Children are impetuous– they move quickly and their moods change rapidly. Changes of mood may come from a change in activity, or from a sudden rush toward or away from some person or place. These changes often have great charm, because they reveal so much intense feeling. To capture this feeling in a photograph, you should know something about what motivates children and what their interests are. Without this awareness, your camera (no matter how sensitive) will not produce good pictures. But by gaining this knowledge, you can improve the quality of your photographs even before you pick up your camera. Only after you’ve studied the child and know what situations and feelings you want to get can you make your camera truly work for you. Don’t worry about stopping all the action and getting the subject razor sharp. Try using a slow shutter speed, so that part of the figure of the child will be in sharp focus, but running feet or moving hands will give a blurred image. This will add life and a sense of movement to your picture.
Practice shooting children as much as you can– to get a second-nature feel for your camera, as much as anything else. When photographing children, very often you’ll need to alter settings on your camera on the fly and with haste. An intimate familiarity with your camera and its controls will help immeasurably with this. At times, you may have to change your shutter speed quickly, perhaps without ever taking your eye off of your subject. When shooting at the slower speeds, learn to hold your breath while releasing the shutter, with the camera held tight against your face for extra steadiness. Practice looking at children through the viewfinder. How far away should you be to get just the right composition with the child sitting, standing, or playing? Practicing as much as you can — even without actually taking photos, but just looking through the viewfinder, framing your shots, and imagining that you’re snapping off the images as you go, helps to make the camera a part of you– an extension of your hand and also of your way of seeing. Then, when you actually are shooting, all of your concentration can be directed toward the photograph itself.
Kids soon dismiss the camera when they realize that you don’t plan to take their picture while they’re staring into the lens. Once they forget about you, you get the situations that make for spontaneous, well-composed pictures. As a rule, you don’t want the child to give you a personal response. In fact, what you’ll prefer is the child’s complete and utter absorption in some project at hand. Then, whether building with blocks, working with clay, sewing, weaving, or just reading, the child will reveal his or her personality in a candid way. Try to avoid using flash if you can, since the light from the flash may distract the subject and call attention to your shooting. When working indoors with only available light, you can usually get the picture with a higher ISO setting, and a reasonably fast lens set to a wide aperture.
Getting “all dressed up” makes most children ill at ease. If you’re going to photograph some youngsters, warn the parents against giving the child a haircut, or dressing him in his or her Sunday best. A collar, tie, and jacket can make any boy feel uncomfortable. No fancy clothes on a girl, either, if you want to get pictures of what she’s really like. Only a small baby can be dressed in new clothes and still be unaffected and charming. Blue jeans and a jersey on a boy or girl are the kind of clothes in which they are comfortable and relaxed. Scuffed shoes and tousled hair are infinitely more appealing than that shiny, fresh-from-the-barber look found in most commercial portraits.
Listen and use your ears when you’re taking pictures of children. As a photographer, you’ve learned to develop your eye. Now add a new dimension and use your ears more perceptibly. From the next room you may hear the baby gurgle or make some unusual sound. Something special may be happening. Although your baby can’t talk, he’s calling you. With your camera ready and your ears alert, you may get that rhapsodic look of delight that comes when your baby first learns to stand up. When your children are older, soft giggles from the backyard may tell you of something else that would make a good picture. Find out what’s happening. Or, do you hear your child whistling? Maybe there’s a good shot of your child engrossed in his or her chores?
Be active– keep out in front and ahead of your subjects! If you’re in front of a child, you’ll capture those marvelous expressions and actions that can only be seen in a head-on view. Get into the water yourself to capture a child’s stride into the surf. Does you child climb trees? Get up there first and be ready as he climbs. Your pictures will show the excitement of hands grasping branches, young arms taut with energy, and a shinning face framed by blowing leaves.
A child reacts to your intense interest in them, to your sincere attempt to discover the unique qualities he or she possesses. The child does this unconsciously: by a smile, an expressive head movement, a revealing body posture. Shoot fast to capture these fleeting expressions. Watch for them in the droop of eyelids, the hunch of a shoulder, the clench of a fist, or the challenge of a tossed head. For example, when you discover those special positions that seem to reveal a little girl’s personality, direct her accordingly. If she seems all tall and straight, choose a chair that exemplifies these characteristics. Then seat her on it, letting her legs hang down and her hands fall together. Your child will then be appropriately posed and your picture will almost have composed itself.
Simplify your picture taking. If you’re a novice at child photography, stick to only one camera and one lens, and become comfortable and proficient with that before you try experimenting with different set-ups. And always have your camera ready to take advantage of spontaneous situations.
Children are naturals; they ‘compose’ themselves without thinking. They may curl up into graceful or humorous positions, just for their own comfort or mood. Learn to see these things as they’re happening. If you and your camera are prepared, you can catch the look of wonder on a child’s face as he or she tastes something new or when they suddenly begin to decorate the kitchen table with the yolk of a freshly broken egg. Often it’s better to get an under, or overexposed picture, or one that isn’t perfectly framed, because you snapped it so quickly, than it is to not get any photo at all.