Shooting Your Kids - 5 Tips From a Photographer and Father of 3

Far and away the best part about being a photographer is that I have access to solid photography all the time. As a father of 3, that comes in really really handy. I've been thinking a lot about how to get great shots of your kids, and here are the top 5 things I came up with. 

Disclaimer: These are more philosophy related, than technical tips, although I will include a few quick tips at the end of this post. 

Here we go!

Patience and a little bit of right place/right time can create some really nice images. 

Patience

Arnold H. Glasow said “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.” As parents, you and I understand this concept probably more than most people do. Children have a way of requiring seemingly inhuman amounts of patience. This virtue is the number one key to getting great photos of your kids. I can’t stress enough how critical it is, and there are a few aspects to it. 

You need classic, good old fashioned patience. Not losing your cool. Going with the flow. You don’t want your kids on edge when the camera comes out because they’ve come to associate it with mom or dad getting snippy and pushy. 

You also need patience in the form of restraint. Don’t try to snap away at every moment. Be selective in what you shoot, and leave the image reviewing until later. It’s a hard habit to break, but burying your nose in the LCD screen is a surefire way to lose your kids cooperation. Be present in the moment with them (more on this in step 5).

Lastly, you need to recognize that you may not get a great shot this time around, but with perseverance you will eventually get some incredible pictures of your kids. 

Sometimes you just don't get the shot you want. And sometimes the result can still be pretty fun.

Technique

The second most important thing is having a good grasp on photographic technique. Understanding how the functions of your camera work together to achieve exposure is critical. If your kids are moving around a lot (which they definitely are) you probably want a pretty fast shutter speed in order to freeze the action. But you also probably want pretty generous depth of field if they are moving toward you or away from you, which means a smaller aperture setting. The only way to reconcile those two things is to increase ISO. 

There are a lot of ways to get the right exposure, the example above simply illustrates that you need to understand and be thinking about photographic technique and fundamentals during your session. If you don’t know the basics, take a class. A simple community college course will be enough to get you started, and the rest is practice and patience (see above). 

 Hannah runs away from me, but with the right shutter speed and aperture (thus, depth of field) I still get a killer shot

Hannah runs away from me, but with the right shutter speed and aperture (thus, depth of field) I still get a killer shot

Planning

If I had to take these 5 tips and cut them back to 3, planning would make the cut. Even when keeping it simple and casual, planning is vital. You have a secret weapon when it comes to planning! They are YOUR kids. That means you shoot on your schedule, and because you control meal time, nap time and bed time, you can leverage all of these things to work in your favor. 

Maybe Jackson is usually a little grumpy right after nap, but tends to open up and get silly about an hour before dinner. That might be the time to strike. Maybe Hannah is really cuddly and sweet first thing in the morning, that might be the right time for a quick mother daughter photo shoot. Leverage your kids naps and bed times to work in your favor also. If you want to shoot with strobe, use the kids nap time to dial in light. Use a stuffed animal as a stand in so there is no guess work once the clock is ticking. All parents understand that good behavior in children is basically equity that can be depleted, so wasting it is generally not wise. 

This family Christmas portrait took tremendous planning and testing, all of which was done before the kids ever got in the shot. Even so, we still had to just put Hannah to bed and then bring her out while asleep. Sometimes they just don't want to cooperate. 

As an aside, here’s another pro tip that is planning at the macro level. Give your kids the bedroom that gets the best light in the house. Seriously. Your kids are comfortable in that space and will open up and you can get some incredible photographs right in their own bedroom.

See what I'm saying about the room with the best light? Shot on film: Kodak Portra 120mm, Yashica 635

Routine

By routine, I don’t mean it should be a daily or weekly occurrence that should be treated like bath time or church. I mean do it often enough that it’s not out of the ordinary. And when the camera comes out, don’t make it a big deal. Just have it there, engage with your children, and snap a few frames. Making it an ordinary part of your life does two main things for you:

1. It desensitizes your children to the camera and your behavior while shooting. This will allow them to be more comfortable and act natural, allowing for more opportunities for those delicious candid moments. 

2. It increases the likelihood that you will get something really magical, just because you will be shooting more often. 

 Since Dad always has a camera, Hannah just goes on about her business. 

Since Dad always has a camera, Hannah just goes on about her business. 

Playfulness

Just play with your kids. Have your husband or wife play with your kids and when they run away from you, or toward you, or turn to pour tea into Banjo’s teacup, lift the camera and snap your shot. No fuss, just be present, be playful and occasionally snap a frame or two. 

Remember: You’re a parent first, and photographer second. Don’t sacrifice their desire for your attention in order to get the shot. They will reward your patience (that word again!) with cooperation and candidness that will result in images you will cherish for the rest of your life. 

Rocky laughs at silly Daddy

A Few Final Thoughts

I promised a few technical tips, so here you go:

  1. Get down to their level, or lower. There are very few interesting shots of kids from an adults perspective
  2. Don't ask them to smile or say cheese. Make them laugh instead. Kids do weird things when you ask them to smile. 
  3. Use strobes aimed at the ceiling in two or more corners of the room for indoor shots, if you are short on light. This will create a natural looking boost in the overall room light. 

The light in this room was boosted with 2 LumoPro LP180 manual speedlights in opposite corners aimed into the corners. 

Finish strong.