Shooting Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Portrait Photography

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Photo by: Randy Slavey

In a dusty cardboard box, where, if the universe is just, it will remain until the end of time, there’s a photo of a small boy with nearly white blond hair, sitting in a wicker chair, or perhaps cross-legged on scratchy fake grass, clutching a stuffed elephant or a football, maybe a favorite Hot Wheels car. The photo is tinged brown, not with age, but intentionally, as was the style of the time, and in the corner is a name that for decades was synonymous with family portraits: Olan Mills.

Before it became a running joke, Olan Mills was the place to go for affordable children’s portraits. In a time before there were as many photographers in a town as stop signs, and the 12MP smart phone was the stuff of science fiction, if you wanted professional quality portraits, you went to the department store studio. In my town, that meant the Olan Mills or, if you were the kid who wore Levi’s and Nike, and not Toughskins and Traxxx, the Sears Portrait Studio.

Photo by: Randy Slavey
Yes, kids, this used to be cool.

And for the next 30 years, nothing changed. Families, including my own, took their children to Sears, or Target, or J.C. Penney every year, free 8×10 coupon in hand. Oh, the technology improved. Studios went digital, you could see more than a five second preview before it disappeared into the ether forever, and they started offering “enhancements”, also known as a built-in filter that took two seconds to apply, but somehow justified an additional $12 to the final price. But fundamentally, it was the same experience my parents had in 1978. Part-time workers with one day of training on how to make sure the subject was on the red dot made sure we had some semblance of a smile before pushing a button. And the thing is, we were glad to have it. When our other option was going to that swanky studio down in the arts district and shelling out $500, we were grateful for our $20 generic portraits.

With the advent of Photoshop and affordable DSLR cameras, that all changed. It was no longer some kind of voodoo magic that created those fancy sepia toned photos or added that colorful balloon border. We were all doing the same thing on our home PCs. Why was I shelling out over $100 every six months for the same brown muslin backdrop and dirty old props as last year? Why did I have to pay an extra $12 to have my photo in black and white? Being fairly proficient with Photoshop, I knew there was so much more that could easily be done to enhance the photos, but the studio would only release the digital copies and copyright to us if we payed an exorbitant fee. To my mind, the only thing separating me and the inexperienced teenager pushing a button was the quality of the camera, so why not buy my own? It would pay for itself in no time and, who knows, maybe I could even make money taking portraits for other people. We have not been back to a studio in three years, and, while I quickly realized my own naiveté at the perceived ease of creating quality portraits, I have not once regretted my decision.

My experience is not unique. With the price of a decent camera kit in the $500 range, as well as the impressive quality of smartphone cameras, many parents have chosen to skip the studio and take their own children’s portraits, effectively dealing a death blow to the department store portrait studio. In 2013, both Sears and Walmart closed all of their studios, and with news reports of individual Target and J.C. Penney stores doing the same, parents in some areas are left with the options of either joining the growing ranks of amateur photographers or going to a professional studio where starting prices can range from $50 for photographers whose profit primarily comes from print sales, to over $1,000 for those who charge for their time but give customers full rights to their photos.

To be clear, I’m not one of those amateurs who thinks professional photographers are overpriced. A good photographer brings years of experience, an artistic eye, and quality gear that the average amateur can’t begin to match. I would never consider anything but a seasoned photographer for important items such as wedding portraits or model head shots. Nevertheless, there are times when going out on your own makes sense, both financially as well as artistically.

There are four key values a professional photographer brings to the table.

Gear

After years in the business, a professional photographer has likely amassed the kind of gear that we amateurs can only gaze at longingly (If the total of your Amazon wish list exceeds $20,000, you might be a photography geek). Good studio lighting and interesting backdrops are not only expensive, but require more square footage than most of us can sacrifice in our homes. The good news for us is that purchasing is not the only option. Places like lensrentals.com, as well as many local camera shops, will rent lights, backdrops, and tripods for a day or a week at a time. For as little as $45 for the day, I can drive 10 minutes and get a set of strobes, soft boxes, and a quality muslin backdrop. If you’re keen on reproducing that studio look, this is an affordable option.

