Through the many daily shooting projects I’ve tackled, I’ve discovered that my most favorite thing to capture is just raw, natural childhood.
Just the everyday happenings around the house, or out and about.
Planning and posing stressed me out and we all know how much that stresses kids out. I discovered my love for observation, both of light and life. I’ve always been an observer, but that quality in me is the foundation of who I am as a photographer, and realizing that was a turning point for me.
1. Watch and wait
My first and probably most important tip, is to become an observer. Let the art of observation take over. Slow down and pay closer attention to your children’s habits, your environment, and of course, light. Even when your camera is not present, the constant observing is a must. It has to be constant. You become more aware of the simplest things and in doing so, you discover the ability to make the most ordinary things, extraordinary. You don’t just see the people and the world around you at face value, you see them deeper than that. By observing, you know what moments you want to capture and more importantly, where and when. You’ve observed your surroundings and the light and shadows that fall upon them, so your photos now have an edge.
2. Be ready
While observing is a huge part of attaining great photos of childhood, it’s not all of it. You have to be willing and ready. Keep your camera where it’s handy and don’t be surprised if you find yourself literally sprinting to it in order to capture a moment. My camera is usually found on the kitchen counter – central to all parts of the house and easy to grab if we’re playing outside. Keeping it out and easily accessible makes it easier to just grab it and catch a moment that you may otherwise pass up because you don’t feel like digging out your camera. Now, having said this, if all you have is your phone, don’t hesitate to use it! There is nothing wrong with capturing childhood with the camera in your phone. What they say is true – the best camera is the one you have with you. Plus, phones these days are capable of taking amazing photographs, I must say.
3. Let them be
You’ve been observing and you’ve got your camera ready, now what about those children? Well, just let them be. Focus on capturing true moments and memories. Be a silent shooter. If they notice you taking pictures, you can tell them, “it’s okay, I’m just watching, you don’t need to look at me”. I use that line a lot and typically, they will just keep doing what they were doing. Children don’t like to be forced into doing things, especially if they are currently having a good time. While you hope they will appreciate your efforts in documenting their childhood, you can’t expect them to really understand that while they are young. Just let them be kids and capture them the way they are.
Children want your attention and interaction – give that to them, even while photographing them. Make it fair for them! It’s not fair if all you do is take, take, take (their picture!) and never give back. Asking them questions and showing genuine interest makes them more likely to be agreeable when it comes to letting you photograph them without a fuss.
4. Bribery Works
Now, just because I’ve told you to let them be, doesn’t mean that has to be the case 100% of the time. Sometimes, some coaxing is a good thing. It doesn’t necessarily have to make it less natural either. You can set up the “scene” and then let them play or dance, or whatever they might be doing. Most of the time, they will add to your idea and make it even better. Through observing your surroundings, you know when and where the best light is, yes? So why not set your child up to play on a favorite spot of light? Or maybe it’s not necessarily the light that interests you in some cases, maybe it is just a favorite spot in the house. An environmental portrait that tells a story. Filling your children’s albums up with images that show where they lived as a child is a gift. I love looking back in old albums and seeing what my surroundings looked like. So, don’t be afraid to do a little coaxing. Use your judgement to decide if they are in a good enough mood for some persuading, and use some bribery too. It’s all about the give and take. If they aren’t in the mood, let them be and try again another time. Too much forcing will result in a negative relationship with you as the documentarian of your family.
5. Find the light
While we’re on the topic of a little bit of planning and persuading, I want to talk about light all by itself. Light is such an important factor, that it definitely deserves its own spot in a list of tips for capturing childhood. “How do you capture such magical moments?” “How do you make childhood look so amazing?” “You make the simplest things so extraordinary!” My response to this? Light. Light, when used well, will add magic to anything. I’m patient and observant and I utilize light to give my children’s images magic and drama. Now, this doesn’t mean that I only shoot during golden hour, in case that’s what you’re thinking. While that time of day is very magical, I’m drawn to more than just one type of light. You have to be when photographing childhood, because childhood is 24/7, not just one hour of each day. Soft window light on a cloudy day makes for stunning portraits and images of your child playing. Mid-afternoon light, beating down through the trees and blinds in your child’s room tells a story of when they’ve just woken up from their nap. The light always looks that way when you go to get them from their crib, and by capturing them there, in that light, you’ve instantly added magic and a deeper story to your photo. Just like a smell or a song, light can trigger a memory, too. Whether it’s a dramatic side-lit image, morning light, diffused light on a foggy day, or the last bit of light before turning in for the night, use it to tell the story of your children. Don’t rely on one type of light, but rather, use whatever light is available like clay – mold it and shape it to fit with the childhood moments before you.
6. Embrace the imperfections
Last but not least, let go of the idea of a perfect photograph. Embrace the imperfections of both your images and of life itself. Life with children is messy and loud. Let that show in your images. Don’t let an imperfect house stop you from capturing your children. Don’t let a grumpy child stop you either. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that pushing for the imperfections will strengthen your work. The perfectly imperfect photos, the rule breakers, those are the images that I find myself drawn to the most. The story in these images is deeper and often takes me back to another time. It gives me that balance between creating real life memories for my family and embracing imperfection as an artist and as a mom.