How To Photograph Children: A Simple Mom's Guide To Basic Lighting and Composition

Digital cameras allow anyone to take a picture--but that doesn't mean anyone can take great photos. Looking to learn how to take better pictures of your own children? Understanding just a few basic photography concepts can make a dramatic improvement.
By Hillary Grigonis, Last updated on: 8/15/2014

Image by Hillary K. Grigonis

At first, taking pictures of your kids seemed so easy. Just point the camera at them and press the button, right? So why is Little Mister's face so shadowy that he resembles his favorite cartoon villain? And why when Little Miss looks so adorable does the picture just seem so ho-hum? While digital cameras allow anyone to take a picture, there's a big gap between the best images and the very worst ones. Why? Because photography is much more than pressing a button. Learning how to photograph children and get above average results is about understanding a few main concepts of photography.

But that's going to take forever! Push back that discouragement right now. While it's true professional photographers take years to hone their skills, you can improve your own pictures in tiny baby steps (you remember those, right?) The first two to master that will make a huge difference in your images right from the start are lighting and composition.

How to Photograph Children: Taking Advantage of Light

Photography means writing with light—so naturally, light is one of the most essential elements to good images. While there's a lot to learn about lighting, there's just three basic things a beginner needs to know: The source of the light, the angle of the light and the amount of light. Identifying those three things and knowing how to work with each one is what is going to help eliminate those funky face shadows—and it's not as hard as it sounds.

The Source of the Light

So, why does the source of the light matter? Well, there's two reasons, one is that different types of light have different colors to them, and the other is that the light source determines how strong those shadows really are.

You may not notice that different light sources have different colors as you go through your day—that's because your brain recognizes the difference and compensates for it. Well, the camera doesn't have a brain that differentiates the colors within those light sources. In photography, adjusting for this color difference is called setting the white balance.

Your camera probably has an automatic white balance setting—if you've never adjusted the white balance, that's probably the setting your camera is on now. Auto white balance works well most of the time. The white balance is set correctly when things that are white in real life are also white in the picture. If your images have a yellow or blue tint to them, however, you are using the wrong white balance. Solving this is actually quite easy. Go into your camera's menu and look for the white balance option (if you can't find it, consult your camera's manual). Click on it and a few different options should show up. The appropriate white balance is named by the source of the light—you should see options for sun, shade and different types of light bulbs like florescent and tungsten. Select the option for the lighting conditions your are shooting in and your images will have more accurate colors (if you are unsure if you're under florescent or tungsten bulbs, you can always take a test shot first and see if the color looks right).

The second reason why the source of light matters involves shadows. If you see a lot of shadows in your image, this is called a hard light. If there aren't very many shadows, then this is called soft light. A soft light with few shadows is ideal for photographing children.

In general, a small light source like a flashlight creates harsh shadows while a large light source like an overhead light has fewer dark shadows. But as you may have already noticed, the sun is a large light source, but it creates some really harsh shadows. That's because it's not just the size of the light source, it is the size of the light source compared to the size of the subject. The sun is larger than the earth—but since it's so far away, it looks smaller. It's this size, the way the light source looks, that matters. For example, if you have a lamp and place it 50 feet behind your child, it's going to look small, so it will create harsh shadows. If you move the lamp a foot away, it will look larger and it will also give off a softer light.

So, a smaller light source means harsh shadows, while a larger light source means softer shadows. But as you move a light source closer, it gets softer and if you move that light source far away, it gets harder.

Need an easier way to remember it? Think of a small diamond—that's hard, and small things have harder light. Then think of the biggest teddy bear you've ever seen—that's soft and large things have soft light.

But wait—you can't exactly move the sun. So how do you put this new knowledge about hard and soft light into practice outdoors? The sun creates hard light—but clouds soften that light. Think of clouds as acting like a lamp shade—they soften and diffuse the sunlight. Shade will also work in a similar way.

If you can't keep track of which light is called hard and which is called soft or which one is even better, that's okay, you can come back to that later, just remember one tip: If at all possible, take pictures on a cloudy day or in full shade. The advantage of taking pictures of your own children is that there's plenty of opportunities, so if you can, wait for a cloudy day. If you want to take pictures on a certain day, find full shade.

The Angle of the Light

So know you know how to adjust your white balance and that it's better to take pictures on a cloudy day or in the shade. But what if you can't wait for a cloudy day, or you want to take pictures of your kids at play and can't move them to the shade? Or what if you are taking pictures indoors and a window or a lamp is creating uneven lighting? That's when the angle of the light comes into play.

When the light is directly in front of the face, this creates an even lighting without shadows on the face. While this angle looks good indoors, you shouldn't use it outdoors. Having your kids looking right into the sun will make them squint, which results in an unflattering image (and isn't good for their eyes).

When the light is coming in from the side or at an angle, this creates a neat look that can be used indoors or outdoors. It's usually considered the best option for taking pictures of people, young or old. Experiment with slightly different angles and watch how the light falls across the face to find the best position for the shot. If you can't find a spot where the shadows look good, you can turn on your flash. Adding a little more light with your camera's built-in flash will reduce and sometimes even eliminate those shadows. Since you are shooting with plenty of light, you'll have to tell the camera you want a flash by taking your settings from automatic to on.

