Guest Blog: How to Take Awesome Photos of Your Kids

This entry was written by my friend and professional photographer Ricky Stern. You can check out Ricky’s site at www.miamiphotographer.net and feel free to e-mail him from his site with any questions. He likes feeling important. Thanks Ricky!

Every day on Facebook, I see tons of my friends’ photos, often of their kids. 95% of those pictures were taken with an Iphone, and 95% of those have been put through Hipstamatic or other, comparable app that turns their kids purple, and I usually leave a comment that begs them to take some normal pictures of their kids. When your little baby turns 14 and wants to look at her baby photos, it’s going to be tough to explain why Mommy thought that babies are cutest in magenta.

That’s why I volunteered to write a guest blog entry on this topic; our kids deserve better. They deserve better than Hipstamatic. They deserve better than your phone.

Now, when I first signed up, I wanted to write an inclusive entry that didn’t require you to spend a chunk of cash, but I can’t do it. I can’t teach you how to take better kids’ pictures with a phone or point and shoot camera because I myself don’t know how. So, much to my chagrin, here’s lesson 1:

1. Get a decent camera

(If you can’t spare the cash, you can go straight to tip #4.) What’s decent? Anything that has interchangeable lenses, or DSLR’s (Digital Single Lens Reflex, if you’re keeping score). Why? First off, they’ll offer you a range of options that you can use to take better pictures that will make your kids love you in 15 years. Second, they will give you room to grow when you begin to suck less and less. Finally, they will open new and exciting money spending opportunities you hadn’t even dreamed of before, helping the economy if not your marriage.

So which camera? Really, it comes down to either Nikon or Canon. Both offer excellent entry level DSLR’s with lots of options and a wide range of excellent lenses. For Nikon, it’s the D3000; for Canon, currently it’s the Rebel T3i. It doesn’t really matter because once you have said camera within 18 months you will convince yourself you need a far more expensive one, so try to save money now.

2. Get Out of Automatic Mode

When I got my first decent camera, I was petrified to get out of green box mode, or automatic, for no good reason whatsoever. I guess I was afraid my imaginary editor would be mad that the photos of my macaroni dinner wouldn’t be good enough (I had no kids yet and macaroni seemed like an awesome photo subject. You’ll see.) Eventually, after many months of reading discussion boards on flickr.com (you’ll see, you’ll see) I decided to take that awful, terrifying click to the left into Aperture Priority mode.

DON’T RUN AWAY! PLEASE just chill and give me a minute. I know that most people hear a word like “Aperture” and glaze over. Don’t glaze over. Believe me. Aperture Priority Mode is the single most important reason I threw away a law school education, stopped taking new cases and now work as a photographer full time. Aperture Priority will save us all.

So, if you’re still here, let me explain what Aperture is and what it means to you in real life. It just means: “how big is the hole inside my camera?” That’s it. The only sort of confusing thing about aperture is that the wider the hole, the smaller the number; the narrower, the bigger the number. So an aperture of f/1.4 (yes, there’s an f/ in front of the number, don’t let that scare you. It’s just there to make you sound awesome when talking to your friends about photography. It’s pronounced “eff one point four.” Go forth and sound awesome.) is very wide, while an aperture of f/11 is a pretty small hole. It’s like reverse dilation of the camera’s cervix when it’s ready to give birth to beautiful photos.

What does this all mean to you? Well, in Aperture Priority mode, we can tell our shiny new camera what aperture to use.

PAY ATTENTION, HERE COMES THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU WILL EVER LEARN ABOUT CUTE AND AWESOME KID PICTURES: Ready? OK, you look ready. Use . . . the . . . widest . . . aperture . . . possible. Don’t question me. Just do it. Why? Here are two examples:  (Also, for best results, click on the photos below to see them full size, it helps with the lessons, trust me)

The photo above is not any good. It looks like any old photo anyone can take with a $14.00 disposable – or, being at Disney World, let’s make that a $32.00 disposable. However, this was taken with a combined $3,000 worth of  camera equipment. Why is it so lame? Aperture. Aperture, aperture, aperture, aperture. You see, the narrower your aperture, or the bigger the number, the further back into the background things will be  in focus. Is that a bad thing? Depends; if you want to take an obligatory photo of your wife and daughter with Cinderella’s castle in the distant background, then yes, you want everything in focus and you’re going to use a narrow aperture – in this case, f/11. I succeeded both in getting the castle in focus and taking a lame picture. Go me.

