Story and photos by Doug Diekema
Whether you’re photographing wilderness landscapes or the park next door, people can make those images more compelling. They provide scale and enhance the story you hope to tell. Children, in particular, elicit an emotional response that engages the viewer’s attention. Capturing good photos of children can be a challenge, however, presenting many of the same challenges posed by wildlife photography. Children, like wild critters, are spontaneous, unpredictable and fast-moving. These general rules should improve your ability to photograph children as they enjoy nature.
Children move quickly, and that “amazing shot” may not last long, so you have to be ready. When hiking or stopped for a break, pay attention to your surroundings, and anticipate what combination of compositional elements might make a great photo. Turn on the camera and dial in the most appropriate settings ahead of time. Place yourself and the camera in the optimal position given light direction and foreground and background elements. Having the camera in your hand and ready to go is essential. I’ve missed many wonderful photos of my kids in the time it took me to grab the camera from my bag.
Focus is crucial
Pictures of people will rarely work unless their eyes are in sharp focus. Pay careful attention to the depth of field (which is determined by your aperture setting and the focal length of your lens). The camera should be focused on the main subject and, if the main subject is a person, on their eyes. That may lead to a blurry background, but the final result will be better than if the child’s eyes are fuzzy and the background is sharp. In fact, sometimes letting the background blur creates a superior photo than when everything is in focus, particularly if the primary subject is your children.
Give the kids some space
My favorite photos of children in natural settings are candid, capturing a child’s joy as they explore the landscape. This is best achieved by using a telephoto lens to give the kids some space. Most of my favorite photos of my own children were taken with a 200mm lens from 10-20 feet away. Not only are the kids less selfconscious, but the telephoto lens has a way of compressing distance, making the background look even more impressive. A tripod is unlikely to work when shooting unposed photos of moving children, so be sure your shutter speed is fast enough to prevent blur from hand-holding the camera and the movement of the kids.
Take lots of shots
Kids move fast. They change position. They blink. It’s unlikely you will get a perfect, sharp photo with a single shot. When you’ve got the image you want, shoot as many frames as you can. When you review them later, you’ll find that most of the images didn’t quite make the cut, but hopefully at least one is a keeper.
Get down at their level
The feeling and mood of a photograph will change depending on the camera’s perspective. Many people try to get their child to move into the perfect position, but it often works better to move yourself and the camera, You can capture some really fun photos by getting low, shooting at the same level as your child or even from below.
As much as I enjoy looking through old landscape photos, the photos I love the most are the images of my children enjoying time outside. Capturing memorable photos requires practice and experimentation, but the time you put in pays dividends in terms of memories. That being said, your children are priceless, so the most important rule is always the same: Keep your children and yourself safe. Putting children in a risky situation (posed at the edge of a cliff or dangerously close to a raging river) is not worth a great photo.