I’ve found over the years that sometimes the simplest assignments present the biggest challenges: family portraits, for instance, or portraits of young children. These subjects are fairly straightforward and yet they can be immensely difficult and frustrating if you’re not sure how to do it right. And if you’re not quick, you can miss the perfect shot.
One way I like to make life easier for family group photos or children’s portraits is to use natural light. Not only does open shade outdoors provide big, beautiful and even illumination across a whole group of people, but working outdoors also solves the natural problems of backgrounds as well. There are few portrait backgrounds as appealing as nature itself.
One unsung reason to use natural light for this kind of family photography is that it affords the opportunity to shoot with a fast frame rate. This ups the chances of capturing those fleeting moments of perfection.
Fast frame rate for portraits? It’s true. Not only are sports and wildlife photographers happy to fire off a dozen frames in the blink of an eye, portrait photographers sometimes want to do it too. The reason is simple: It only takes one perfect frame to make the shot, and that one perfect frame is often just one instant among a series of others that just aren’t quite right.
This principle holds true with any portrait of practically any living subject, of course. It’s all about ensuring you don’t miss that ephemeral “decisive moment.” With portraiture, that moment is the exception to the rule. It only takes a half blink, subtle change of expression or slight alteration to the pose and the decisive moment becomes just another outtake.
So why is the problem exacerbated with kids and groups? Because those subjects are more…volatile. As someone with a fair amount of experience photographing toddlers and preschoolers, I can attest that there are a thousand different ways they can mess up an otherwise perfect shot. From raising their arms to widening their eyes, looking away or leaving the frame, the younger the kid, the faster the frame rate should be.
With groups of people it’s the same idea—multiplied by however many humans are in the group. It only takes one itch, sneeze, blink or turn to ruin an otherwise great group photo. Again, rifling off a handful of frames quickly can ensure that you get the moment you thought was right but also the moments that occurred in the fractions of a second immediately following it.
Changing the speed at which your camera will fire off frames is usually quite simple. Look for drive mode or burst mode buttons on the top or back of your camera body or find these settings in the camera’s menu. Pro bodies generally have faster shooting rates than consumer point-and-shoots or fixed-lens cameras, often allowing multiple options from low to medium and high-speed settings. This way you can choose from, say, three frames per second, 10 frames per second or 20 frames per second. The low- to mid-range rates are usually sufficient for most portrait scenarios.
The next time you’re faced with several faces in a photo, or if those subjects are young children you’re trying to catch just so, try turning to natural light and a fast frame rate and watch your percentage of usable shots increase significantly.