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Monday, November 1, 2010

Ten Things I Just Learned About Photographing Kids—11/01/10

A play-by-play breakdown of a photo shoot I almost ruined

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My sister-in-law, mother of two adorable little boys, recently recruited me to photograph my nephews. I’m not an "official" child photographer, but I’m glad to pitch in. So I said yes, gladly. Here’s what I learned from an afternoon that started out painful and wound up wonderful.

1. The first mistake I made right off the bat was forcing the location of the shoot. I thought shooting in the park in a nice open space under tall trees would provide great light and nice backgrounds. And I was right. The problem, though, was that there was nothing for the kids to do. So they were unhappy. Worse still, there was a playground off in the distance that they could clearly see. They just weren’t going to be happy until they got to go play. Because I forced the location, I had unhappy kids on my hands with nothing to do. This isn’t good.

2. One thing I learned from having two kids, a mom, an aunt and a photographer involved in the shoot is that extra hands can be helpful for holding reflectors and wrangling kids and gear, but too many directors can pose a problem. It’s not that anybody was out of line; everyone’s suggestions were helpful. The issue is that the kids were hearing constant commands coming from every direction, which was stressing them out even further. They were close to a meltdown.

3. Every cloud has a silver lining, and in terms of ridiculously cute, even unhappy kids can make great subjects. They stood over me, stone-faced, staring down into my lens—a shot that quickly became grandpa’s favorite. They frowned. They glared. And all those shots are real winners, just because they look so ridiculously unhappy. But ultimately, I wasn’t there to take what I could get. We wanted photographs of happy kids. So I decided to let them go to the playground.

4. Even though the playground was as un-picturesque as you can get—with plastic toys and ugly swing sets and a beat-up fence surrounding it—the kids were happy. And it showed. And they started playing and having fun. And I started having fun with them. It was no longer stressful, it was actually a fun activity. And fun activities make for great photo opportunities.

5. I started playing with the kids, interacting, having fun and getting down on their level. It was less like "working the angles" for serious photography, and more like playing with a camera in my hand. This worked wonders, both for loosening up the kids and for creating interesting images. There’s nothing like getting on their level to change your perspective and start to see what it’s actually like to be a little kid.

6. When you’re crawling around in the dirt you start to notice things. Namely, getting up close and shooting interesting details opens up a whole new world of photographic possibilities. The giggle, the smile, a toe, a shadow... These elements become pictures about the kids all by themselves. They become pictures about childhood, too, and that’s pretty special. Hopefully it’s something we all relate to.

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