Even better, if you are willing to get out of the house, your hometown is probably full of amazing backdrops, and the light is free. Brick walls, open space trails, baseball fences, and graffiti all make great backdrops, but don’t be afraid to try more unconventional shots. Junkyards and dilapidated factories are gold mines for those rougher shots popular with teenagers, and toddlers on playground equipment are always adorable. If you find yourself in a location where your subject’s face is not well lit, these reflectors are an affordable alternative to hauling around a bunch of lights and batteries.

Author’s Note: trespassing is bad. Get permission before shooting on private property and do not ignore “No Trespassing” signs. That said, many private property locations can be shot as backdrops from public property such as sidewalks and alleys. Always consider safety of yourself and your subject first. This is particularly true for railroad tracks. It is trespassing, and people die every year trying to shoot portraits on train tracks. Don’t be one of them.

Now that you have a place to shoot, you’re going to need something to shoot with. If you don’t already own a quality camera, prepare yourself for at least a week of reading reviews, and then another six months of second guessing yourself after your purchase. There are literally hundreds of articles about what camera to buy based on your needs and price range. Here are a few things to keep in mind, though, if the primary use of your camera is going to be shooting people. Obviously, if money is not an object, these don’t apply, you can buy the highest quality camera and lenses, and I hate you just a little.

1. Save money on the body and spend it on the glass.

High end cameras have lots of features, such as weather sealing and extremely high usable ISO, that you’re never going to use shooting your kids at the park. Save the money you were going to spend on that d750 and instead get a d7100 and a couple of quality lenses and filters. I’ve found that my 70mm f/1.8 and my 18-200mm f3.5/5.6 cover nearly every condition.

2. Buy at least one off-camera flash.

You don’t have to have one when starting out, but eventually, you’re going to figure out that the lousy quality of indoor shots you’ve been getting are due to the on-camera flash. You need the ability to bounce your light off the ceiling or cover it with a diffuser.

3. Nikon vs. Canon, FX vs. DX

Like Mac vs. PC or iOS vs. Android, Nikon vs. Canon is the stuff of holy wars. I will say that, in general, if you have a friend or family member that already owns a DSLR, it’s worth considering buying the same brand. They can help you when you have questions and perhaps even loan you lenses. Otherwise, just do your research and find the best solution for you. Here’s a good place to start, and Snapsort.com is fantastic for comparisons.

Then, once you’ve done all of your research, buy a Nikon*.

* The views expressed are solely those of the author. Any Canon users who disagree, feel free to send angry photos of yourself with overblown reds and “creamy” bokeh directly to the author.

Finally, you’re going to want to print your beautiful photos. In the time of film, a professional photographer had to have access to a dark room, chemicals, and lots of time in order to produce a quality print. Even after the advent of digital, many professional printing services were closed off from the average person. Today, however, anyone can have high quality prints on a variety of different papers and other materials. Do your homework, though. Not all print services are created equal. I personally have all my prints created at mpix.com. Their focus on quality, competitive pricing, and plenty of media options make them one of the best I’ve found.

Personality

If you’ve ever taken your child to a portrait studio, you know the value of a photographer with a good personality. For small children or groups, how a person manages the subject is by far the most important factor in getting a quality portrait. You can fix most technical issues in post, but there is no “crying baby” or “grandpa looking off into the distance” Photoshop filter. A good photographer can keep everyone focused and elicit natural reactions that make for great portraits.

If you want to tackle portrait photography, you need to honestly assess whether your personality is one that is conducive to it, or if you can at least fake it fairly well. Taking pictures of your own kids, you might think this is not as relevant, but not every parent/child relationship is the same. My oldest son and I have a very laconic, laid-back relationship that works well for model-style photos, but not so much when mom wants some with him smiling. Conversely, my youngest son is much more energetic and “smiley”.

No matter how great your personality, there will be times when you just can’t get that pose or expression you want. If that happens, here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t ask your subject to smile. Unless they are a trained model or actor who has spent hours in front of a mirror, this will always look fake. Instead, start shooting and talking to them at the same time. Ask about their day, their hobbies, their love life. Anything that will cause an honest emotional reaction. If you want an honest smile, look for an opportunity to surprise them with humor.
  2. Take a break. Stop shooting for a while. Sit on a bench, watch the ducks, chat about nothing.
  3. Just let the little ones play. For babies, bring along their favorite game or toy, sit them in the grass, and just leave them alone. When they glance up at you, smile at them. Their return smile will be absolutely genuine. For toddlers, if they’re getting restless, let them explore. Don’t obsess about them messing up their clothes or hair, or if they are even looking at you. Some of the best toddler photos are ones where the kid is seemingly oblivious to the camera.
A fake smile and a real smile.
A fake smile and a real smile.

