How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children

How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children

The upcoming birth of my son re-ignited my interest in photography. His birth was such an important event, that it made me look at photography, and why I take pictures in a new light.

I wanted the pictures of my son growing up to be timeless, and free of my interference as far as possible.
He should be able to look at pictures of him in 20 or 30 years’ time, and see himself as he was.

So, before he was even born, my objectives were very clear. I wanted to take pictures that will stand the test of time and be relevant in 40 or a 100 years from now.

Here’s my advice for taking authentic, timeless pictures of your children.

Diptych portrait - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Diptych portrait
I took this diptych of my son against a black background in our garage, using natural light coming in through the garage door.

I placed him on a chair and simply waited for a few candid moments.

My style and approach to photographing children

I use a simple but effective approach to photographing children.

I take an observational approach to photographing children, and try to not interfere with outside direction as much as I can.
 
To get authentic pictures, I try and make sure that everything stays as natural as possible.
That approach starts with not interfering with children, but it carries through to everything else, such as making sure the clothes are natural and children are not over styled.

I try and avoid props and clichéd pictures, as these often bring an unnatural look to pictures.

I also exclusively use natural light, and haven't owned a flash in over 7 years. Flash generally gives an artificial and contrived look.

Lastly, it’s important not to overcook the post-processing in Lightroom in Photoshop. People almost always go overboard by boosting the saturation and contrast in the eyes.

Taking authentic pictures of children involves restraint, waiting for things to happen, and simply doing less rather than more.

Simple Advice for taking authentic, timeless pictures of children

Avoid clichés

Avoid the clichés.
Don’t take the cute swaddle pictures.
Don’t do the happy family pictures where the whole family walks hand in hand and everyone smiles, looking at the ground or skywards.
Try and avoid over smiling.

These kind of pictures are everywhere, they are clichéd and overused. It’s fairly easy to replicate them too.

Instead, take a different approach and photograph from an observational point of view. Let your child play on his own, and move around him. Watch him and wait for that candid moment when he smiles on his own. A natural smile is always better than an over smile. An over smile is where you interfere and instigate a smile by doing something funny or crazy in front of the child. The result is that they typically over smile.

It’s ok to interfere every now and then and capture a smile, but try and capture natural emotions.

A portrait with a natural smile - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
A portrait with a natural smile
I managed to capture a glimpse of a smile, but a completely natural and authentic smile at that.

By using natural light in an effective way, the catch lights in the eyes are striking, and attention is drawn towards the eyes.

Over Styling

Try and avoid the over styling. The cute beanies on new born babies, or the child with a hat, scarf, bright red shoes and a prop in hand. These are dressed for photo moments.
Ideally, it's best to dress your child normally, like you would if you would go out for the day.

Children at Play - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Children at Play
Observing how children play will help you to anticipate the candid moments.

Capture children as they are, even when they cry - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Capture children as they are, even when they cry
Crying is a normal part of growing up. Don't just take pictures of children smiling and being happy. Document all aspects of their life - it will be cherished in years to come.

Bokeh and dreamy backgrounds

Bokeh and dreamy backgrounds have been so overused in recent years, that it comes across as a cheap special effect in photographs nowadays.

The problem with very out of focus or dreamy backgrounds, apart from the fact that they are overused and clichéd, is that the viewer actually gets drawn to the background. You don’t want people commenting on your background, you want the photo and what’s in front of the background to draw the attention.

I find that 2.8 – f4 is more than adequate for most situations, and I often use f5.6. This slightly sharper background actually gives a very classy and editorial feel to photographs.

Who needs fast prime lenses - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Who needs fast prime lenses
This picture, taken at f2.8, adequately throws the background out of focus without blurring the background completely.

The focus on the subject is tack sharp.

Overcooking in Lightroom or Photoshop

Be careful not to over saturate your pictures and over cook the post processing in Lightroom or Photoshop. It’s tempting to make the eyes pop, but don’t do it. It looks unnatural and it can be picked up immediately. 
Instead, focus on good lighting. Know how to use natural light, and how to create catch lights in the eyes.

Props

Avoid the props where possible. New-borns in baskets. Cute beanies on new-borns. Toddlers with multi coloured balloons in their hands. Kids blowing bubbles, etc.

Always think about how children play naturally. They don’t play while holding a set of perfectly placed balloons in their hands. They don’t blow bubbles and smile at the same time. They play quietly and mostly without exagerrated smiles. Usually, they're happy to play with something basic like a ball or a plastic toy when they're on their own.

Use props with constraint - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Use props with constraint
A smiling picture of my son, taken from a high vantage point of him with his walking ring. He played with his walking ring on his own, and when he looked up at me he naturally smiled at me.

I ran up the stairs and called his name, and when he looked up he gave a completely natural smile.

