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Child photography is a lot of fun — let’s be honest, we should all embrace our inner toddler more often — but it’s a challenging craft for anyone who doesn’t have practice. Why? Younger kids can’t be directed. As such, formal posing and smile-requests generally result in forced, awkward-looking pictures that don’t represent your special little one’s true self. Instead, we need to focus on tip & tricks that will create naturally photogenic situations where you can document your kiddo’s wonderment, silliness, and heart.
If you’re looking to up your child photography game, here’s our simple list of Do’s & Don’ts to help guide beginners through the three-ring photo-circus balancing safety, fun, and proper photography techniques. Remember, our wee ones are only young once and it’s our job to capture these irreplaceable moments.
CHILD PHOTOGRAPHY: PREP & PLANNING
DON’T settle for a smartphone camera (if you can).
Photographers take wonderful iPhone and Android photos all the time — creativity and craft are always more important than gear — but shooting with a dedicated camera like the Sony A7 III and a zoom lens (more on this below) like the Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 Di III RXD will, apples-to-apples, outclass your smartphone in every way. And they’ll give you more flexibility during shooting and editing. (#RealCamerasRock)
DO bring a partner.
Friend, partner, co-parent, grandparent, another set of eyes is vital for two big reasons: safety and keeping your child (or children) focused. You’ll be amazed at how often a child will ignore the person holding the camera, but instantly follow the directions of someone else.
DON’T schedule during nap or meal times.
Kids fuss when they are hungry or sleepy. Always respect the nap. Don’t miss a meal.
DO bring snacks & water.
Even if you’ve avoided mealtime photography, low blood sugar leads directly to Tantrum Town, so it’s always a great idea, with photography or life in general, to have a little snack ready. Plus, you might just find a quiet little snack moment to photograph as well.
DO pick a fun location where your children are naturally excited.
Having grown up taking family photos at Sears, I remember those experiences as mind-crushingly boring. If you want to capture smiling kids, pick a location where they’re going to have fun, naturally. A park, the beach, the backyard, a farm, something they love.
DO pick a high-quality zoom lens.
Primes are fantastic; a favorite lens choice by many, many pros because they’re generally sharper, more contrasty, and produce dreamy backgrounds and bokeh. However, with kids in the picture, a fast zoom is the way to go, which is why we opted for Tamron’s new 28-75mm F2.8 Di III RXD. It too is sharp, contrasty, and produces lovely background effects AND you have the flexibility to zoom in and out on the flying, which is important with always-in-motion kids. Not only that, but the lens is compact and light, perfectly balanced for Sony’s mirrorless cameras, and you can shoot as close as 7.5″ at 28mm (more on this in a moment).
DON’T worry about accessories (at the beginning).
Tripods, reflectors, filters, and flashes are all must-have accessories for aspiring and pro photographers. And, as you get more practice with child photography, mastering your craft, you can begin adding these elements into your workflow. But, when you’re starting out, keep it simple. Start with a camera and a lens and look for the light when you’re on location. Then add in some filters and reflectors and flashes and so on.
CHILD PHOTOGRAPHY: CAMERA SETTINGS
DO use a high shutter speed.
Children never stop moving. Ever. Even when they’re sitting, they’re moving. So you want to keep your shutter speed high to ensure crisp, detailed photos. My tip: stay above 1/250th and don’t worry if it means higher ISO. You can remove noise; you can’t sharpen blurry photos. Also, a lot of photographers advise shooting in Aperture Priority mode, which will allow you to control the depth of field while your camera adjusts ISO and shutter speed to balance exposure. However, unless you’re shooting in full daylight, there’s a chance your shutter speed could unintentionally drop too low. As such, I like to set aperture and shutter speed manually, and leave ISO in Auto to allow for lighting variances.
DO use Sony Eye AF, AF-C, and other tracking autofocus modes.
