Taking photos of your children - The Overrated Photographer

Taking photos of your children

Introduction

Taking photos of your children is probably one of the easiest and hardest things to do. It's easy to take photos, but it's difficult to take good photos. At the time of writing this article, my kids are 6 and 4, two of the most beautiful girls in the world and they certainly know how to wrap Daddy around their finger. On occasion I like to combine my favorite hobby with my favorite girls and that has provided a big learning curve for me.

There are a couple of reasons why working with your own children is difficult:

1. Children don't listen to instructions in the same way as an adult. They aren't being difficult, they're being children and accepting that is important.

2. Children have a very short attention span as you are probably aware. They can spend an hour playing with something obscure and 2 minutes playing with a toy that you spent a small fortune on.

3. You don't have limited control over the background when taking photos. You can't decide when and how your children will be cute. They do that on their own and it tends to be where they want, when they want and how they want. 

4. Photos with children are often unplanned. I.e. they do something cute and you try to grab the camera as quickly as possible, hoping that the lens is appropriate.

Nikon D700 - AFS50mm f/1.4 - 1/320s - f4 - ISO1600 (Yes, it was pre-Fuji days)

When children are babies, it is a little easier, because you can pick them up and position them somewhere you want. You know that they can't move anywhere very quickly, but as their movement speed improves, so does the difficulty of taking their photos. Initially, it may seem easy as they are fascinated by the camera, but they very quickly they learn to hate being your photography muse and that's where the challenges come in.

In some respects, it's probably harder to take photos of your own kids because you don't have the benefit of one of the parents to help keep the child looking in the right direction and keep them smiling. You partner probably doesn't care much for your passion so they won't want to be involved every time you take a photo. If there is anything I've learned, it's to have the utmost respect for professional photographers who do this day in and day out.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF50-140mmF2.8 @ 140mm - 1/500s - f2.8 - ISO1250

I've tried to group some of these items under headings, but feel free to let me know if I missed anything. It's not an exact science and different photographers may have other ideas on what has worked for them. These are the areas I see:

1. Change it up constantly

2. Setup your gear in advance

3. Make it fun for them (or they will learn to hate the camera)

4. Set up a fun scene to get their interest

5. Don't be scared to use flash

6. Sometimes you have to sit back and observe

7. Get inspiration from others when you are starting out

8. AF speed can make or break your photos

9. Camera settings

10. Get down to their level

11. Have your camera with you always

12. Accept that kids will be kids

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF90mmF2 - 1/1250s - f2 - ISO200

Change it up constantly

A child's attention span is short. You can't change that and you can't get frustrated with that. They are individuals with their own thoughts and minds. You can setup the most amazing scene and they may last 2 minutes or 10 minutes, but you have to accept that if they get bored with a scene, no amount of pleading or bargaining will get you what you want. You simply have to move on and try again with something else.

Avoid bargaining or kids will very quickly learn they can use bargaining to get what they want out of you. I.e. if you offer them an ice cream to pose, they will expect an ice cream every time they pose and it creates a dangerous precedent.

Fujifilm X-E2S - XF90mmF2 - 1/500s - f2 - ISO400

Setup your gear in advance

With kids, you won't have the benefits of test shots. By the time you've finished testing they'll be bored and your photoshoot is over so you need to make sure everything is ready to go before you start.

If I am shooting portraits with a backdrop, I typically find I get a maximum of 10 shots before the boredom sets in, so if those first 10 shots include getting the exposure right, you have a problem. If you're doing lighting, get some test shots done before they get there (or even know you are setting it up) so your 10 shots include the 10 you want, not the 10 underexposed or over exposed while you get the exposure right.

That may be challenging when you are on your own, but it's easy enough to do some timer based exposure of yourself.

Nikon D750 - AFS 70-200 f/2.8 - 1/2500s - f4 - ISO100

Make it fun

Children want to have fun, so if you don't make it fun, you will lose them very quickly. Very few children have the maturity or self control to sit back and do what they are told for 10 minutes, and if it isn't fun, they are going to be looking for something fun to do. That means they will be distracted. 