Neither the prop or the smile was contrived.

Avoid the fast prime lens trap

Don’t fall into the typical trap that many photographers fall in. Their standard kit normally consists of a 50mm 1.2, a 35mm 1.4 and a 85mm 1.2 or 1.4 lens., and usually they shoot everything wide open.

There are so many problems with this kind of trap, that I can write a couple of pages about this topic alone.

Simply put, very fast prime lenses typically focus slower, are rarely sharp wide open and are only sharp from f2.8 or narrower apertures and are less versatile and are a lot more expensive.

With my 50mm 1.2L, I could only get sharp pictures from f2.8 onwards, and with my 85mm f1.2L, it is only sharp from f2.2 onwards. Compared to their less expensive and slower versions, I find the less expensive lenses like the 85mm f1.8 to rival or better the sharpness at equivalent apertures, and they focus a lot quicker too. 

Iif you use a fast prime lens it's more tempting to fall into the bokeh trap by shooting wide open too much.

It’s the old saying. More gear doesn’t make you take better pictures. And it is never more true than in this case.

More than 90% of all my pictures are taken with a 24-70 f2.8L II zoom. It's a terrific performer - very sharp (sharper than the above 2 primes) and fast auto focus. Most importantly, it allows me the compositional freedom that a zoom gives me - I can do so many different types of shots without changing lenses or switching cameras.

Think about it in this way : If you rely on fast lenses and out of focus backgrounds to make you a good photographer, you’re probably not a very good photographer.

Keep it simple, focus on taking pictures

90% of my pictures are taken with just one camera and one lens. (I’ve used the Nikon d800 and the Nikon 24-70mm lens before, and that combo is just as good as the Canon como.)

I don’t use flash – I only use natural light.

On occasion, I use a reflector, but I try and avoid that as much as possible as it slows me down, shifts my focus, and often requires a second person to hold the reflector.

The general rule of thumb is to focus on taking pictures, instead of focusing on gear. The more gear you have, such as flashes gadgets and different lenses, the more these things take away your attention from the subject which is photographing children.
 
I find that the simpler my photo setup, the better my pictures are.

Real Moments - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Real Moments
This moment was captured just after my son was crying, at the moment that a cry was about to turn into a smile.

Learn how to use natural light

I stopped using flash many years ago, and the only reason why I used flash in the first place was because I didn’t know how to use natural light in the first place.

Natural light, when used properly, will always look better than flash. All forms of artificial light, even the most expensive ProFoto lights, tries to imitate natural light, and they always fall short at doing so.

You can work incredibly quick with natural light – what you see is what you get.

I can’t imagine having to wonder about lighting ratios or shadows caused by a flash. Children move quickly and the moment is gone before you even finished thinking about your unnecessary flash or lighting ratios.

Using reflectors to take pictures at any time of the day - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Using reflectors to take pictures at any time of the day
This picture was taken just after mid day on the beach in the harsh summer sunlight.

By placing the child with his back towards the sun, and using a small white California Sunbounce micro mini reflector to bounce light back into the eyes, I managed to shoot an evenly lit picture with noticeable catch lights in the eyes.

A simple, but effective method to shoot anywhere, any time of the day.

Candid shot of child laughing and yelling naturally - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Candid shot of child laughing and yelling naturally
My son was playing with the dials on his stroller while I sat in front of him. He suddenly started yelling and smiling with his eyes closed and I managed to get this candid shot.

In this instance, no reflector was used, but I still shot backlit. The reflection of the sun on the grass in front of my son was enough to provide a natural reflection. I also compensated for the backlit exposure reading on the EOS 5D Mark III by overexposing with 1 full stop.

Natural light window portrait of a baby - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Natural light window portrait of a baby
This picture was taken in front of a big sliding door on a balcony during midday.

Even at an aperture of f7.1, the background is still being thrown out of focus. By not throwing the background completely out of focus, you can maintain a classy and editorial feel to pictures.

Focal length : 50mm.
Aperture f7.1

Rules are made to be broken

Rules are made to be broken. In fact, there are no rules in photography.
There will always be someone that manages to do a fresh take on that clichéd shot, or that manages to use artificial light in an amazing and unique way.

I don’t maintain that I am the world’s best children photographer, or that what I say is gospel. This is my personal experience, from someone that manages to take a few good, simple, authentic pictures of my child every now and then.

I’m still learning, and I hope that this article will inspire your own photography in some way or another.

Sometimes, clichés are ok - How to take authentic, timeless pictures of your children
Sometimes, clichés are ok
Sometimes, when done right, clichés are ok.

By having our au-pair flip my son upside down, the viewpoint changes and attention is drawn to my son's striking eyes. It's a somehwat clichéd picture, but it still works well in this instance.