Modern Sony mirrorless cameras have one of, if not the best AutoFocus systems available today. For constant-motion child photography, we recommend jumping into AF-C (Continuous) mode, so the camera’s always adjusting for movement. Even better, utilize Eye AF, Sony’s brilliant AF tracking mode that locks onto your child’s eyes (moving or still). To engage Eye AF, go to Custom Key Settings in the Menu and assign the Eye AF to a button on your camera. (I like to set mine to the joystick, which feels right, ergonomically speaking). With Eye AF and AF-C, you’ll be able to keep your aperture wider (a full F2.8), but you can always stop down to F4 or F5.6 for a little more flexibility in your depth-of-field. Also, if you don’t own a Sony system, test out your camera’s AF-C modes to see what works best for you; every brand has an option.
DO try using Super 35mm aka Crop Mode.
If you’re shooting with full-frame cameras from companies like Sony or Nikon, you can engage the camera’s “crop” or “Super 35mm” mode, which captures images or videos using the center portion of your sensor, equivalent to shooting with an APS-C sized sensor. Flipping into this mode with the Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 turns it into a 42mm-112.5mm equivalent lens, which is a fantastic focal range for portraits. Even better, the Tamron lens is sharpest at image-center so, in Crop Mode, you’re shooting closer to the lens’ sweet spot
DO shoot in RAW.
Most cameras offer the choice between shooting in .jpeg (compressed) or RAW (lossless and/or uncompressed) file formats. The Sony A7 III / Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 combo produces delicious out-of-camera .jpegs good enough for Grandma emails and social media. BUT to fine-tune your photos, or to correct for lost shadow or highlight details, you’re going to want to shoot in your camera’s RAW. For ease of mind, shoot RAW+JPEG so you have both option and so you can see what the camera thought was correct before making adjustments. RAW is always the best way to go; better quality, more flexibility.
DO shoot Burst Mode.
Last, but not least, set your camera to Burst Mode so that you’re shooting rapid-fire still images. Some call this spray & pray, but as we’ve discussed, kids are always moving, and there’s a better chance of finding the right image if you have six images to pick instead of one. Plus, it helps with our running trick (see the next section). At the same time, you don’t want to hold down the shutter for long periods of time. You want to assess your shot, squeeze off a few frames, and then release.
CHILD PHOTOGRAPHY: THE ACTUAL SHOOT
DO look for the light & the emotion.
You’re at your location. Your kids are having fun. Don’t look for the picture-perfect spot first. Look for somewhere with great lighting. Someplace soft. Light bouncing off a building or a water source. Light coming in through the trees. Look for the light and see if you can get your kids there. And then look for the true emotions. The big smiles. The cackling laughs. The quiet momoments of a cuddle. Waiting in line. And so on.
DON’T (only) say, “smile.”
The younger your children, the harder they are to coach or direct. Some kids are naturally great at smiling on command, but, for many kids, if they hear, “smile,” they stretch out and contort their little faces, mimicking what they’ve seen you do, in order to do their version of their smile. This rarely results in a keeper of a photo; in most cases, it looks artificial.
DO make them laugh & run & play games.
Instead, make your kids laugh naturally. Play games, act silly, surprise them, whatever they like. You’d be surprised how a quick little peek-a-boo or a joke or a fart noise will turn a frowning face into a glowing, honest smile. I also highly recommend trying out what we call The Run Trick; get into position and call your child over, and they’ll run right at the camera, which almost always produces a heart-melting giant smile. (Just remember Burst mode & AF-C + Eye AF).
DON’T forget The Basics.
When you’ve got great light, a fun location, and a happy, smiling child, it’s easy to assume you’ve got the perfect recipe for amazing photos. And you do, of course. But don’t forget to think about the basics too. Specifically, make sure you’re exposing for your child’s face, and pay attention to your background and framing. In terms of backgrounds, avoid anything too distracting (too colorful or too bright); this is where having a fast F2.8 lens, like this Tamron 28-75mm, comes in handy, helping you to separate your subject from your background. And, for framing, pay attention to the natural borders of your surroundings, looking out for horizontal, vertical, and leading lines that will either enhance or detract from your subject.
