It seems like everybody and their dog owns a DSLR these days (though, in all reality, you shouldn’t give cameras to dogs – no opposable thumbs). And yet, with all these high quality cameras floating around our great nation, your friendly neighborhood photographer finds herself in high demand as holiday card season approaches. Now part of this phenomenon is that parents like to appear in their own Christmas card, so they must bring in a third party to take the pictures (remember that the dog has no thumbs). But the truth is, if the parents choose their photographer wisely, they are paying for much more than thumbs. They are ideally bringing in someone who can intuitively find a visually pleasing moment and capture it on film. But what do I mean by visually pleasing? This is largely a subjective concept and is part of the choice you make as a consumer when you compare photographers’ styles. So the truth is that I can only answer this question for myself. Other photographers may go through a very different process behind the lens. But in this post I will lay out just a few of the factors that play a part in my favorite shots. A little sneak peak Christmas gift from me to you…
The quality and location of the light.
Light is really the #1 priority in any photography endeavor. Quality of light refers to the diffuse-ness of the light you are working with. Shooting in the morning or the evening, you should find nice, soft, relatively diffuse lighting that will bring out the facial features of your subjects without casting harsh shadows. Shooting in the middle of the day, however, will give you harsh overhead light that casts shadows under the eyes and nose of your subjects (a less than flattering look I can tell you). So if you are shooting midday by necessity, you should be looking for a shady location. Here’s an example of beautifully diffuse morning light. Notice that the color of the photo is buttery and warm and you are able to clearly see all of the subjects’ facial features with no harsh shadows:
I also take into account the location of my light source (which, as an outdoor photographer, is generally the sun). The following two photos were taken of the same family in the same location. But for the first photo, I asked them to pose with the sun in front of them (behind my back). And in the second I had them stand in front of the sun so that they were backlit. Both of these options can give you a nice photo. Straight-on sun will provide a more traditionally lit portrait. Backlighting can be a bit more tricky but can give some cool effects, including silhouettes, sunny haze, or bright spots of lens flare.
Lit from the front:
Lit from the back:
The angle of the shot.
I always wear my workout clothes to a photo shoot because finding good angles means moving around A LOT.
Sundance Kid: ‘Can I move?’ from Andy Gayton on Vimeo.
Especially when it comes to child photography, shooting from the hip is not going to give you a very nice result. One of my favorite shots is this one, taken years ago, with yours truly belly-down in the dirt (you don’t get the impression that the tulips are towering over you unless you manage to actually get lower than the tulips):
Basically be ready to climb, swim, squat, run… you get the picture. Move.
The comfort level of the subject(s).
This one cannot be overstated. And make no mistake, it is difficult. I generally start my shoots with a super duper pose-y group of family shots. Often that whole group of photos ends up being thrown away because the kids are hiding shyly or crying or staring at my camera in terror or playing distractedly with a leaf. I take the opportunity during those “throw-away” shots to chat with the family, asking the kids about their friends, their pets, their teachers, their favorite foods. We make friends and they get used to the camera. Phase 1:
After these pose-y posed shots, I have a golden opportunity to get some really nice photos. The kids are comfortable but still happy, willing to sit and smile and interact with parents and siblings. These are the keepers. Phase 2:
Eventually with kids everything devolves into chaos. All is not lost though. As long as you are willing to MOVE (see the previous section), you can get some really nice candid shots chasing around tired and nearly done kiddos. Phase 3:
Lucky for us, a photo only shows a small portion of what the eye can see. There is no peripheral vision in a photograph. That means that we can take an otherwise uninteresting setting and, with proper framing, create a beautiful photo. With time and practice, you will get better at mentally framing photo ops before you even put the camera to your eye. Take a look at this cute example from a newborn shoot. Below we see me (awkwardly) photographing this sweet curled-up baby in her parents’ bedroom. Not such a fantastic photo op at a glance.
And yet, with the proper framing, we come out with…
This is, obviously, another important one. You can’t create a quality product without the proper tools. I use my big ole DSLR and could not be happier with it – you can generally find me at portrait shoots with a 50mm and 85mm prime lens. I also tote around a 28mm for landscapes and other wide angle use. I have to say, though, that phone technology is improving to the degree that you can carry around a high-quality camera in your pocket. And as we move into the New Year, I am feeling quite excited about a new technology that is coming out of a company called Light. It’s looking to be a huge step beyond phone cameras in the same tiny package. The possibilities are really expanding for you on-the-go parents out there!
So there you have it – a few items to consider as you look for a photographer or practice photographing your own family in the new year. Here’s the thing though. Each of these photographic decisions and adjustments happens quickly and more or less unconsciously… or not at all. The beauty of photography is that sometimes the best photos disregard the “rules” altogether. So for the ambitious parent who would like to get some nice family shots in the new year, my recommendation would be to take out they camera as often as possible and play. Learn to follow the rules so that you can later choose to mercilessly break them. Have fun and your kids will too. May you see beauty all around you in 2016!