Today’s article is both somewhat off topic and an indication of how things have changed for me in the last seven months. It certainly isn’t something I’d have done or even considered previously, but when your shooting hours are severely curtailed by parental responsibility, a photographer has little choice. I’m sure we’ll be updating this post with a ‘photographing toddlers’ amendment in a year or two, but for now, I’d like to share some of the useful things I’ve learned – I’m sure there are probably a considerable number of people in the audience who might find them useful. Feel free to wait for the next article or dig in the archives for today’s entertainment if it isn’t applicable to you. And I do promise not to turn into one of those people who does nothing but post photographs of their kids…
Firstly, I have to take my hat off to those who do this on a regular basis professionally: it’s not as easy as it looks. Babies move around more than you’d expect, erratically enough that AF tracking is pretty much stymied on just about every camera I’ve tried. On top of that, babies’ skin may be wonderfully smooth, but it’s also extremely low contrast and does not make a good AF target. They’re also more challenging subjects than wildlife or normal people: for the former, you can be stealthy, remain unobserved and get your shot.
With adults, you can engage them directly and break that fourth wall, or again make yourself stealthy and invisible. With babies…you can do neither. You cannot be so far away as to be invisible, because the perspective just looks wrong, you cannot engage them because half the time they are not paying any attention to you, but then you cannot not engage them either, because that’s precisely when they’ll choose to be distracted by whatever it is you’re doing and make a grab for your nice clean front element with with a dirty hand…
First observation: distract the subject
Though it appears the little one may not be consciously paying attention to you, at least part of them is. And by the time you get ready for the shot, they’ll change what they’re doing. On the other hand, if they’re already distracted and you sneak in from the side or over a shoulder, then your hit rate tends to be a bit higher. That’s what the mother (or grandparents, or favourite toy) is for. Unfortunately Sophie likes to make a grab for whatever is on my wrist, so I have to take it off before attempting to photograph her.
Second observation: don’t use a flash
Infant eyes are sensitive, and there have been cases noted in the past of vision damage from flashes. If you must, make sure it’s diffuse and not directly aimed at their faces. I prefer to work with natural light anyway; I’d prefer not to stun my kid with the brightness or damage her eyesight. Babies seem to look best – let’s say most realistic – in natural light, anyway. The studio flash look is just a bit too ‘polished’ and unnatural.
Third observation: manual focus actually yields a higher hit rate
My daughter, at least, moves around enough that at the distances we’re typically talking about – 1m and less – even at f4, f5.6, you’ll find the focal plane to be in the wrong place more often than not. AF will often refuse to lock at critical moments and leave you in frustration missing the moment, or with a blurry image – or no image at all because the camera is in focus priority. 3D tracking will pick up the wrong thing and you’ll get a perfectly sharp image of one ear hole, but the eye you picked will be completely out of focus. I’ve not used a camera that can adequately track yet; I’ve used some that work fine in single AF and at small enough apertures (or smaller sensors) that DOF covers any movement out of the focal plane, but that’s about it. I find I have the highest hit rate in manual focus with an EVF so I can accurately determine exactly what is in focus.
Fourth observation: waist level finders or tilting LCDs are your friend
There are two reasons for this: firstly, you might have to be the distraction if your spouse is not handy; secondly, it’s too easy to forget that child-perspective/height is a lot lower than what we’re used to. To avoid images that look as though they’ve always been shot from on top and looking down (and the attendant proportion problems brought on by that perspective), it’s necessary to get down low. Very low. And with a crawling kid, there’s no way you can get low enough even if you’re flat on your stomach. The camera has to be pretty much on the floor.
Fifth observation: only a small range of focal lengths works well
Outside that, proportions are challenged. It isn’t the same range that flatters adults, because the proportions of a baby’s features is very different; they’re more head than torso, and more torso than limbs. Portraying them in any other way results in something just ‘not looking right’ as we have deeply ingrained expectations of how babies should look. In real terms, this means I find the most flattering focal lengths to be somewhere between 28 and 60mm or so on full frame; 85 is a bit of a stretch because the compression is somewhat excessive.
Sixth observation: frame loose
Regular readers will know I am not an advocate of cropping for many reasons, mostly around revisualisation and wasted potential. However…in this case, you may have no choice. It is nearly impossible to frame tight around a rapidly moving infant because arms and legs flail everywhere, and may land up getting cut off. Better to have a bit to trim off one side than be frustrated at being too close later on.
Seventh observation: more DOF is not a bad thing
You want the kid’s skin to look soft, but not too soft, otherwise there’s no definition. I find shallower DOF really doesn’t work that well simply because everything becomes an indistinct blur, especially at baby distances – even f5.6 or f8 is enough to give you decent separation, but at the same time some insurance against subject or photographer motion between focus acquisition and capture.
Eighth observation: keep your shutter speeds up
Babies move in a twitchy way. Forget 1/x, you need at least 1/90s most of the time. More if the breastfeeding mother had coffee that morning.
Ninth observation: the technical stuff doesn’t matter
At the end of the day, a photo of your kid – or somebody else’s kid as a client – is an emotional one, not a technical one. And whilst the Ultraprints I have of Sophie are very satisfying, they don’t benefit as much from the technique as the other subjects. (I find the same is true of portraits in general: additional resolution beyond a certain point is usually not beneficial.) It goes back to the reasons why we photograph: the image appeals to us solely for the emotional impact of the subject; the rest usually be damned. But of course the image is stronger if we can hit emotional/content, compositional and technical objectives.
All of this is only true so long as the camera doesn’t get in the way – you need something fast, good in low light, with reasonably deep DOF and decent skin tones; to be honest, high resolution FF does not fit the bill here because you will have DOF and motion problems. One of the 16MP cameras like the D4/D4s will be fast enough, and allow stopping down to a decent degree; however, by the time you increase ISO to compensate for the additional DOF, end image quality isn’t that much better than say M4/3. (I actually found the E-M5II to be a fairly good camera for this purpose). The GR was also handy because it’s always ready to go; less handy because it isn’t so stable shot with one hand and no finder. The best of the lot – so far – is the Leica Q; it’s fast, has a much larger shooting envelope than the GR, stabilization, and has the handy touch to focus and shoot feature. Unsurprisingly, photographing your own kid requires a similar approach and hardware to photojournalism. Who’d have thought?
Practically, I find that most of the interesting behaviour my kid does is spontaneous; without carrying a camera 24/7 even around the house, there’s no way I’m going to be able to capture even a third of what goes on. I do have a camera handy most of the time simply because I feel as though I might miss something if I don’t; and even in the last few months the changes have been so dramatic that you are made highly conscious that all of this stuff only happens once. Many of our favourite moments saved were iPhone grabs simply because that’s what was handy – running to the other room for a camera would have resulted in moment interrupted and passed. On the flipside, I’m also trying hard not to be too obsessed with capturing it; being part of what’s happening is of course completely different. It’s a tricky balance to strike. Now where’s my iPhone gone? MT
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