Treating kids photography like a wildlife session

I mean this in the nicest way possible, but whenever I am asked to photograph someone’s child who is under the age of about three, I treat the session in pretty much the same way I treat photographing wildlife, writes Andrew James. I try not to get too close, and I try to be as candid as I can! To be honest, general wildlife photography is probably a bit easier and more predictable than photographing a mini-human with a rapidly developing brain!

That said, there is one thing you can rely on when it comes to taking snaps of kids and that is they have absolutely no sense of being camera-shy once they’ve warmed up to you. Unlike the fully grown human, the mini-version is unfazed by the attentions of a well-meaning photographer, though that reluctance does start to kick in once they reach four or five years old, but at that age they are much more open to bribery.

So, to help any Mums, Dads, Grandmas, Grandpas, Uncles, etc out there get a few worthwhile shots of the mini-humans in their lives, here are 10 Foto-Buzz tips for treating your small subject just like a wild creature!

1 Keep sessions short
This is as much for you as it is for them! It’s an exhausting process following a toddler around with your camera, so make sure you shoot a lot of frames in a short space of time. Set the camera on continuous shooting – and seriously – DO NOT be afraid to get some of the shots wrong. If you wait for the perfect moment to fire the shutter, with kids you’ll be waiting a long time. I’ll take up to three times the shots I think will probably work, then do a drastic cull in Lightroom, taking out any where the focus is just off or the expression is wrong. I’d also suggest you keep some alcohol out of the reach of toddlers but ready for you once the shoot is over – you’re going to need a drink afterwards!

2 Use a focal length in the 70-200 range
This is my favourite range for portraits in general but with kids it gives you a chance just to stand back a bit, observe, and snap when the moment is right. All of the images illustrating this article were taken within this focal range. Often the reason for choosing this range is because it gives a more flattering perspective on the face but with kids it’s really about allowing that distance, so you let them get on with whatever they’re doing and pick off shots as and when you need to.

I attempted to persuade Jasper to put his tongue away but this only resulted in additional tongue poking!

3 Go shallow focus
I recently read an article somewhere online advocating the opposite of using a large f/number like f/8 for greater depth-of-field so that you had a little more leeway with focus. That’s all well and good if you are photographing the toddler against a clean wall or a studio backdrop, but for most of the time they’ll probably just be playing around with all the paraphernalia of a house or garden behind them. The greater depth-of-field you have then, the sharper the background will be, and that can be distracting. Shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 will soften background clutter, as well as make a much more pleasing and ‘photographic’ look to your portraits. It may well mean that you’re going to end up with a few that don’t pass the ‘is it in focus?’ test, but if you have your focusing technique right, there will be enough. Remember, you want to get a single AF point on the closest eye, if the toddler is in any way angled.

4 Select a fast shutter speed
The beauty of using that shallow-focus aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 is that it will help you achieve a faster shutter speed. Throw in a higher ISO – 400, 800, or even 1600 indoors ­– and you will be able to keep shutter speeds up in the 1/500sec range which is what I recommend, as kids are always on the move and won’t take direction. I’m not bothered about ‘noise’ – it’s generally never as bad as you think it’ll be, and if you don’t consistently underexpose (forcing you to brighten the image in post-processing) then you won’t make it worse. If you do feel you need to control it, get Topaz De-Noise – it’s ace! My advice is to shoot in Aperture-priority, select the aperture, and let the camera take care of the shutter speed. You just need to check it’s fast enough! You may also need a bit of exposure compensation for some situations, such as when the toddler is backlit against a window.

5 Shoot in Continuous AF mode
Again, this is just like you would when shooting wildlife. In Continuous AF/AI Servo you have a much greater chance of getting the right point (the eye or eyes) in focus with a constantly moving subject. I only ever have one active AF point when doing this kind of photography, so that my focusing is as accurate as it can be. Oh, and move the focus points around too, depending where the subject is in the frame.

6 Be reactive
Unless you’re really brave (or stupid!), don’t try to set up a shot with a toddler. Just let them do their thing, sit back with your medium telephoto, and pick off your shots. I never ask them to do stuff like smile or say ‘cheese’ either, because if you do, you’ll get cheesy shots! I mean, I don’t mind them smiling but I want it to look natural. It’s important that you move a lot around them. Observe what the light is doing at different angles, and how that affects the composition and your exposure. Incidentally, I’ll be using spot metering so I am taking a reading from the face which is the most important area to expose correctly for.

7  Get down to their level
Toddlers are generally short! In fact, I’ve never met a tall one, and that means you need to be down at their level (again like a wildlife photographer). Yes, it’s often uncomfortable and hard work, but it’s the only way to make direct contact and it will mean your shots are better. If you shoot standing up with a toddler who is a fair few feet below you, then the background is going to be the floor and that’s rarely a good thing.

8 Focus on the eyes
I know I’ve already touched on it but it’s so important it needs repeating. It’s all about the eyes. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a portrait I’ve liked where the eyes aren’t sharp (or or at least one of them, if you’re on a three-quarter angle). Maybe you can do some fun things with in-focus feet or hands and everything else blurred out, but otherwise – get that focus point on the eyes. Have I made that clear enough?

9 Keep additional lighting simple
I don’t like using additional lighting for fast-paced, documentary-style toddler photography – I just make use of whatever ambient light there is, whether it’s from a window, or from indoor lighting. Maybe that’s why I like turning my shots to Black & White, so I eradicate any colour cast issues from mixed lighting – though just putting your White Balance on Auto does this pretty well if you want to keep the colour. But, if you do want to add some extra light, I’d just use a bit of flash as a fill-in if it’s directly on the camera or, if you want to create some directional modelling, then get it off-camera using a trigger and receiver.

10 Don’t over-process your shots afterwards
By this I mean don’t start trying to soften skin tones too much as it can look weird. All I do is a basic clean-up! If there’s a bit of a snotty nose or some remnants of breakfast stuck to a chin, I touch it out using the Clone Tool or Spot Healing Brush in Photoshop, though of course you can do that in Lightroom too. If you stick with colour, kids can often look a bit red if they’ve been hurtling around, so you might want to slightly reduce red saturation to compensate. Other than that, keep it natural. Black & White always looks great in my opinion.

If you are wondering what's happening in this shot, the photographer is being attacked by a dinosaur head on a stick. This is why you need alcohol afterwards!

Finally, thanks to Great Uncle A’s two ‘Great’ nephews, Jasper and James, for their (ahem) ‘co-operation’ in the making of this article!

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Gorgeous kids! I like the idea of a long lens, now to find some victims…..I mean willing subjects 😉

  2. Sounds like great fun, as well as hard work…but doubtless well worth it! Very grateful for the advice.

  3. Lovely article AJ. How were your knees afterwards?😂

    • I have hard court tennis players knees these days. I’m alright when I warm up but afterwards they seize up and I walk around like I am 110!

  4. Only just read this useful article (sorry!). Must have a go, although our grandkids are not even toddlers yet

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