draws the eye, and this can be used to impart a sense of momentum to the subject, as in an action shot. Or it can be used to convey something about relative size or distance:

Finally, learn to compose according to that favorite axiom of photographers, “the rule of thirds.” Briefly, this composition technique says that you should imagine a tick-tac-toe board over your viewfinder such that the scene is divided up into equal thirds. Where the lines intersect are natural points of interest where you should try to place your subject or important parts of your subject (e.g., the eyes, face, middle finger, etc.). Geralyn’s camera actually lets you overlay the viewfinder with such a grid, and it’s fabulous. Also bear in mind that you can crop an image in post processing to take advantage of the rule of thirds, as I often do –particularly in deciding where the kid’s eyes should be located. I mean, besides in her head.

So, that’s it. Take these five basic tips and see what you can do with them. Some day, long from now, I hope you can sit down with your grandchildren, flip through your archaic 2-D photographs, and say to your loved ones, “Look, sonny, see how this picture of your mother sitting on her training potty and bawling her head off has a nice shallow depth of field and is composed according to the rule of thirds?” This is my gift to you and all your future generations.

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10 thoughts on “5 Ways to Take Better Pics of Your Kids

  1. What great pictures and what a beautiful child. Your Samantha is a very cute girl. These are some great tips that I intend to use in the future. I love taking pictures and have a photo blog but I am just a point and shoot kinda person, none of my pictures are retouched.
    I really enjoy your blog, one of the best I’ve seen in a while.

  2. This is very interesting! I am working on improving the quality of the photos I take since there is so much here to photograph. My British Museum dome photo is a lame attempt. Next I need to lear how to edit.

  3. GREAT information! Doyle bought me a new digi SLR last Christmas and I am still learning how to use it. Having a great time taking pics of the 2 kids with it.
    Thank you for sharing the great info!!!
    BTW – I love seeing the pics of the girls. Since you guys aren’t in SD, I can still see your beautiful girls through your blog! 🙂

  4. Wow, really great tips. Sometimes I struggle to find ways to keep taking pictures of my children without it getting too boring.

  5. Thanks all, glad you enjoyed it and/or got something out of it. I had fun writing it. Actually, the funnest part was combing through my old pics looking for examples. I already have several ideas for follow-up posts.

  6. Love the photos! You are very good at taking headshots. Me? I’m much better at landscapes. They don’t move about and fidget so much like my two boys. LOL

  7. awesome tips and i don’t even have children, but spent a great deal of time on your blog today admiring your photography, nice job.

  8. Wow, great tips. I love your photos. We take hundreds of photos a week of our new baby, but they’re all starting to look the same. We’re excited to see him start to have more expression and move around a little (he’s just a few weeks old) so we can capture more.

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