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Case Study - Harry John Guide to Child Portraiture

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    Posted: 21 February 2010 at 14:02
Welcome to another case study. This one is by Harry John, and it covers the topic of child portraiture. Harry has provided a wealth of information and useful insights. It's another great example of the talent on this site and the willingness to share information. Many thanks Harry.
Frank



How I Became a Daddy Photographer

A “Quick and Dirty” Guide to Child Portraiture

By Harry John

For me, the term “portrait photographer” conjures up an image of someone with fancy lights, high-end gear, make up artists, and attractive models. Well folks, that isn’t me! I don’t use fancy studio lights because I don’t own any and frankly haven’t learned how to use them. I don’t work with make-up artists, because my preferred subjects are a little too young for make-up. My most frequent subjects are my daughter (she’s 9), her young cousins, and occasionally other family members. So clearly, my practice of portrait photography isn’t glamorous or technically advanced. Yet it is very gratifying.

Before I talk about how I got into portraiture, a few words about my interest and background in photography. Like many on Dyxum, I started very young. I think I was 8 when I received my first camera, a Kodak Brownie Chiquita. Then came several Kodak Instamatics (126 and 110 models). In my 20s, I graduated to a Ricoh FF3-AF point and shoot (even then, Ricoh cameras had blisteringly sharp lenses). Finally, just shy of 30, I purchased my first SLR, an Olympus OM-1. I happily used this camera until around 1997, when I purchased my first Minolta Maxxum SLR (the 600si). Then I acquired the 7 and 9 bodies, along with a herd of Minolta lenses.

Up until my entry into Minolta photography, my shooting interests were fairly typical. I shot landscapes, vacation people and places, and nature (I live in New England, USA). For these purposes, I was still happy shooting film, although I was thrilled when I received my first digital camera (a Canon s40). Even though I was watching Minolta’s entry into digital SLRs with great interest, I wasn’t tempted by the 7D or 5D.

Then fate intervened. My daughter was born in 2000, changing everything. She quickly became my photographic muse. Now, most parents shoot photos of their children. But I shot a lot more than your average parent. My motivation: to leave images for posterity that were a cut above family-album photos. I wanted to create images that other photographers would look at and say, “Nice image,” not just “Cute kid.”

In my daughter’s infant and toddler years, I shot a mix of film and digital. For important events, I always used film (Minolta bodies and most often the 50 1.7 and 28-105 lenses) because I was still suspicious about the long-term archivability of digital files. But I shot a lot with my little Canon digicam, which captured great images (shutter lag notwithstanding).

Finally, in 2007, I picked up a Sony a700. I was extremely impressed with the camera’s speed, ease of use, and image quality (wed to some good portrait glass) . . . and I’m still impressed to this day even though the camera is getting a bit long in tooth.

So let me backtrack. How did I go about creating child portraits that aimed to transcend the family snapshot genre? (I’ll leave it to you to judge whether or not they do.) First, I gave some thought to the general approach I wanted to take. Here’s where I landed:


Natural light. I did have a good Minolta flashgun, but I definitely wanted to avoid the garish, washed out look of bad flash photography. To me, nothing was more beautiful than a window portrait illuminated by natural light, the softer and more luminous the light, the better. If I used flash, I often just applied a touch of it to even out shadows outside and to render subtle catch lights in the eyes.

Unposed. I decided to break myself of the habit of saying “cheese.” Rather, I simply tried to capture kids being kids.

Opportunistic. By this I mean I didn’t want to create artificial scenarios. I preferred to just observe and then capture situations that unfolded naturally.

Color. Although I love black and white and have done quite a few BW portraits of my daughter, I think the best way to capture a child’s world is through color. For me, childhood is a time of such imaginative whimsy and rapturous passions that color is de rigueur. But that’s just my own personal preference.

A mix of face, head/shoulder, and environmental portraits. I think it’s easy to fall into one style of portraiture. But if you’re shooting for posterity, it’s better to mix things up so you keep future generations interested. As the years flew by, I forced myself to shoot in different ways, with different lenses, in order to capture the beauty of my daughter’s face, the grace of her posture, and the people and places in her world.