Asking them to show you the funniest face they can pull distracts them from the photography and puts them into fun mode. At worst, you may get a fun photo, but at best you can get them to swap to happy mood and get the right photo. I tend to ask my kids questions like "Let's see who can pull the funniest face" and then switch to something like "Show what face you would have when you get to eat a whole birthday cake on your own". For outdoors, alternatives like asking them to have a race whilst holding hands may work once or twice, but if you don't get it right the first or second time, move on. In most cases, it's a suggestion and whether they do it, or do it the way you want is a lottery.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF90mmF2 - 1/800s - f2 - ISO1000

Set up a fun scene

The above example will work for very short periods of time, and even then, you won't be able to do it often. Sometimes I find the easiest way is to plan a shoot, and then setup a scene for them and see how they go.

This could be in the park pretending to be fairies, or hunting dinosaurs in the bushes. As an example, I setup a camera on a tripod, dug it into the sand so they couldn't dislodge it and then asked them if they wanted to try take photos of each other. The results were good, and in some cases, unexpected, but it wasn't without drama as both wanted to use the camera at the same time and I had to contend with arguments. There were selfie photos, photos of them taking photos of each other, but even then, I had a maximum of 10 minutes before they got bored and we just played on the beach.

Nikon D750 - AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 - 1/320s - f2.8 - ISO800

Sit back and observe

Some of the best photos I have is when my children aren't doing what I want them to do, so sometimes it's worth stopping for a second letting them do what they do best. Whether it's in a playground or whether it's in a set scene.

I was walking around a shopping mall before Christmas when we found a Christmas scene that one of the malls had setup for photos. It was setup as a very clichéd old school Christmas scene with leather armchairs, a fireplace and stockings so we decided to take advantage of it and get the kids to "pose" for some photos because I had my camera. What we were looking for was a photo something like this (but without me).

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF50-140mmF2.8 - 1/250s - f4 - ISO1000

Whilst they were with me, they were fine, but the next step was to try get them to pose together.

As you'd expect with kids, they decided they had other ideas and the scene went something as follows: One child posed, while the other decided she wasn't interested, put her head forward on the couch and threw a tantrum. At this point we could have tried to direct them to get what we wanted, but sometimes you have to wait and see what happens and in this case, that's where the real magic happened.

The older one who was originally posing as planned turned around to the little one and pulled up her dress while she was lying forward on the couch with her back to the camera. The outcome was priceless…I couldn't have planned a better photo that showed the real side of kids if I tried.

You can see the naughty look on the older ones face.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF50-140mmF2.8 - 1/250s - f4 - ISO1000

Get inspiration from others

Photographers tend to be scared of drawing inspiration from others. I think it's this idea that you are copying someone rather than drawing from your own ideas, but I think this is a valuable part of learning. For one thing, through "copying" professional photographer's ideas, you learn a skill about how incredibly difficult it is to re-create a scene. Copying a scene isn't as simple as setting up the scene, you have to get your child to do what is expected, you have to create similar lighting conditions and you have to create the same settings. Even if you get everything perfect and re-create the perfect replica of their image (which you probably won't), you'll find out two things about it:

1. It's actually harder than you expect to re-create the image without taking into account the unpredictable nature of kids.

2. After re-creating the image, you will have learned a new skill in terms of what works, what doesn't work and why. The simple process of re-creating a scene helps you learn a skill that you can apply to a variety of other areas.

More often than not, you will get it horribly wrong at least 5 times, during which time you will continue to learn. Now people may look and say "so what, you learned how to re-create someone else's photo", but what they forget about is that you learn to recognize the image style and identify where and how to use it. I.e. the photo of a child playing with a toy down an orchard isn't just about re-creating, its also about learning how to use DOF and lighting so the next time you find yourself in a different environment, you will find yourself thinking "hold on, I could use this row of trees to do something similar" and suddenly you're now starting to explore other avenues with the new skill you've found.

If you need to know where to find inspiration, try Instagram or competition sites like viewbug where there are themes you can see the top 20 finalists.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF50-140mmF2.8 - 1/900s - f2.8 - ISO1600

Don’t be scared to use flash

I've seen a number of people looking outside of Fujifilm, or considering switching from Fuji to ''Brand X" or "Brand Y" because of two weaknesses the see with Fujifilm compared to full frame, particularly for indoors. They normally use high ISO and lack of DOF with indoors photos of kids. They state that flash and soft boxes are useless because kids move too fast. There are a couple of reasons I think this is a mistake (having come from a full frame camera with good lenses):

1. Taking photos of kids indoors with your own kids is different to a studio shoot. You won't have the luxury of clean backgrounds with no distractions. That means that to a large degree, have a shallow DOF is still likely to be useless, because you will still have a lot of distraction.

