Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tips for Photographing Toddlers

First, a few disclaimers: 

-I need to do makeup work for my parenting class and since I’m the class photographer at Ben’s co-op, the teacher suggested that I do a little tutorial on how to take pictures of toddlers. Voila. Here you have it.

-I am not a professional photographer. Amateur at best. As such, I’m struggling with the fact that I’m writing tips given that I have absolutely no credentials to lean upon. The internet is full of questionable material and I’m hesitant to add to that volume. That said, I do have experience photographing active children and I’ve learned a lot, through trial and error, over the past few years. My hope is that I can share what worked for me, in the hopes that other parents will find this information useful. 

So here we go. 

Warning: This is long.

1. Get Outside
The light is way better. And there is generally lots more of it. This allows you to have a faster shutter speed - which is essential for getting an in-focus shot of a speedy little toddler.

2. Look for solid shade or overcast weather. 
Overhead bright sunlight is a challenge for beginning photographers because it often produces harsh glare and big contrasts between light and dark. And your subject also likely has his eyes screwed closed against the light. I look for shady places where the shade is solid - none of this dappled light stuff. The contrast between the light/dark areas in dappled light often results in a blotchy photograph, particularly on faces. Overcast weather is also great and plentiful, if you're a Seattle resident.

Here are some bad lighting examples. Pay special attention to the shadows on the face. 

Here is the classic dappled shade example - not awful, but the contrast between light/dark patches on Ben’s face and on the ground behind his shoulder are distracting. Clearly he doesn’t like it either.

Again, light/dark does not make for a pretty picture. I have too much sun, Ben doesn’t have enough. You can tell that the sun is low on the horizon (in this case it’s almost dusk), which can often yield beautiful photographs - just not in this particular case. Also, this is a crappy camera phone picture. And my son is picking his nose. 

Here, all the wrong places (Chris’ face/elk’s head) are dark. Plus, the white patch of Chris’ shirt is distracting. What you should be examining is that giant elk tongue that is about to coat Chris is gallons of spit.

This is a tough shot because it’s in bright, high sun and there was literally no suitable shade within 100 miles.  In this case, probably the best you can do is suck it up and try not to squint too hard. Lightening the contrast in post production might help a bit.

Here are a few shots that are better, in terms of light:
Here the shadows are light and serve to add depth to Ben’s face, rather than cripple the photograph with contrast. This was taken on an overcast day (but not in shade).

Same with this one, except it was in light shade (but also on an overcast day). I actually like the yellow-ish cast to this one - it’s slightly softer than the one above.

Also on an overcast day, but not in shade. The colors are nice and warm.

3. Get low. Or get the kids high.
Eek. That didn’t come out the way I intended. Regardless, I’ll often drag a chair outside for Ben to stand on for photo shoots.
Baby on a box
Baby on a chair

This serves two purposes: Getting him up to my level and keeping him confined in one place. Especially helpful for active toddlers. This is great until he falls off. 

Ben - in the process of falling off a chair

Here is a ‘get low’ example: These women were sitting on the ground. I was squatting a few feet away to get an eye-level shot. Had I been standing (and looking down at them), it wouldn’t have been as interesting a photograph.

4. Enlist Help
Because four hands are better than one. This also allows you to concentrate on taking the pictures, rather that getting the kid to smile/look at the camera. For Ben’s two year photoshoot I asked my in-laws to help entertain the kiddo. The backdrop/banner we pinned to our back porch supports and he sat on the stoop. Bob and Cherie were in charge of smiles/laughs/etc. I positioned my father-in-law close to Ben (but out of the shot) so that he could catch Ben if the kiddo made a break for it. My Mother-in-law was next to or behind me - he’s actually looking toward her (but close enough so that he’s looking in my direction as well).

5. Not all of your photos have to be of a perfectly smiling child
Some of my favorites don’t include any face or smiles. Plus, you have to get at least one shot of a temper tantrum. Just for posterity’s sake.

Slightly fuzzy? Grainy? Overexposed? Yes, yes and yes. But I still love it. Go Bailey Dog. A photo doesn't have to be technically perfect to be a favorite.

If you must be Indoors:

1. Find the place in your house with the most natural light. 
For us, that’s a three square foot spot on the floor in front of our big french doors. We also have a good spot on our bed because there is a south and an east facing window. I try not to use my flash as it often produces hard contrasts.
Baby on a white sheet

2. Look for natural reflectors to light up the dark areas. 
Anything light-colored will do. When I photographed Ben as a baby on our bed, I’d often place a white pillow on the north side to provide a little light on that side. 

The sun is coming through the window from behind him. The white pillow bounces light back onto his face.

3. Learn how to use your light meter.
I have a non-professional mid-range 5+ year old DSLR Nikon. Not a super fancy camera by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the new cameras are really good at reading the ambient light - meaning they can tell the difference between light types (sun, florescent, incandescent, etc). If you take pictures indoors and the resulting photos have either a yellow or blue cast, it’s generally a sign that your camera needs some help reading the light. [This is totally the non-technical way of describing this, sorry kids]. I carry around this grey card set that allows me to take a reading of the available light against a known color. 
Bad light reading - note the blueish tint

Better light reading - sadly those yellow stains in the tub are true to life

Once you’ve taken your photos:

1. Make Use of Free Photo Organizing Tools
Picassa is awesome. And free. I use iPhoto but that’s only because I have a Mac. I actually like Picassa better. I organize all my photos in the following manner: Year - Month - Day - Description. So a folder might read: 2013-01-30 Ben’s 2nd Birthday. This allows me to sort and search easily. 

3. Be Delete Happy
Chances are you’re using a digital camera. Which is great because you can take a ton of pictures of your kid. But once you get them on your computer, delete the 85% that are awful/blurry/etc. It will save room on your computer and you’ll be able to find the great pictures more easily. This is a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do’ though as I am terrible at deleting on a regular basis.

4. Learn How to Use A Photo Editing Program
I use Lightroom. Photoshop is great too. Lightroom is nice because it’s fairly user friendly and there are a ton of video tutorials on YouTube about how to navigate around the program. Try out their free 30 day trial. Also, if you’re a student (that's you, VHToddler parents!), they have pretty good discounts when it comes time to purchasing. 

That said, go easy on the editing. This is another classic case of ‘be ye not like me’ - I am a sucker for saturated colors and slightly overexposed shots. Ruby red lips? Neon yellow sun? Electric green grass? Hell yes. 

But I’m trying to reign in my saturated color impulses, especially when it comes to pictures of people. Even now, as I look through the pictures of this post, I think: “Yep, just a wee bit too much”. Sometimes simple is best. Learning how to make a good picture using the available light of your surroundings will make for better photos and require fewer tweaks in post-processing. And you’ll be less tempted to crank up that saturated color bar, too. 

For what it’s worth, these are the settings I typically use when photographing Ben outdoors during a little photo shoot:

On a Nikon D5000:

Aperture priority mode
White Balance: either Auto or [using the grey card] Preset Manual
Release Mode: Continuous 
Focus Area: Single Point
Meter: Spot
Flash: OFF
Lens: Nikkor 85 mm [This is an expensive lens - but you definitely don't need a fancy lens to take great photographs. A kit lens will work just fine, especially when starting out].

Ok, My Dears, I hope that was helpful! And if you have additional questions - take a photography class or consult/hire an expert [Bronwen Houck and Melinda Hurst Frye, for example!] but we have now reached the limits of my photographic knowledge so it’s time to draw this post to a close. :)