Children Photography – A to Z Guide

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It truly caught me off guard, and in a moment of madness, I said OK. That’s what happened when my niece asked me to photograph her daughter, Kori, for her first birthday. I immediately questioned my response and went into a panic. Me, photograph a child?! I hadn’t been photographing for very long in the first place, and my subjects had been mostly flowers.

Had I ever even pointed my camera at a person? What was I thinking?!! What was my niece thinking?!! How come everyone thinks that because your camera is more expensive than theirs, that you can take great pictures of absolutely anything?!! Never mind the fact that I had actually started referring to myself as a photographer. Wait a minute . . . I had to settle down. I told her I’d do it, so I’d better start figuring out how I was going to do it.

Year 1

My niece had often said how much she liked my flower pictures. She also didn’t want a standard studio type portrait of her daughter Kori. She wanted a more interesting setting. Ideally, she wanted the pictures taken in my garden. I began to wonder whether it would really be that much different than photographing flowers. There was, however, one little problem.

We were in Wisconsin, and it was December. I started thinking about where we could take the pictures and got a great idea. We could combine Kori with flowers! We made plans to meet at an indoor Christmas display where there would be lots of colorful decorations and plenty of flowers.

Time to pack my bag. In went my N90S, Nikkor 35-135 autofocus zoom lens, SB26 flash, flash cable, cable release, Bogen 3021 tripod with pistil grip head and extra batteries. I had been shooting Fujichrome Velvia in my garden and landscape photography and sending it to a Fuji lab. Since I knew my niece wanted prints, I decided to use negative film and chose Fuji Reala.

It was no minor consideration that I would have more exposure latitude with negative film. I also knew of a great local lab to process and print the film. Two brothers owned it and they did all the work themselves. They had a level of consistency in their output that would be hard to get anywhere else.

We met at the indoor display and the conditions were great. It was a bright overcast day and there was lots of natural light coming in through wide expanses of glass. We walked around to check out the area and let Kori get used to it a bit. The plan was to pick out several spots to photograph and to shoot lots of film. I had already decided to shoot with the lens wide open so as to emphasize Kori and blur the background a bit.

After choosing the first site, we ran into a problem. Kori would either cling to one of her parents or run away from them. I was not prepared to photograph a moving target! I was used to shooting flowers that stay put and had always used a tripod. My nephew-in-law chased and pleaded with his daughter to let Aunt Donna take her picture. I handed my niece the flash which was attached to my camera via a cable. Now, I could use both hands to adjust the camera’s position and try to grab a shot of Kori. My cable release did me no good and I found the pistil grip head that had served me so well for flower and landscape photography was falling down on this job. I really needed two hands on the camera but one had to stay on the pistil grip head.

Not to mention the fact that my hand was getting very tired of squeezing the pistil grip. This was definitely not working! Kori’s parents were getting tired of chasing and pleading with her and I kept wrestling with my gear. It was time for desperate measures. Since I was shooting wide open and the light was pretty good, it was time to try hand holding the camera. I removed the camera from the tripod, mounted the flash directly on the camera and attempted to follow Kori around to get a shot. I was very frustrated. Hand holding was extremely uncomfortable for me and every time Kori paused and gave me an opportunity to shoot, the background was awful. This was much more than I had bargained for. We took a break.

Kori finally started to slow down a bit so we decided to try posing her. I got my camera and tripod all set up and framed the shot. Her dad would then plop her down and I would grab what I could. But Kori was not a very happy camper and we got mostly pouts. Her dad kept talking to her, hoping to get a better expression. I had no idea whether I had captured anything worthwhile and we were all exhausted. At the end of the first roll of film, my niece called it quits. I agreed to get the film processed ASAP. If there was nothing there, we would simply try again.

I was pleasantly surprised when I reviewed the prints. They were not great, but not near as bad as I had expected. Reviewing them with my niece was a new and interesting experience. I presented all of the prints for my niece to choose from. She was slightly disappointed that there was no typical smiley faced shot, but wasn’t really expecting it and acknowledged that I had captured the true Kori.

The expressions were truly her as she was usually either goofy or pouty. She wanted to get enlargements to give as gifts and had a terrible time deciding . In the end, she picked totally different prints than I would have. She decided on the somewhat pouty shot with the less busy background. I went for the happy, laughing expression even though the bench she was sitting on demanded attention.

She decided on the somewhat pouty shot with the less busy background. I went for the happy, laughing expression even though the bench she was sitting on demanded attention.

So much for any editing I would have done! I filed that little tidbit away for future reference.. Family members loved their gifts, it was a wonderful feeling to have been the photographer, and I quickly forgot the ordeal. . . until next year.

Year 2

My niece laughingly asked me if I was willing to take Kori’s two-year portrait. I think she half expected me to decline. But, what the heck! I did not expect to pursue child portraiture professionally, but it was still good practice. Besides, it was always great to see them and this insured that we kept in touch. She asked me earlier in the year this time so we still had lots of outdoor options. A garden center in the area always sponsored a fall festival. There would be all kinds of fun and exciting things for Kori to explore.

