A Guest post by Rachel Devine
If you search for advice on how to take better pictures of children there are certain gems that are sure to appear on any list of tips. “Get on their level” and “Get Closer”, are the two that come to mind right away and they are both solid ways to improve your kid shots. Let's look first at why these work and then how to expand those ideas to create infinitely more interesting images.
The top tip on any list you find is often going to be “Get on their level”. There is a reason that it should be as it is great advice and will make a big difference immediately. If you get down on the same level as a child to take their portrait, you give them power by allowing them to look into the camera straight on. Kneel down so that you become the same height as the child. Chat with your subject and engage them before just going right into taking their photograph. When the time is right, lift your camera and ask the kids if they can see themselves (or a fairy or a pony or any other magical subject) in your lens to get direct eye contact.
Photography is a visual language and the angle with which you shoot the photograph is an integral part of the structure of your story you are telling. Think of composition as part of the “grammar” of this language and that the choices that you make should serve a purpose. Photography is a common language that even kids can understand and when you make the effort to physically go down to their level you are showing them a certain respect.
Tech tip: Use a long lens so that you can put some distance between the camera and the child's face. That is just another layer of respect.
Once you have begun to incorporate the “Get on their level” angle into your regular routine, here are four other ideas to break the cycle of the adult eye level shots:
Over Their Shoulder: You are down on their level, you have taken a straight on portrait, now move around the child and have a look at what they are doing. Immerse yourself in their world and let your camera see what they see.
Tech tip: If you have a fast 50mm lens, use it now and include some of the child in the frame. If they are busy, you will need to use a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion. Using a fast 50mm lens means you will be able to open up the aperture to allow you to use that faster shutter speed indoors and avoid triggering your flash.
Go Low: Kids are short and you may have gotten on your knees to get their eye level, but now, go further. Come on, you can do it, lie down. You may be amazed at what the world looks like from the ground. Babies tend to hate tummy time, but if you get down with them, they may even enjoy it more and you can end up with some wonderfully funny faces. Or, how about that mountain of toys on the playroom floor? You think it looks bad from where you are standing? It is massive from down here!
Tech tip: Keep your aperture as wide as your lens will let you go so you can blur some of the floor in the foreground of these shots. That will help you isolate your subject even more.
Bird's Eye: Breaking the adult's eye level angle is not always just about sitting “criss-cross applesauce” or laying on the floor. It is about carefully observing the world that your child inhabits. It may be the same one as you, but it sure can appear different when you make an effort to look from unexpected points of view. Climb (carefully!) up above the kids and shoot directly down on mealtime, playtime, naptime, story time or bath time…anytime really. I have balanced (carefully! yet precariously) on the edges of various bathtubs, crib railings and dinner tables to get some of my favorite shots. It may be easier to grab a step stool though.
Tech tip: Use the widest focal length that you have and really get a sweeping scope of the children in their environment. Just watch out for your own feet getting into the frame.
Reflections: Use reflections to not only capture yourself with kids, but to catch their expression when they don't realize the camera is trained on them. You don't need a house full of mirrors to do this either. When you start looking, you will find shiny surfaces all around you.
Tech Tip: Show yourself in the shot. Set the camera to closest subject auto focus mode and take the camera away from your face before you press the shutter button.
Almost as often, when searching for ways to improve your photos of children, you will be told to “Get closer.” Children's faces are so perfect and beautiful that it is great advice for you to fill the frame with them. Isolate the tiniest of details by photographing in close on things like newborn lashes, pursed toddler lips going in for a kiss or the drips of a juicy orange picked right from the tree. These shots make for beautiful additions to your collection of images.
Tech tip: Use a macro lens, close-up adapter (or the little flower icon for point and shooters) to get the closest focus possible.
Far Away: Now that you have that powerful and fantastic full frame eye contact shot of your child, step back and let the kids in your photos breathe. You will need to really step back and feature the children in their big world. This angle will emphasize their smallness, but their confidence at being alone in the frame will be their strength.
Tech tip: Use color and negative space well. A messy shot will not be as powerful.
Rachel Devine is an international commercial kid photographer and daily life photo blogger from the states. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia. Rachel and Peta Mazey are the photography duo behind “Beyond Snapshots”. They teach and mentor (in person and online) photographers of all levels on how to take better photographs of life. Their book will be published next year on Amphoto/Random House.