Contemporary Children’s Photography

What is Contemporary Photography?
You hear a lot of phrases used to describe the contemporary look in portraiture. These descriptions are often positioned in direct comparison to a general perception of traditional photography: less posed, less stiff, more natural, more expressive.

Contemporary photography is generally considered to be a fresh and unique approach to traditional portraiture; it is viewed as more groundbreaking in its approach to finding new and exciting ways to capture subjects. The use of more dramatic black & white tones, with an emphasis on platinum hues and warm chocolate tints instead of simple grayscale images, is a common feature of contemporary photography. Color images also tend to be represented more vibrantly; scenes are displayed in higher contrast, often with interesting textures. A liberal usage of special techniques, such as sunbursts, eye-catching compositions, and dramatic vignettes, is also common. 

Another trademark of contemporary photography is the utilization of strong, clean close-ups, and subjects are frequently shot with wide angles and an increasingly shallow depth of field. There is often a liberal use of refined but controlled Photoshop processing, as well. More importantly, contemporary photographers highlight the importance of storytelling and emotion, and there is a great importance placed on relationships. Also called lifestyle photography, this style is not only about how you capture, but also what you capture—“more moments in time” as opposed to “manufactured illusions.” A contemporary photographer is just as likely to photograph a child’s tantrum as their big, toothy smile. 

Contemporary portraits are meant not only to capture one’s likeness, but actually to reflect one’s personalities—tantrums, daydreams, goofiness, quirks, and all. Another hallmark of the accomplished contemporary children’s photographer is openness to venue. Contemporary photographers are able to shoot anywhere, and the best are skilled at working with natural light. As a result, they are constantly looking for creative ways to make the best of their locations. A common response to this type of photography is often the joy of recognition; you hear a mom say, “That’s so him!” or “Look at that! I love how we laugh together.” Instead of being told to sit still, children are told to play, to be free, and to interact with each other naturally. Contemporary photography is a blend of anticipating the moment, finding the backgrounds, and controlling the light to create strong, dynamic images.

What Contemporary Photography is Not
Contemporary photography should not be the equivalent of creating stock photography for a family. On stock photography shoots, you are mocking up emotions and responses, using phrases like “You are so happy to be together” and “You are laughing at what he is saying” in order to illicit the exact response you want to portray in the image. At the root of contemporary photography is capturing genuine emotion. Thus, part of your job as a photographer is to bring an intuitive spirit to the process so that you can learn, through dialogue and observation, what your subjects are all about, what they are to each other. Then, it’s your job to get them to trust you enough to capture them honestly.

There are times when you will find yourself on a shoot where Mom or Dad says something to their child that goes completely against the grain of what you are trying to accomplish, which is capturing a genuine response. You may hear shout outs of “Laugh with your brother!”, “Say cheese!”, or “Be happy or no ice cream!” When this happens, it is highly likely that the parents simply do not understand what it is you are going for during the session. 

Many individuals can look at photography, know they are drawn to a certain style or a particular photographer’s work, but in no way express why—much less how it might have been created. Therefore, it’s also your job to prepare your client ahead of time, explaining that your goal is to capture the actual experiences and emotions as they unfold or even as they are honestly coaxed from a subject. If they are with you on this, they are usually less apt to try to control the outcome and responses. If necessary, you can always respectfully remind them that they hired you because they were drawn to your work, and that work is a product of your methods. It’s no fun to have to ask parents to stop issuing their requests; with a little education on your methods, however, you can avoid many disruptions in the harmony of the shoot.

Why Traditional Portraiture Still Matters A Lot 
Knowing the rules of traditional portraiture, which is more controlled and usually less spontaneous than contemporary portraiture, will benefit you greatly when shooting lifestyle portraits. Because there is a lot of careful thought and planning put into designing each traditional picture, success requires a solid understanding of the rules of lighting, posing, and composition—the fundamental elements of the art. In
lifestyle photography, you will also want to strive for those same artistic goals, but instead of planning each of the elements, it becomes your responsibility to capture them instantly as a moment naturally unfolds before you.

In fact, because contemporary photography relies so heavily on active observation, it is possibly even more critical that you learn the techniques associated with traditional teachings. This is especially true when it comes to lighting. Great lighting is an incredibly important part of photography—the word literally means painting or drawing with light (from the Greek roots photos [light] and graphos [writing]). Learning how to harness and control light properly and confidently will help you with every facet of your artistic career.

Why does it matter to know what has come before?
Photography is art. It’s taken decades for it to be universally recognized as such, but photography is absolutely regarded as art today. So, to take an analogy from painting, no matter how wonderful your creative vision, you still need to know the basics of proportions to bring sketches to life. Once you have reached the point where the creation of art just flows, where you know the rules so well that you no longer have to think about them, this is when you can confidently practice your craft. With enough knowledge and practice, you will reach a point where it becomes effortless. You can photograph your subjects exactly how you want them to be captured, easily moving between lighting changes, swapping out lenses on the fly, and responding with ease to the scene as it unfolds before you.

When you reach that point, you can then become even more daring and inventive with your work. As the old phrase goes, “You need to know the rules before you break them.” It is arguable that in contemporary photography it is even more important to learn the rules of traditional portraiture, as there is less you can control when you are trying to capture the unknown in a new and fresh way. Photographing something differently just for the sake of being different doesn’t always mean it will be compelling or interesting. When you photograph something in a way that draws the viewer in, in a way that is innovative and  memorable and truly original, you are also likely to find that you have also managed to harness many of those traditional philosophies—but with your own personal view and your own modern twist. Yes, you can absolutely go out and shoot and then work to “fix it” in Photoshop; many photographers do. However, the image is always cleaner when you shoot for proper exposure in-camera. Additionally, when you pair the fix-it-in-Photoshop approach with a full workload (ten portrait sessions to deliver in the next two days!), it will not be long before you will be far too overwhelmed to keep fixing images after the fact—if you are not already feeling that way.

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