My niece had been hopeful that Kori would be more cooperative this year. We tried posing her and got rueful expressions.

She was still a moving target and was even faster! She would occasionally stop, but not when we asked her to and she refused to look at me while I was holding the camera. I had not fully learned my lesson from the previous year and was still trying to use my tripod. I just wasn’t quick enough trying to shoot that way. Fortunately, it was bright enough to hand hold and I had been practicing so it didn’t feel quite so awkward. We tried to engage Kori in activities we thought she would enjoy. She showed no interest in the things we pointed out . . . until we gave up and started to walk away. So, I had to get sneaky. I would begin to walk away but was ready to grab a quick shot when she ran over to where I had wanted her in the first place.

Thank goodness for autofocus! The key was that I kept shooting. She didn’t seem to be paying as much attention to me and I stopped asking her to look at me. I followed her over to a slide. As she climbed up, she yelled for us to watch her. She looked straight at us and smiled as she came rushing down the slide.

By this time, however, my niece and I were pretty tired and decided to head back to my house for a snack.

After our snack we went for a walk in my garden. I grabbed my camera . . .just in case. Kori was a little more cooperative, maybe it was the more familiar surroundings, but she still would not look at me. I took some shots anyhow as she wandered among the flowers and picked some up that had fallen to the ground. I finished up the roll feeling that I had done a lot better than the previous year.

I shot slide film this time because I had been pursuing publication of my photographs. You never know when a particular shot in your files might come in handy! I had also had more experience with getting prints from slides and was confident that I could get good ones. I made my niece aware of my publication interests and had her sign a model release. She was thrilled with the idea that Kori’s picture might appear in a magazine.

I had shot much more film this year. And regardless of the difference in our choices last year, I decided to edit the results and share only the best images. My niece made her main choice within minutes of seeing the slides laid out on the light table. There was no doubt as to which slide she wanted printed as Kori’s two-year portrait. She loved it so much that she kept staring at it!

In addition, she couldn’t resist selecting a second image for herself and her mother. I asked her how she was able to make her decision so much quicker than last year. She said she really appreciated having fewer images to look at. The more images there were, the harder it was for her to decide because each one showed a different aspect of her daughter and she tended to love them all. Family members were awed and I felt great. When does Kori turn three?

Year 3

We made our appointment early for Kori’s three-year portrait. The garden was in pretty good shape and my niece had been telling me that Kori was looking forward to having her picture taken in the yard with our dogs, Ranger and Conan. But there was a big problem – the mosquitoes were horrific! I hadn’t even been working in my garden much because they were so bad. We decided to meet at a public indoor garden.

Right from the beginning, Kori was not happy with this arrangement. She moped and moaned and was extremely uncooperative. I tried taking pictures anyhow but gave up before long.

She kept whining about wanting to have her picture taken with the dogs. This really surprised me because she had always seemed afraid of our dogs. At 65 pounds a piece, they were a lot bigger and stronger than she. But, she was a year older, so we decided to pick up some lunch and try shooting in my studio with the dogs. As it turned out, she was pretty tired. She slept during the drive and didn’t seem terribly interested when we stopped to eat. We took our time at the restaurant and headed home to the studio when Kori was ready.

We have four White Lightning flash units on a remote control in my studio. We used a flat lighting setup with two shoot through umbrellas, a hair light and a background light. We started out with Kori sitting on a doggie pillow on the floor. We tried to get Conan and Ranger to snuggle up with her. Conan was willing but Ranger was slinking around as if we were scolding him.

What a challenge – two dogs and a three year old! I started shooting anyhow, knowing that I had to expose a lot of film to get the good stuff. We eventually let Ranger slink out of the room and concentrated on Kori and Conan. Kori seemed to be having a great time and even started taking some direction from me! I asked her to hug Conan. As she did, she actually looked up and smiled!

We gave her what she wanted and now she was giving back! After a while, Conan was getting antsy so we sent him outside. I had Kori climb up onto a stool and asked her to try some poses I showed her. She was responding to my every request! We got some pretty silly expressions but I knew that we had also gotten some great stuff. Her mom was thrilled as she watched Kori pose and smile for me. It had only taken us three years!

In editing the slides, I found the biggest problem to be insufficient depth of field to capture both the dogs and Kori. The next biggest problem was capturing the butt of an exiting dog or cutting off the nose of one that had swung their head to the side. Once those were edited out, we were left with some great shots! Since I scan all of my slides, I decided to email the selection of images for my niece to choose from.

Her choice was made relatively quickly and we were able to offer her a choice between traditional or digital prints. We could give her a quicker turnaround with digital prints that we produced ourselves and at a lesser cost. Additionally, if she decided she needed a few more prints, we could produce them quickly and easily. She chose digital. We have been seriously looking at digital cameras.

Kori taught me a lot of lessons about photographing children. The most important are the need to loosen up, have fun and shoot a lot of film. You never know when you are about to capture the next priceless expression.

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