Child Portraiture #3: Get down on the knees

If you’re having any knee problems, now would be a great time to visit the nearest IKEA and buy a stool or a low chair. Because you are going to spend quite some time with your camera from a height of approximately 1 meter.

In most cases you want the camera to be at the same level as, or just a little above, the eyes of the child – and any other subject with eyes for that matter. In addition to making the expression more natural, it’s also more relaxing for the smaller child, if that stranger of a photographer is not staring down from high above through a huge lens. Get down on your knees or a stool to fit the level of the child. But don’t go down too much. If you make a person look down, the face is “squeezed” together creating double chins and smaller eyes. You really don’t want that – because your clients don’t want that.

It could be tempting just to place the child on a chair high enough to fit YOUR eye level. It would not just be making smaller children uncomfortable and less focused, but you would also miss out on every opportunity to catch that natural candid moment when a child moves around on the floor.

Some people tend to close their eyes a little when smiling. When this is the case, you should make them look up a little. Go higher, but not so much that it’s obvious that the photo is taken from above. When people look up the visible part of their eyes gets bigger, even when they are smiling. And as mentioned earlier, the eyes are of great importance to the portrait, so you want as much of the eyes as you can get.

Child Portraiture #2: Focus on the eyes

This advice ought to be basic knowledge for the professional, but every day I notice portraits – professional portraits – that are out of focus. When you look at a portrait, the first thing you notice is the eyes. If the eyes are out of focus, the entire photo looks out of focus. And it’s really not that difficult to do right.

First of all you need to use spot focusing in your camera, so you have complete control of the focus. With focus on the eye I don’t mean something close to the eye. It’s not the eyelashes, not the nose nor the cheeks that should be in focus. You need to focus spot on in the center of the eye. You also have to be sure that you have enough light for the focus system to work correctly. If the child doesn’t look straight at you with both eyes in the same distance from the camera, you generally need to focus on the closest eye. Exceptions are for instance when the closest eye is not the most lit one.

I have to admit – even being a stubborn old man – that modern mirrorless cameras with face detection does a pretty decent job at eye focusing. But mirrorless cameras are rarely used for professional portrait photography. That spot is still taken by the classic DSLR.

When making portraits you often use a very narrow depth of field and long focal lengths. Personally I often use 200mm at f/2.8 which only gives me a couple of millimeters of focus margin. Thus you require to be very precise in your focusing. Especially if you move your camera to change the composition after your focusing. Check the results on the camera to make sure that your focus is right. You can’t fix an out of focus eye in your postprocessing and it will ruin the photo completely.

Long focal lengths, narrow depth of field and the need for accurate eye focus don’t play well with children that can’t sit still. You have two options:

  1. Simply don’t. Move closer at a smaller focal length and use a narrower aperture like f/8.0. This will give you a lot more focus margin but requires more distance to the background.
  2. Keep the trigger down. Hope for the best.

Crisp and clear eyes are my primary concern when I make portraits. If the details in the eyes don’t make me loose my breath I will usually discard the photo. Of course – there are always exceptions, and you can of course use out of focus portraits for creating certain kinds of moods and expressions. And it can certainly sometimes be more important to catch the right moment than just the right focus. But as a rule of thumb this is the most important part of the portrait.

Practice, practice, practice 🙂

Child Portraiture #1: Time & Patience

Your most important tool when making portraits of children, and probably anyone else, is also one of the tools not available in stores. Fortunately it’s free, but not necessarily easy to aquire. It’s “patience”. I know far too many photographers that think that they can shoot 20 portraits an hour. That’s wrong. Very wrong. For several reasons.

Reason number one is, that it takes time for the child to relax in the studio – relax so you can get those natural facial expressions that makes the difference in a portrait. I will write several advice later on how to help them relax.

Reason number two is, that you need time to get to know how to interact with the child.
Some children are very shy and uncertain on how to pose and react to your “commands”. Don’t rush it. Go slowly and listen and observe how they behave when you say something.
Other children are “naturals” – photogenic from birth – and can pose the right way in the first shot. Don’t abuse this advantage to shorten the shoot. Use the advantage to take the shoot even further.

Reason number three is, that you need time to find the right style and mood for this child.
We’re all different and not all subjects look well in any kind of lighting, background and pose. Some are very suitable for happy high key portraits, others are better portrayed in an emotional low key setup. Don’t think that you can tell up front what suits the child best. Don’t think that the parents know either. You’re the expert in light and expressions. Try!

Reason number four is, that you’re making a photo, that will probably be hanging on a wall in the family for a very long time. If you do your job the right way, it will hang there for decades. And in grandma’s house too. Do you know how many clients you’ll get just from looking at that striking emotional portrait? A lot! Believe me. Parents are proud of their children – of course – and they will show the portrait to everyone they know. Through the use of social media sites like Facebook and Google+ they will show the portrait to even more people (DON’T limit their ability to do this through obscure and ridiculous photo usage rights!!!). I get most of my clients from the free and effortless marketing done by previous clients. Don’t underestimate the impact of this.

I use at least 1 hour for each shoot. I don’t make the child pose for 1 hour straight of course. I have plenty of time to talk with the child and the parents, drink some coffee with them, make some fun and let the child explore my huge collection of props, toys and teddy bears. They are even allowed to be noisy 🙂

If you don’t believe me when I say that time and patience is of the greatest importance, I will just recommend that you try it one time. Have a 1½ hour photo shoot with a child. Then take a look at the first photos and compare them to the last ones. I’ll bet you’ll see a significant difference and improval.