Capturing Your Kids: Tips From a Photographer

Often moms tell me “I just can’t get my kids to look at the camera and smile” or “I just want good photos of my kids.” Perhaps the one thing moms hold to be universally true is that we want to remember our kids as kids. There is no better way to hold onto fleeting time than the photos we capture of our children growing up before our very eyes. I’ve made more than a career out of this — I’ve made it a lifelong passion. It’s my meager attempt at keeping children small as long as possible.

Here are some tips to document your kids:

1. White = Light

Have you noticed how bright or light an airy a photo can be, but have trouble achieving that yourself? The color white is a natural reflector. So, try making everything in a room white. Want to let your kids jump or wrestle on your bed? Strip off your colorful duvet cover and let it be all white. It will lighten up your kids’ faces so they stand out. Let the pillows be all white too. Throw on white sheets and let the kids play under them, and if you’re the one behind the camera, it will help if you are wearing white…really! Beach photos are always awesome because the sun bounces off the white sand onto our faces. The same is true if you have your kids stand on white sidewalks or pavement (or once a year when we get snow here in Knoxville). Even a white poster board or piece of foam is helpful. I’ve been known to keep a piece of white foam board in my car. You can let your child hold it underneath their face and then crop it out of the frame — it will brighten up that smile even more!

2. Figure Out What Kind of Photos You Love

Spend time looking at photographers’ websites. Sure, your photos may never be like the pros’, but that’s ok. Pay attention to the things you find yourself swooning over. Do you love that the kids are looking at the camera and smiling, or do you adore the candid moments captured? Do you wish you had more photos of your kids at home, laying around in their pjs with messy hair and breakfast all over their face or do you really enjoy the styled photos where everyone is perfectly coordinated and dressed to the nines? Are props your thing? Kids at their activities? Do you love bright colors or black and white? Figuring out the answers to these questions will help you take photographs you love.

3. Find the Light

Before you decide to take photos, spend time noticing the light in the place where you want to take photos. If it’s at home, notice when the light comes through your windows. Especially with younger kids, you can spread out in good light and capture candid photos as they play. If you want your child to look at you, let the light come in on their face while you press the button. Play around with the light direction too, even with an inanimate object. When I teach teenagers photography, I have them place an object on a table and then I have them place a light (even just a flashlight) above the object, on all sides, behind, etc. That way you know what you like best and what you can work with when you have your kid wiggling around and you only have a short amount of time to take their photo. The same will be true of the sun when it’s out and shining. During the early morning or late evening hours it’s on the sides, right in front or behind. But as we move toward noon, it will be directly above (and in my opinion much harder light). So figure out where you are most comfortable or where you get the best results and get snapping.

4. Remove the Clutter

I adore photos that capture real life, but sometimes there are parts I don’t need captured, like the endless amounts of paper that come home with my kids and stacks itself on our kitchen island. Or the piles of Kleenex and Kleenex boxes scattered all over the house during flu season. When I take a photo, I try to keep the background as simple as possible without removing part of the story of the photo. So yes, kids come with a lot of clutter. If the point of the photo is to show your daughter’s room with dirty clothes everywhere and half-naked Barbies and stuffed animals, then by all means don’t touch it. But if you just really love the way her face looks when she reads a book, zoom in or find an angle that works better. Or make her clean her room first.

5. Let the Kids Be in Control

Yup, I said it! Every now and then when photographing a family, I’ll have a kid who doesn’t want to do what I’m asking. So I let them pick the spot, the pose and all the things. If it’s in terrible lighting I take it anyway, with the condition that after we do what they want, we get to do what I want. When I photograph my own kids, I get better results if it is something that they are excited about, like being in charge of the dog, holding my vintage camera for the first time or laying in a field of flowers. The best photos I’ve ever gotten of my kids were when I had zero control.

6. Unposed

There’s this whole idea in photography — mostly for weddings, but can be applied to families too — that as photographers we can create memories or moments with our clients so they’re not faking it for the camera. Often I will give my clients a prompt like, “Tell each other why you are so proud to be marrying each other today” and as they talk and love on each other, I will take photos. Eventually they’ll look at those photos and remember what they said to each other, creating a real moment and memory. Kids can be the same way. Set them up where you want them, in good light, clutter removed, etc., etc., and tell them you are going to count to 10 and you want to see who can give out the most kisses in 10 seconds. Ask them to pretend to be their favorite tv or movie characters. Tell them to give you one reason why you’re their favorite parent. My kids think the words boogers and fart are the funniest things they could ever hear, so I usually end up shouting those at them. I could go on and on. And here’s the best part about this: you know your kids better than anyone, certainly better than any photographer will, so you get to customize this for your kids. This way, you get smiles that make you melt and you get to be the one that captures them. When you make it fun and silly you’ll get a genuine memory and moment too.

7. Use an Actual Camera

Our phones are awesome and have come a long way! If you’re an iPhone user and aren’t using portrait mode, you are missing out because it is amazing. However, it goes without saying that a real camera is better. I keep one camera out and loaded in my house (memory card, charged battery) all the time. I know exactly where it is and it’s easy to grab if I see cuteness I need to capture. My kids are doing dance, basketball, baseball and all of the things right now; indoor sports can sometimes be hard to shoot and an actual camera does a much better job at handling the speed in which they travel. As a mom I know it’s hard to find the time to read the manual or take a camera class (I recommend you do those things), but on its auto settings alone, a real camera will help a lot! I’m a Canon user so my knowledge of anything else is limited, but I know you can find DSLR Canons on Canon’s refurbished site for very reasonable prices; also look at B&H Photo Video, Amazon, and Best Buy for any deals they might be having.

8. Be in Photos Too

The photos you keep and treasure will not just be treasures to you. Your kids will love them one day too, and what they’ll want to remember is your loving arms around them. Use these same, simple tips and be in photos with your kids. Forget how you look in the photos and just remember how you feel about your kid and do what you do best — love them in front of the camera.

Some days I look at a photo and hardly remember the time it was taken. That’s mostly the first few years of my kids’ lives (twin mom = no sleep). I stare at photos from when they were babies as if it doesn’t seem possible that was my life, and some days I look at a photo and remember every single part of the way that day felt. Photos fill in the holes — from the things we would forget without them, to the things we could never forget even if we tried. I truly hope these tips help you fill in all those holes.

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