For the vast majority of your photos, however, you definitely do not want the background in focus. In fact, you want almost nothing other than your little beautiful baby in focus. “BUT RICKY!” you exclaim; “HOW ELSE WILL I REMEMBER THAT TIME MY SON WALKED NEXT TO THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE DISPLAY?” I respond “WHO CARES ABOUT THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE? You should only care about having all your friends comment on Facebook “OMFG U R THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHER EVAR.”

To achieve that response, you need to throw the background into a pleasing blur, or as we super awesome photographers call it, “bokeh.” Bokeh is a made up word popularized by photographers to make themselves feel more awesome when discussing blurry backgrounds, so feel free to drop it all over your friend’s heads. Remember, the lame photo above was taken at f/11; here’s an example of a photo taken at f/2.0:

YEAH BABY! f/2.0 will make your friends weep with jealousy. Bokeh will allow you to completely isolate your son or daughter (in this case my daughter Maisie) forcing the viewer to focus on the subject and the subject alone. And isn’t that what we all really want, anyway? For everyone to just fixate on how awesome our kids are? Wide apertures can deliver that gift to you.

3. Watch Your Shutter Speed

Aperture Priority mode works best outside. That’s because in that glorious mode, you tell your camera what aperture you want to use, and it takes care of the rest, most notably shutter speed; outdoors, it’ll have enough sunlight to keep your shutter speed fast enough to take kickass photos. Inside, you will probably run into problems. Now, what’s shutter speed? Simply put, it’s how fast your camera blinks. The faster it blinks, the less light it lets in, but the more action it can freeze. I’m not going to give you an exhaustive rundown of shutter speed here, unless there’s some universal call for more photo related guest blogging (crickets); just make sure it doesn’t go too slow. For example, this unfortunate picture of my daughter Sabrina has a shutter speed of 1/40th of a second:

If you click on it and look at it full size, you’ll notice her hands and feet are totally blurred. That’s because she was running around in a sandbox and I foolishly had my camera set to a real slow shutter speed. Result? I feel drunk looking at the picture. With a fast enough shutter speed – and Aperture Priority should deliver a pretty good speed outdoors – you’ll be able to freeze pretty much anything:

DIG THOSE WATER DROPLETS! FROZEN IN TIME! Shutter speed? 1/1600th of a second. Aperture Priority mode. Dig it. OK, let’s stop being so darn technical and get to some tips anyone, even those with an IPhone, can use.

4. Lay Down.

Pictures of kids at eye level are cuter. They give you better bokeh.  They are better photos. Now, is laying down in all kinds of locations sometimes embarrassing? Yes, of course it is. I have this condition where whenever I lay down to take a photo, my shirt will ride up and expose half my bare ass to the world. Do I let that stop me? Never! SUFFER for your art! Kneeling is better than standing, but most of my really cute pics are from laying down:

6. Declutter Your Background

A lot of times, bokeh will do this job for you, but it’s always best to start with as clean a background as possible. Compare the photo above of my wife and Sabrina with its nice, wide open green background to this one of Maisie posing in my disgusting living room (please take a side note, I’m laying down for this shot too, which is why it’s nominally a good photo even with the cluttered background):

Cute baby? Check. Laying down? Check. Stroller, flip-flop, garbage cans and pack ‘n’ play in the background? Sadly, check. Clean up your backgrounds, a lot of times it’s as easy as moving yourself and not getting cat vomit in the background of your photos.

7. Don’t Sweat Group Pictures

In my house, there is never a camera more than 10 feet away in any direction. My kids have had their picture taken in excess of 10,000 times. Yet, to this day, I have never been able to get one single stinking photo of the two of hem smiling at the camera. Can’t do it. They won’t do it. So, rather than freak out and beg, cajole and bribe my way into more frustration (they will not do it), I just find my zen by letting them play and taking that picture. When it comes to more than one kid under the age of 5, you simply have to let the picture come to you. The picture you want of the three kids sitting in a row at the pumpkin patch with their arms draped around each other in matching sweaters smiling into the camera WILL NEVER HAPPEN. So, rather than let the perfect get in the way of the possible, take the photo you can get instead:

It can be even better than matching sweaters and pumpkins.

Now, I’ll leave you on a final note: never, ever, ever use your built in flash. “BUT RICKY!” you exclaim; “HOW WILL I TAKE PHOTOS INSIDE?” The short answer is, you won’t. Not yet, anyway. Go outside. If you want to learn the mysteries of good indoor photos, then beg me to write a follow up in the comments section below and I’ll let you in on it. Until then, have a great time making your kids looks awesome and turning your friends green with jealousy because, really, that is what it’s all about.