DON’T worry when you fail.
You’ve got the perfect location, your kids are napped and fed, you’re thinking about the basics, and you’ve got a great camera/lens combo set up just the way you want… It’s all easy from here, right? Nope! You’re going to make mistakes. Framing. The AF will miss. Your children will stop smiling and turn away every time you take a picture. Don’t worry. Don’t stress. Just keep practicing. Just keep playing. Just keep shooting.
DO more than just take pictures… capture memories!
Don’t forget that you’re on an adventure with your family. The camera work is important, but you want to actually BE there with everyone. Actually enjoy yourself. Have a bit of fun. Then shoot those moments / capture those memories. Similarly, don’t just shoot portraits. Get little insert-style shots of hands holding toys and feet running around and your child in your wife’s arms and little moments that give the day context. It’s for these shots that I’m falling in love with the Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 Di III RXD. As I mentioned above, Model A036, boasts a minimum operating distance (MOD) of only 7.5″ (0.19m) at 28mm, but remember, that’s from the sensor. You can actually stick the lens as close as 2.24″ (5.7cm) to a subject and get a Macro-style shot. And, at 75mm, the MOD is only 15.3″ (0.39m), which is SUPER helpful when you’ve got a running toddler.
CHILD PHOTOGRAPHY: EDITING & POST
DO (re-)expose for the face.
Now that you have all your high-quality RAW files, it’s time to make a few adjustments. The biggest mistake we see in child photography (or any portraiture) is improper exposure. Most folks are scared of having blown-out backgrounds, and so, when the camera’s metering system adjusts for that brightness, they’re left with under-exposed faces. But remember, in portraits, the face is the star. So the first adjustment you make should be highlighting your child’s face. And if you need to bring down the highlights or the background exposure, use a program like Adobe Lightroom to apply a mask to the background. The great news is that this Sony/Tamron combo shoots accurate, colorful, contrasty images out of the box, but you can always sweeten them images a little.
DON’T over-sharpen or oversaturate.
When folks are learning to post-process digital photos, it’s easy to get seduced by ultra-sharp, ultra-colorful images. People ramp up settings like contrast and “clarity” (in Adobe), and then lather on the colors. This works wonders for landscapes, architecture, and for moments when you want highly stylized images. For portraits, especially of children, we have to keep things conservative so we don’t mess up skin tones and, for certain complexions, make our little ones appear as though they have jaundice.
DO soften your images.
Instead of sharpening, I like to add in just the finest amount of softness to the final image, which smoothes out everything, makes the image more classically filmmic, and gives your photo a timeless, ethereal quality that matches the softness of your child’s skin.
DON’T share every photo (DO tell a story).
One of the easiest ways to spot a novice photographer is by the number of photos they share. People don’t want to see 14 versions of the same shot. They want to see The Best of The Best. So keep every single photo, because the memories are important, but when you’re sharing with friends and family, go for the silliest, funniest, best framing, and so on. And when you do share them online, I like to order my photo albums to tell the story of a particular day or shoot.
DO back up your images & videos.
When my parents and grandparents were young, the only way to enjoy a photograph was to print an actual photo or a slide. And the amazing thing about those photos is that they could sit in a box or an album for decades with little worry of being lost or destroyed. The modern digital age allows us to affordably create and preserve more memories, but this capability is inherently risky. If you only have your photos on a phone (or in one SD card in your camera), and you lose it, your memories are gone forever. So make sure to backup-backup-backup.
Put your photos on your computer, back the whole thing up to an external hard drive, make a duplicate of that, and then back up all your media on Cloud Storage. Remember, Social Media sites like Facebook are fine for keeping living photo albums, BUT Facebook over-compress images and limits resolution, so it’s not a great place for archiving. Oh, and while you’re at it, actually PRINT your photos and hang them on the wall where you can enjoy your memories every day!