When the light is coming in from behind, you'll end up with a silhouette or a very dark subject. But backlighting can work if you do one thing—turn on your flash. Turning on the flash will cast enough light so that your child doesn't look so dark.

If you can't move the subject to get the right light (which can sometimes be the case with kids), keep in mind you can always change your position, which can sometimes get you the angle of light you are looking for.

The Amount of Light

One last lighting element to consider—how much light is there? Identifying whether you have a lot of light or a little will help you get the right settings on your camera to get the shot right.

If there's a lot of light, you'll probably have those harsh shadows. Use a fast camera setting like the sports mode or child mode. To fight those shadows, move into the shade if possible or turn on your flash. If you are indoors and there's a little too much light coming in through the window, sheer white curtains can help tone down the amount of light just a little bit.

Often, the more difficult photos are the ones where the lighting is very limited. Use a scene mode that's designed for lower light conditions, like Party or Indoor. If you have a mode called Programed Auto (often designated with just a P on the mode dial), use that mode and then go into your menu and adjust your ISO to a higher number. ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. A higher one will allow more light into the image, but the trade-off is that the image will look a little grainy, so use the lowest ISO that gets enough light into the image.

Sometimes, it's best to use a flash in low light while other times not so much. If you like the way the existing lighting looks, like perhaps how the birthday candles light up your child's face, then a flash would take away that affect, so you should avoid using it. But if the most important element to your image is capturing action without blur, then a flash is fine to use. Outdoors, a flash can be used even on a bright day to eliminate shadows on the face.

Image by Hillary K. Grigonis

How to Photograph Children: Understanding Composition

Now that you know what type of lighting to look for, it's time to tackle composition. Composition is what you include within your image and where you include it. Is the child centered? Do you zoom in on her face or stay far enough back that you can see what she's playing with? All of these questions can be answered with composition.

What to Include

The first thing to consider is what to include in the image. Should you zoom in on that cute little face, or get a shot with the entire sandbox in it? The answer depends entirely on the situation, but there's a few general guidelines to follow to get the right elements in the image no matter what you are shooting.

Get the eyes in focus. The most important element of a portrait is the eyes, so work on keeping them in focus as much as you can.

Don't haphazardly crop off limbs. You don't need to get the entire body into every shot every time, but when you aren't getting the whole child, crop carefully. Don't crop at knees, elbows, wrists or ankles. Instead, crop at the shoulders (this is called a head and shoulders shot) or near the waist.

Get a variety of different shots. Kids grow fast, so you'll want more than one good image of them. Take a few whole body shots, as well as a few head and shoulders poses that allow you to see more detail in their face. Sometimes even shots that show just how little their hands or feet were can be memorable too.

Consider what else is in the photo. While it's good to have some images of just the child, their favorite toy, food etc. can say a lot about their personality, so it's often fun to get those elements in the image too. The foreground includes elements that are in front of the subject and are a little out of focus, while the background has those elements that are behind them—try using toys or props in both areas of the image. Or, you can also have the item in focus with them as well, like when they hug their favorite stuffed animal.

Where to Include it

Now that you know what to include, where exactly in the frame do you include it? There's a lot of different options, and which ones you choose can make or break your image.

A simple tip to composing pictures of children is to keep them off center. Imagine the image is divided in thirds and place the most interesting part of the image (usually the child) where one of those lines would be.

In some cases, you can fill the entire frame. This often works well for a close-up on the child's face because you can see the details easily and it makes a strong statement.

At other times though, it's more about what you leave out of the image than what you put in it. Negative space is empty space in an image. When you leave a lot of negative space, the eye is more drawn to the child. You always want the main focus in the image to be the child, you don't want to be too busy looking at the 15 other toys in the image—this is where negative space comes into play.

How to Include it

Now you know what to include and where, but how exactly do you go about doing that?

Arguably one of the best tips for photographing children is this: Don't shoot from an adult's perspective, shoot from a child's perspective. You're likely a few feet taller than your child. Shooting from your eye level would mean looking down at the child, which tends to make them look rather dwarfish.

Instead, kneel or sit down so that the camera is about eye level with the child's eyes, not yours. This simple step makes a remarkable difference when composing images of children—the images are more welcoming, more innocent, more fresh.

And the second best tip to photographing children? Don't request fake smiles. Kids are always in motion and on the go—try to capture them that way. Capture them at play and their smiles will light up their eyes. If you tell them to “Say Cheese”, they might smile but it won't be a real one—and you can tell the difference in pictures. If you do want to take a posed image, tell a joke or tickle them instead; the smile will be real enough to light up their eyes.

Taking pictures of your own children captures hundreds of wonderful moments in between trips to a professional photographer. Capturing great photos can be tricky though, but with a basic understanding of lighting and composition, you'll find learning how to photograph children isn't so bad after all.

Hillary Grigonis is the Managing Editor at DCHQ. Follow her on Facebook or Google+.

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    Maiya Marvin

    These images are so cute! Thanks for the helpful article. I'll try it with my girls.

    Reply 25 days ago