In terms of camera settings, I almost always used the Neutral style and where possible set a custom white balance. Aperture priority (usually fairly wide open) is my preferred mode. And my favorite portrait lenses? The Minolta 50 1.4, 85G and 100 f2, along with the Zeiss 85. All render incredible portraits, although with differences in bokeh, color, and sharpness.

Now that you have a sense of my general philosophy/approach to child portraiture, let me share some knowledge I picked up along the way that might help you elevate your family photos above the common snapshot. I will also illustrate each tip with one or several photos to illustrate my point.

1.     Always have a camera with you.
Until you establish the habit of going about your day “fully armed” photographically, you will miss a lot of good images. When my daughter was little, I brought either my 600si or Canon s40 with me wherever I went. When I went into her room to change her diaper, I had a camera at my side. When we went out for walks, I never left the camera behind. Ditto for when we went to stores, playgrounds, to the beach, out to eat, or wherever.

Being properly equipped paid off countless times. This photo of my daughter with her pajama-top hat resulted from having my film camera and fast 50mm lens handy while helping my wife get her ready for bed. She had such a look of joy on her face while wearing her new “hat” I couldn’t resist snapping a few shots. This image remains one of my all-time favorites.



Here’s another reason to have a camera around all the time. When cameras become part of your daily routine, they lose their mystery. When objects seem strange, kids tend to freeze up. But when things are entirely normal and natural, they relax. That’s what you want to capture with your camera . . . relaxed, kid-like behavior.

This is a good time to talk about the utility of the 50mm. “normal” lens. On a film body, the 50 became my go-to lens for several reasons. First, I could frame my daughter’s entire body (when she was little) using the lens. But if need be, I could get really close to her face, as well, by zooming with my feet. Because of the large aperture, the 50 also provided really pleasing bokeh. Finally, for the same reason, the 50 mm. was great for indoor photography, especially at night. But watch out for bright lights in a dark frame. They often cause weird flares. On digital, I still use the 50 quite a lot for tight facial portraits.

2.     Get down on the ground.
I often see people photographing their kids from on high. When you shoot down on them, you end up visually minimizing them. Better approach: get down on their level. This results in more visually attractive and compelling images, since you will now be in their world, showing them as real, not miniaturized, people.






3.     Get close.
Good skin is wasted on the young! If they only knew what will happen to their skin as they age, they’d probably start their Botox treatments much earlier! But seriously, the youthful vitality and great skin of children demands close-ups. Since young faces have few imperfections, you can’t go wrong with the sharper lenses in the Alpha lens arsenal, especially the various Minolta or Sony macros.




4.     Shoot in good light.
It took me years to learn this lesson. But I finally discovered the importance of finding good light first, then placing your subject in the light. For me, my preferred light conditions are as follows:

•     South facing window in cloudy bright conditions (for indoor portraits)
•     Late afternoon “golden hour” lighting (both indoor and outdoor)
•     Diffused cloudy bright light (for outdoor portraits)
•     North facing window (for indoor portraits)
•     In full shade on a sunny day (for outdoor portraits)
•     In full sun, but with a bit of fill flash (for outdoor portraits)
•     Low artificial light with diffused flash (for indoor portraits)

Regarding the last option, even if the light is low, I try leaving the flash off and shooting with existing light. This may necessitate increasing ISO to 800 or more, bracing the camera against something, or mounting it on a tripod. With fast-moving kids in low light, tripods can be difficult. Also, make sure you set your white balance to tungsten or to take a custom white balance.













5.     Focus on the eyes.
Yes, eyes are the windows to the soul. It’s a cliché, of course, but when it comes to photographing children, getting the eyes right is key. For one thing, children’s eyes seem to take up a proportionally larger share of their faces than do the eyes of adults. This is good! For another thing, the eyes of children seem more expressive than those of adults. Finally, their eyes are more aesthetically pleasing. In any event, when you’re doing a child portrait, don’t be afraid to zoom in and highlight their eyes. It goes without saying that the eyes in a child portrait—or in any portrait, for that matter—should be sharp. If you have to leave one eye softer, make sure it’s the one further away from the camera.