Experience

The weekend before I went out with my son to shoot his birthday photos, I was doing some astrophotography up in the mountains. After spending the better part of the afternoon taking pictures of him at two different locations, I happened to glance at the ISO and notice it was still set at 1600. Hours worth of photos with the noise of a gas station security camera.

Oops.

Nobody is perfect; we all screw up. Even professionals will accidentally cut off someone’s hand or forget to charge their flash batteries. The benefit of experience is that you make fewer mistakes. If you’re going to shoot your kids’ photos yourself, be prepared to make tons of errors at first. You may even have to scrap an entire shoot because you forgot the right lens or didn’t pay attention to the Ultimate Frisbee players in the background. While this would be disastrous for a professional, as a parent, don’t worry so much about it. Unless you were trying to capture a time specific background, such as the leaves falling in autumn, just come back and try again later.

Style

Most people can look at a photo and say whether it’s “good” or “bad”, but ask them why, and they’ll probably be hard pressed to answer. There are specific style rules and guidelines that the professionals have learned to follow without even thinking about them. Also, most have tweaked their post production workflow to the point that with a few clicks, they can create stunning portraits in their own specific style.

As a beginner, this is probably where you will struggle the most. Cropping, composing, lighting, backgrounds. These are all areas where the smallest mistake can ruin an otherwise good photo. I’ve had to toss so many potentially great shots because I didn’t notice the tree branches that appeared to sprout out of my subject’s head, or the dog running through in the background, or because I shot too close and had no way to make a decent 8×10 out of it. Here are some simple rules to start out with:

  1. Shoot RAW. You do not want your camera making important decisions for you that you can’t fix later.
  2. Crop carefully. Where you cut off a person can completely change the quality of a portrait. Avoid wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, and fingers. In general, try to crop at non-jointed body parts such as biceps, shins, and thighs. If possible, do your tight cropping in post. What prints you decide to order can greatly affect your image. Decide what type of shot you want (full body, hair to chest, 3/4) and widen out just a little from there.
  3. Follow the Rule of Thirds. Except for specific situations, offsetting your subject nearly always results in a more pleasing photograph.
  4. Double check your subject and background. After you have your composition, and you’re ready to start shooting, you need to make sure everything in the frame is ready. Are there items in the background interfering with your shot? Is your kid’s pant leg caught on his sock? Tiny fixes now will save you hours later in post.
A good crop vs. a bad crop.
A good crop vs. a bad crop.

So, you’ve imported your photos into Lightroom or Photoshop, and the only thing you can think as you look at them is:

“Wow, these suck.”

Relax. Remember step #1 above? This is why it’s listed first. You will rarely, if ever, get a perfect shot straight out of the camera. Fixing white balance, correcting for lens aberration, and a host of other things need to be done to get your portraits ready for printing. As you gain experience, this will come easier and you will learn to automate some things, but don’t be surprised if at first you find yourself spending way longer editing than you did shooting.

The RAW file (left), and after white balance, cropping for 8x10, spot healing, and various color corrections.
The RAW file (left), and after white balance, cropping for 8×10, spot healing, and various color corrections.

With time, you’ll develop your own style of both shooting and processing. Until then, visit sites like 500px and Flickr to get some ideas about what you like and what you don’t.

Remember, the one thing you have going for you that the pros do not is time. You’ll be hard pressed to find a photographer who will meet you at the park and just stand around while your child plays or who will go on a hike with you to your favorite picturesque location. Take an entire day and turn it into a family outing. For me, I love doing the shooting but am terrible at double-checking the hair and clothing. It’s nice to have mom there to make sure everything looks good. Also, trying to set up a reflector to stand by itself is nearly impossible, especially on a windy day. Having another kid there to hold it, as well as any other additional gear or clothing changes, is a lifesaver. If your little assistant gets too bored, send them off to scout out other potential locations in the area. It keeps them involved and can spark their own interest in photography. Finally, there’s no reason everything has to be done in a single visit. Take some shots, and if you get home and don’t like them or want some more, set up a time to go out again, maybe to a different location.

Have questions about photography, or just want to talk gear or style? Leave a comment below.

All photos by Randy Slavey

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