2. Having shallow DOF is incredibly difficult with kids, because the lenses with the shallowest DOF don't always focus the fastest. Children move quickly so paper thin DOF on a slow AF lens is a bad combination.

3. Having high ISO isn't necessarily the best thing, and realistically, we're talking one stop difference which isn't going to have a massive impact on a photo.

The best photos I got of my kids indoors without flash had nothing to do with high ISO or shallow DOF, and I had one of the best high ISO cameras on the market.

These days, I find the easiest ways to photograph my kids is off camera flash with a handheld softbox and a wireless trigger. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. Shooting at f/5.6 guarantees you are in the sweet spot of the lens 2. You can remove the annoying background through exposure

Nikon D750 - AF-S 50mm f/1.4 - 1/250s - f8 - ISO100

Get down to their level

Photos always look better when you aren't looking down at someone.

One of the big advantage of Fujifilm systems is the ability to get low to the ground thanks to the tilting screen and knowing that you won't lose the AF speed when using the rear screen. In my DSLR days, getting low to the ground involved lying down which made it incredibly difficult to be mobile, not to mention the issues of lying on wet or muddy ground.

I would also consider use of the dutch angle (skewed horizon) to break the monotony of photos, although I'd highly recommend avoiding overuse. The dutch angle works because it breaks the monotony so if every photo is skew, it has the opposite effect.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF90mmF2 - 1/320s - f2.8 - ISO2000

Autofocus and lens selection

Children are like Olympic athletes when it comes to their speed of movement, with the exception that you have a fair idea what an Olympic athlete will do next.

This creates 2 dilemmas:

1. Your AF speed has a lot to do with the success of the photograph

2. You have to worry about moving the camera quickly enough to keep track of them

This can have a big impact on lens selection. It's this reason that I love the XF90mmF2 and XF50-140mmF2.8, because the autofocus tracking can keep up. In short, if you have kids and have a choice between the XF56mmF1.2 and the XF90mmF2, I'd take the XF90 any day of the week. It's not that the XF56 is a bad lens, it's just not the ideal choice for kids.

It may make sense to use something like a XF23F2 or XF35F2, but for outdoors work, it can be extremely moving the lens quickly enough to keep up with them. I personally find it easier having a greater distance between me and the subject where you can just move the lens, than trying to do the same close up where you are having to move your entire body.

Some people may argue that a f/1.4 will offer lower levels of noise and allow you to use a higher shutter, but you could also argue that shutter only helps if the object is in focus. You can deal with high ISO through noise reduction, you can't deal out of focus in the same way.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF90mmF2 - 1/900s - f2 - ISO200

Camera settings

There are two things to consider with kids:

1. Shutter speed

2. AF method

For children, I tend to work with a shutter of minimum 1/320...minimum. If you can go as high as 1/1000, all the better.

From an AF perspective, skip the face/eye tracking and go straight for the smallest zone. The highest AF settings are the best.

Fujifilm X-T2 - XF50-140mmF2.8 @ 80mm - 1/500s - f2 - ISO1000

Have your camera with you always

Sometimes the best moments are the ones you can't plan on.

You can't fake emotion and that's probably the biggest reality. What that means is that the importance of having your camera with you all the time is critical. Obviously its easier said than done but I have some amazing photos. With mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm X-T2 and X-T20 this is become easier.

This particular one is my daughter who lost her comforter. After a couple of days, she found it and her emotion said it all.

Fujifilm D750 - AFS70-200 f/2.8 @ 82mm - 1/250s - f3.2 - ISO1600

Accept that kids will be kids

The final thing I will say is to accept that kids will be kids. If you force them to do something they don't want to, you will lose them. If they don't want to do it, no amount of begging or pleading will change that, and they will only learn to hate photographs and that is the worst outcome for you.

In conjunction to that, pulling them away when they have something more fun to do, will make it worse.

In some cases, you just have to learn to call it a day and walk away knowing that there will be many other opportunities.

Remember, having kids isn't just about taking photos, it's about being a part of their lives and if they aren't enjoying your hobby as much as you, spending time with them is far more important.

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