How to take gorgeous family photos

By Bronwyn Sell

Photos of your children are almost as precious as the children themselves. Bronwyn Sell gets a few tips.

Digital photography has revolutionised the way we document our children's lives. Parents are able to capture beautiful moments without being limited to a 15-minute studio shoot. Photo / Doug Sherring
Digital photography has revolutionised the way we document our children's lives. Parents are able to capture beautiful moments without being limited to a 15-minute studio shoot. Photo / Doug Sherring

I once took 67 photos of my younger child when he was a baby - in the same pose. He was asleep and motionless, so I can't even claim that I was capturing a sequence, or trying to catch him smiling.

Digital photography has revolutionised the way we document our children's lives. A child of the 19th century would have been lucky to have a single photo taken in its lifetime, in starched Sunday best and with an expression to match. Even a decade ago each frame was a precious thing that cost real money.

Now, as a photographer friend once told me, it's a numbers game. Take 100 shots and there's a good chance one of them will turn out.

If your kids are anything like mine, they freeze in the presence of a professional photographer, especially in an unfamiliar studio. Smiles are forced - if they happen at all - and patience evaporates in the time it takes to click half a dozen frames.

Even if you're not conversant in the technical aspects of photography, if you're a parent you have advantages over even the world's best portrait photographer.

Your child is comfortable in your presence, you can capture the candid moments of everyday life that don't happen on demand, and you're not limited to a 15-minute studio shoot.

With school holidays beginning, we thought it would be useful to ask one of the Herald on Sunday's ace photographers, father-of-two Doug Sherring, for his tips on photographing children. We also asked camera retailer Tim Ricketts to give us his picks for the best family cameras for different budgets.

Doug's tips for photographing children

Shoot in shade:
Avoid taking photos in bright sunshine. You will get inconsistent light on the kids' faces and they're likely to squint and whinge. If possible, move the child into a block of shade with no dappled sunlight. You'll end up with a more natural and even light. If you absolutely have to shoot in sunlight, use a fill-in flash to compensate for the shadows.

Get snap happy:
"Just shoot for your life," says Doug. "Shoot as many photos as you like, particularly if you're trying to capture a moment - it's not costing money, and you can edit later." If it's any indication, in the 45-minute photo shoot Doug did with my children to illustrate this story, he filled a 5GB storage card - and he's a professional. And work fast - kids have a very short attention span. (Doug will agree from that experience that 45 minutes was actually about 40 minutes too long.)

Don't say cheese:
"The worst thing you can do with kids - boys, especially - is to tell them to smile," says Doug. Even adults usually look forced and unnatural when they smile on demand. Kids can look at best uncomfortable, at worst inhuman. Instead, get the kids active or interacting with someone.

Get active:
Get the kids to do something they enjoy, so they forget about the presence of the camera and you're more likely to get candid shots. "If you can take the kids to the beach or a park, they'll be having fun and it's much easier," says Doug. It also means you're capturing an authentic moment, rather than forcing them into a pose that will make them feel self-conscious.

Keep the camera handy:
Don't just dust off the camera for special occasions. "If you have children, keep a camera close by so you can just grab it and you don't miss that moment," says Doug. This way you'll fill your photo albums with memories of precious moments, rather than awkwardly formal, set-up shots. Having a camera clicking regularly also means the kids will become more accustomed to it. This is where the ever-improving cameras on mobile phones have come into their own.

Blur the background:
Use a shallower depth of field so the kids are crisp and the background is blurred. This will eliminate distractions and draw the viewer's eye to the child,
the rightful star of the show. If you do things manually, use an aperture of around F2.8 or F5.6. Alternatively, use a long lens and zoom in. The latter approach
has the added benefit of allowing you to take a close-up photo without getting in the child's face. "If they're less aware of you, they're less self-conscious," says Doug.

Make it interactive:
Capture the child interacting with parents, friends, siblings, grandparents. This can relax them and make them more likely to produce a natural smile. And it often produces the most memorable photos because it documents what the child looks like at a particular age and those precious relationships. "There's a story; something going on. If you capture a good moment, it will make a long-lasting photo," says Doug.

Presenting and protecting your pics

As the resolution of digital pics has improved and we've got used to getting more trigger happy, we're having to figure out what to do with all those snaps.

Photos have always been fragile things. A print can be ripped, a negative damaged or lost. Today, photos are more likely to fall victim to technology malfunctions. Several of my friends have lost the record of a entire year of their babies' lives in the fizzing of a hard drive or a slip on a keyboard.

Presentation is also a challenge. In our hectic household, photos often end up in a bottomless folder on one of several computers, unfiltered, unedited and never to be looked at again. To be honest, I couldn't even tell you where I've put those 67 photos of the sleeping baby. I really should have deleted 66 of them by now ...

So, to preach what I should practise more often, here are some 21st-century ways to present and protect your photos:

Digital photobooks Printing out individual photos and sticking them into albums with messy photo corners is sooo 20th century. These days, there are loads of companies offering digital photo books. You upload your photos to a website and they mail you back a printed book of them. They're not particularly cheap - but then buying a photo album, printing a hundred photos and spending a few hours sticking them in isn't always the most economical use of your time and money either.

Posters As a working parent of preschoolers, I've become a bit hopeless with keeping multiple albums and frames updated. I just don't have the time to sift through all those photos. Instead, I get a large poster of about 10 favourite family photos printed (via snapfish.com) once or twice a year, and pop it into a frame (on top of the earlier photo). Hey presto! Wall art, storage and family memories.

Digital photo frames These are great for the grandparents. Sick of my mother nagging me for prints for her brag book, I bought her a digital photo frame. When I visit her I fill up the SD card with the latest photos from my laptop and she gets a continuous slideshow in her lounge.

Online back-up Manually backing up your photos on to a hard drive or other storage device can be time-consuming, and you run the risk of forgetting to do it and losing both the hard drive and your computer in a burglary or fire. The two-thousand-and-teens way to back-up is online. Many secure websites automatically back up your photos (and other files). My techie husband says you can't beat backblaze.com (US$4/month per PC for unlimited data).

Best cameras for families

Recommended by Tim Ricketts, Camera & Camera, 162 Queen St, www.camera-camera.com, ph (09) 303 1879.

* Canon Powershot SX150is: Affordable compact camera with a big zoom to get in close. Auto kids and pets mode so you don't miss shots of active subjects. Also has manual control and will shoot HD movies. Priced around $265.

* Fujifilm Finepix F750EXR: A high-end 20x zoom CMOS-sensor versatile compact camera for the photo enthusiast. It has auto portrait and auto sports modes to make photographing kids easy. Shoots HD movies. Sells for around $499.

* The most versatile camera is a changeable-lens DSLR. A large sensor ensures top quality results. These are best bought as a two-lens kit, ensuring you have the right lens for most photo opportunities. Two popular kits are the Nikon D3100, selling for around $1160, and the Canon EOS550D, selling for around $1249.

- Herald on Sunday

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