I first intentionally picked up my DSLR after my oldest son was born. Over the next four-and-a-half years, I cut my photography teeth on chasing around one, then two, then three little boys. I am not a fan of posed pictures. This is good, since it’s fairly difficult to get a newborn to smile for the camera, or to get a two-year-old to say “cheese”.
Children can have an uncanny way of making picture-taking extremely difficult, don’t they? I still remember the day my oldest learned to turn his back on my camera. He was barely two years old, and I was trying to get a picture of him in front of the Christmas tree. I’d lean around him to try and see his face, and he’d keep scooting so that he was facing away from me! He’s a come a long way since then, but then again, so have I.
Being at home with my littles gives me lots of chances to capture their childhood in photos, and especially if I’m having a rough day, there’s nothing I love so much as to be able to photograph my children. Here is a rundown of how I make it happen–even when they’re not exactly feeling it.
I keep my camera handy, and I watch for The Moments
There’s a philosophy that’s really popular these days about being “in the moment” instead of rushing to document it for Facebook, instagram, or whatever. I have my own thoughts on this, but if I’m looking for a way to get more natural, candid photographs of my kids, I have to consider occasionally taking advantage of those special moments instead of trying to force one later on, when the mood has passed.
One morning I was folding clothes in our bedroom when Anselm came and clambered up on the bed with his blankie. My camera was on the floor under my nightstand from taking pictures on the previous day, so I abandoned my laundry for a bit and took the opportunity that had presented itself.
What I got was Classic Anselm–thumb in mouth, finger over his nose, blankie almost covering his face.
Does your little girl have a new dress and can’t stop twirling in it? That could be the perfect time to photograph her, when she’s already proud and ready to show off. Is your two-year-old getting sleepy and just ready to sit down to thumb through a book by himself? This is a good time to capture his rapt attention (and reduced mobility) rather than trying to get him to sit later when he’s ready to be up and running.
I do think you can ruin too many good moments by rushing to pick up a camera, but if it’s a moment where you’re already an observer and not an active participant (don’t stop reading to your child to capture pictures of him “reading” himself, for example) then don’t be afraid to grab your camera and snap a few shots. You may be surprised in how much you can capture in just a couple of minutes. I have never, ever looked back on a photograph and wished I hadn’t taken it.
In lieu of A Moment, I find something that captivates their attention,
and let them pay attention to it.
In Anselm’s last monthly update, I was somewhat pressed for time and didn’t want to wait for A Moment to appear. So, I made my own. I set him up in a chair in our room. That lasted only a short while before, of course, he wanted to get down. So I gave him a book to look at. Then I clicked away. Everything he did was just his own thing–except occasionally I’d call his name to see if he’d look at me. (He usually would.) He sat, enraptured, with his favorite book long enough for me to take quite a few pictures. When he started getting antsy, I sent Ephraim to fetch his favorite blanket. That bought us a few more minutes, which was all I needed.
With the older boys, I have used cookies, favorite toys, wild adventures in new places, or their favorite element (Clive’s is water–see above photo–Ephraim’s is dirt) to capture their attention enough to hold them still (and hopefully oblivious to me) for a bit. Three years ago, when Ephraim famously turned his back to me in front of the Christmas tree, I should have given him an ornament to look at. Oh well, you live and you learn.
I remember there is more to life than smiling.
This sort of follows what will happen if I contrive A Moment with something that catches their attention–they will probably be looking at the object and not at me. This is okay.
I love smiling pictures, but my favorite, favorite pictures of my kids are the ones where they are totally solemn, large eyes luminous in my direction. I love this expression because this is how I’ve seen them take in their world since the day they were born. Children are endlessly observant, and that expression of observation is such a childlike one. I can usually grab this expression if I call their attention away from the object I’ve given them for a moment. If I do it too much, though, they rebel, so I try to keep it infrequent.
Beyond that, there is merit in the crazy faces, the laughs, the tears, even that one picture where he covered his eyes. I take pictures even if they don’t have the perfect look on their face, or even if they’re not looking at me at all, because sometimes that’s just the best way to tell the story!
If their face is in view, I shoot on burst
Now, this is probably controversial. I know that “real photographers” have very strong opinions about taking tons and tons of pictures. But I shoot on burst anytime I am taking pictures of small children and their faces are visible. I take a lot, A LOT of pictures when there is a young one in front of my lens. The reason is that their expressions are so fleeting and fluid! They will look at you for one millisecond and then turn their heads or blink their eyes. If I’m waiting for that one special moment of eye contact and push the shutter as soon as I see it, I’m probably going to miss it. (Believe me, I’ve missed many, many wonderful pictures that way.) Yes there is a lot to go through and delete afterwards, but it’s worth it to me.
Another thing shooting on burst might give me is a great sequence of events. Here, Anselm is refusing to rub noses with Daddy. He will usually do it at home, but for some reason decided it wasn’t on his list of priorities on this particular day. In the end, it didn’t really matter–I love these images as much I as would have if he had cooperated fully. It tells a very true story of his wily personality.
I gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.
Ok, cheesy song-lyric-quote-moment aside, what I really mean is sometimes I follow the lead of my kids, and sometimes I step in and take charge. This is most frequent with Ephraim, who has evolved from The King Of Camera Avoidance to The King Of The Very Silly Face. He doesn’t do it to ruin the picture, he does it because he’s four and he thinks it’s hilarious (and sometimes it is!) Occasionally, though, it just gets crazy and when it becomes too much, I have to ask him to stop for a while. This is where I have to remember my rule about smiling, because sometimes he’ll calm down and cooperate, and sometimes he’ll sulk.
Here he wasn’t sulking, but he wasn’t happy that I told him to stand still and look at me for a second. If I remember correctly, he was really engrossed in digging in the dirt at the moment. I’ll be honest, I love this picture. He’s been giving me this very disgruntled look since the first day he could focus his wobbly little newborn eyes on me!
The courtesy I give the boys after demanding a bit of cooperation against their will is to then leave them alone and let them get back to what they’re doing–even if it’s just making goofy faces at the camera again. I guess this is a way of making peace between them and the Momarazzi.
Speaking of the sake of peace, sometimes I also just have to know when to stop. There have been many times where I tried to take pictures, was met with strong opposition, so just set the camera aside and waited for them to move on and stop paying attention to me. Sometimes I’ve only waited as little as a couple of minutes before A Moment began and I was able to sneak the camera back out.
Some technical notes
I shoot with a Canon 1DS Mk II, and use a Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 almost exclusively. This lens has constant aperture, so I can zoom in and out without having to stop and readjust everything. I love this because it gives me the opportunity to take both wide angle and telephoto shots of the same scene or position, without moving and in a matter of seconds. When it comes to pictures of little kids, who wants to stop and change lenses? Or, more accurately, who has time for swapping lenses?
I’m almost always taking pictures inside our (rather dark) house, so I have to use as wide an aperture as possible (so f/2.8 on the Tamron lens). Even when I’m outdoors, though, I usually stick around f/4-f/5.6. I just like that look the best.