6 Steps to Take ‘Guerilla’ Photos of your Children

Image by Andreas Stridsberg

This guerrilla approach to children’s photography isn't really candid (they’ll almost certainly know you’re taking pictures) and can be more challenging technically (indifferent light, more complicated backgrounds), but it’s also very rewarding. Here are some tips to get the most out your guerilla operations:

1. Prepare your gear
Keep your camera in an easy to reach spot in the living room (or other target-rich environment). Make sure the batteries are charged, there’s room on the memory card and that your settings are appropriate for shooting portraits indoors. That means increasing the ISO and using a wide aperture (f/3.2 or lower) so you can get a fast shutter speed (1/100s or more if you can manage it), and some nice background blur. Some cameras have a Portrait Mode that does much of the same thing. Prefer not to use a flash, preferring a natural approach.

Use prime lenses, so you’ll make sure your 50mm or 85mm lens is on the camera (shoot full-frame, if you’re using a cropped sensor DSLR then the equivalents would be something like 28mm and 50mm). A longer lens, if it’s fast enough, would give you more options to shoot from further away. One last small thing is to switch off the auto-focus beep: your kids will still know you’re there, but you won’t be so intrusive

2. Get down to their level
It’s tempting to shoot from your normal standing position, but most of the time, that just yields images that look like your normal view of the kids. Getting down to their level involves you in their world more immediately, making the viewer of the photograph seem more like they’re actually a part of what’s going on, rather than just an observer of it.

3. Light the eyes
Getting attractive catchlights – the reflections of light in the subject’s eyes that seems to make them sparkle – can be the difference between a good photograph and a great one. You can tweak things in Photoshop later, but you want to get it right in the camera, right?

The rule of thumb is to position yourself so that your subject is in shade, looking towards the light. You don’t have to be directly between the subject and the light source, so long as you can see the light reflected in their eyes. 

Windows are the most obvious light source, but TVs can also work if the room is dark enough (and kids are often held in rapt attention by the latest Dora or Elmo episode, so they won’t be bothered by you).

4. Watch your backgrounds
Trying to capture shots of often fast-moving kids indoors means you’ll have to be careful about what’s happening behind your subjects. Visual clutter in the background will detract from the picture.

Shooting wide open will blur as much of the background as possible (but watch for such a narrow depth of field that your child’s nose is in focus, but their eyes aren't). Looking for clean backgrounds – a solid block of a wall, or getting in tight so you only show the plain-colored couch, for example – will also help. Sometimes some creative cropping after the fact can make a big difference.

5. Shoot the scene, not just the face
Great kids’ portraits often feature only the face, but sometimes capturing a wider scene can be just as valuable – showing the toys they’re playing with, or the pet they’re snuggled up with.
Another option is to show just a small detail that illustrates something about the child’s activities – a paint-covered hand, or the soccer cleats abandoned by the door, for example.

6. Bring the camera along
As well as capturing images at home, grab the camera if you’re heading out somewhere, even if it’s nowhere special. Parks and playgrounds are always fun places to shoot in, and you never know what you might shots you might get on an after-dinner walk one night.

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