The Parent Photographer: Spidey or Sparky?

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Falling Leaves
Image by: Randy Slavey

Hi, my name is Randy, and I’m a photoholic. It started innocent enough. A few snapshots at the park, the kids learning to ride their bikes. Before long I was shooting anything my lens could reach. Birds, flowers, trees, strangers, 218 identical shots of a child, maybe mine, maybe not, kicking a soccer ball. It had become an addiction. As my skills grew, so did my obsession. Gone were the days when I was satisfied with a quick photo of the kids on the first day of school. “Stand there; no, closer. I wonder if the light is better on the other side of the garage. Let me grab my flash. Chin up, forehead out. No, not like that. Was that the bus?”

I had become a monster.

Sound familiar? I love photography, but it is easy to get caught up in capturing a moment and forget to actually experience that moment. Like Sean Penn’s character in the film adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, sometimes it is necessary to simply put the camera down and say, “No, this moment is mine.” Unfortunately for me, this often requires more willpower than I can muster, especially when I have the camera hanging right there around my neck. However, with a little planning, a balance can be reached.

Step One: Choose Your Character

Before you leave the house, it is important that you can answer this simple question: Who do I want to be today? You can be Mom or Dad, or you can be David Attenborough, but rarely can you successfully be both. If you’re always standing ten feet away, your face hidden behind a lens, your children will not see you as someone they can engage with. Similarly, if you really want to catch that shot of the Deadpool cosplayer antagonizing Spider-Man, your kids aren’t going to want to wait around 15 minutes waiting for him to spring into action.

So, who are you going to be today?

  • Clark Griswold: The family man. Everything is about the journey, and experiencing it together. You’re here to create memories, not scrapbooks.
  • Bilbo Baggins: The adventurer-documentarian. You’re ready to embark on an epic journey together, but you recognize the value of recording it for posterity. You have your own Red Book, and enjoy browsing it alone as well as sharing it with your fellowship.
  • Peter Parker: The photographer. Capture the best images possible for that cigar-chomping tightwad of a boss so you can put food on the table this week.

Choose your character as a family. It is important that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations. In some cases, it makes sense to experience an event more than once, as a different character each time. Going to the Comic Con? Buy a weekend pass, be Bilbo with the family on Saturday, and return Sunday as Peter.

Step Two: Choose Your Weapon

Not every tool is appropriate for every adventure. Wielding a giant hammer and riding a pig into battle, while effective against the goblin horde, as well as just generally awesome, would be somewhat less useful on a search for Horcruxes. Similarly, hauling around a DSLR with a 70-300mm lens and a backpack of extra lenses and spare batteries is great for CES, but will probably draw a few stares at the mini-golf course.

While not all-encompassing, here are a few adventures you might find yourself on, and the weapons you should take with you, depending on your character.

Conventions (Comic Con, Gen Con)

This is one of the few occasions where both Clark and Bilbo should bring a decent camera because, while we may relish the thought of 30 minutes of George Takei regaling us with inside stories about Tribbles, for kids it’s all about two things: cosplay and merchandise. Years later, we still look back through the Comic Con photos and enjoy all the shots of our kids with the players. How many other family outings can you say this about? (“Here is little Timmy in front of the rhino exhibit, here is little Timmy in front of the monkey cage, here is little Timmy… zzzzz”). I recommend something like an 18-55mm, or even a fixed 35mm. You’re going to want a lens wide enough to capture full body shots, and some characters such as Jack Skellington or Iron Man can be extremely tall. Additionally, you can probably get by without a flash or with just the on-camera flash, particularly if you have a fairly fast lens, as most shots are going to be still poses.

For you Peter Parkers out there, the same gear would apply, but you might want to include a flash. However, be aware that most conventions are in large halls, so bouncing off the ceiling is out. You will need either a diffuser or, even better, a remote-triggered flash mounted to a monopod you can easily maneuver.

Whether you’re Peter or Clark, keep in mind that these are real people you are shooting, not inanimate objects. Always be polite, ask permission, and be respectful of their time. In general, if you can’t set up a shot in 5-10 seconds, use your camera’s auto settings.

Interactive Activities (museums, zoos, maker faire)

Clark, this is your time to shine. Leave the cameras at home. Yes, all of them. I know it’s tempting to strap that little point and shoot around your wrist, but resist. Engage with your children, explore, share, and be in the moment. If your child is involved in a solo activity, or with another parent, go ahead and sneak out the smart phone for a quick snapshot, but take this time to just enjoy watching them be children.

For you Bilbos, you’ll need to strike a balance. Being involved is the first priority, but feel free to quickly stop your kids at the entrance to an exhibit for a quick shot with a smart phone or point and shoot. However, in the future, you’ll probably find yourself looking back through these type of shots without much enthusiasm. Better to be a Clark and create bonds.

Peter Parker: Don’t even bother. The lighting is almost universally terrible indoors, and if you’re constantly using flash, you’re going to be an annoyance to others. Outdoors, in places like the zoo, you’ll frequently be shooting through dirty glass, and you’re rarely going to be able to get a shot of both your child and the attraction together. The one exception I’d make is if you are specifically doing a “photography outing.” In general, if your child does not have the attention span to wait ten minutes for a polar bear to come out of the water, or an hour for the sunset to hit the flowers at the botanical garden just right, you’re better off coming back alone.

Non-interactive Activities (musical, concert, theater, comedy club)

Clark and Bilbo: No, just no. Take a selfie of the family outside the event in front of the marquee with your smart phone, then put it away. Actually, unless you’re being paid by the entertainer or the venue, or you are a sociopath, this applies to you Parkers as well. You are not the attraction, you are the audience.

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