6.     Shoot a lot.
A big mistake many parents make is only taking one shot. Since kids are always moving, this means they’ll probably end up disappointed. When I shot film, I always made a point of shooting 4-5 shots of a given situation to ensure that at least one frame was good. Now that I shoot digital, I put the camera on continuous drive and fire off multiple strings of images. It doesn’t cost any more and it raises the odds of success.








7.     Know your camera.
Since kids are perpetual motion machines, you need to be able to react quickly to their movements and to changing light. So know your camera well and learn how to work the controls with it at your face. The image below is a great example. My daughter was climbing in a tree. I happened to notice that her hair was falling nicely on her face and was lit beautifully. So I zoomed the lens, changed to a wide aperture to blur the face behind the hair, and fired, all within a couple seconds.




8.     Don’t rely on AWB.
When I first started shooting digital, I relied heavily on Automatic White Balance. I soon realized that AWB doesn’t handle indoor lighting very well. Even outdoors, it often didn’t nail the white balance. So I invested in an Expodisk white balance device and started doing custom white balances for most of my portrait images. The difference in quality was amazing.

AWB


Custom WB using Expodisc


9.     Shoot for the history books.
I keep reminding myself that I’m shooting for posterity. I want to create a body of work that portrays the people, places, and things in my daughter’s world so that when she’s 40, she can look at the images and laugh . . . or cry! Capturing a child’s life in this fashion is the ultimate gift of love you can give them (other than the gift of spending time with them).

So how do you portray their world? One way is to show their full range of emotions, from joy and happiness to anger and sadness. Another is to show them not only at play, but also at rest. Finally, don’t always train your camera just on them. Capture images of the objects they play with, their friends, their teachers, etc. Do this and I guarantee your grown child(ren) will love you for it.








10.     Become a master motivator.
When your kids are young, you can usually get great shots watching them play. Sometimes, they’ll pose for you with great exuberance, which can make for nice images so long as they’re not too exuberant. But as kids hit their preteen years or even earlier, they may get tired of being photographed and actively try to sabotage you (How dare they? Don’t they know you’re doing this for them?) So experiment with different ways to motivate them. Making photography a role playing game can help. Or integrate their toys into the shoot. Another possibility: let them decide on their own clothing and poses and then let them pick the best resulting image (thanks to Hapster on DPReview.com for this tip!)

My daughter’s only 9, so I have no experience motivating a teenager. Suffice it to say, as your kids mature emotionally and intellectually, your motivational strategies must keep pace. If nothing else, photographing your kids over their entire lifetimes will keep you challenged. But if you persevere, you will be rewarded beyond measure.



Harry








*** Sony A850 * A700 * Minolta 5D and other stuff ***
 



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whitecat View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote whitecat Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21 February 2010 at 14:13
Oh wow! These are smashing images!!
I've been reading this first word to last word and now I want to read it again. Thanks very much for sharing these beautiful pictures of your daughter
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Post Options Post Options   Quote conory Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 21 February 2010 at 15:49
Very nice write up, alot of very good advice, and of course.. lovely images.

Thanks alot.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote sdm9465 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 February 2010 at 04:15
Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I have three daughter (a nine year old and twins who are seven) and while I have taken lots of photos of them over the years the numbers have been way down the last several months. You've motivated me to pick up my camera and increase my production!
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Harry John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 February 2010 at 15:26
Steve, glad to hear my article motivated you. That may be the biggest factor in child portraiture. Staying engaged as a photographer and motivating your kids to let you shoot. I wish you future success at both.
Harry Lew
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Pathway Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 February 2010 at 15:37
Awesome images - everyone a winner - all so special and inspiring.

An excellent article, simple, practical (not preachy) advice for any parent/budding portrait photographer (i have a 9 mnth old boy)

Thanks for going to the effort of writing this - lovely 'story' quality to the article as well makes it very approachable.

Did I mention the images are great! I keep feeling compelled to scroll back up to see them

Oliver
 



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Post Options Post Options   Quote Serdar A Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 February 2010 at 04:34
Thanks Harry - this information if priceless. Also, many thanks to Frankman as well. My internet browser's bookmarks are starting to fill up with links to knowledge base articles.

-Serdar
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Post Options Post Options   Quote polyglot Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 February 2010 at 14:16
Harry, you rock. I think you missed the most important thing though: you must have a strong connection with your subject and that certainly shows here.
C&C always welcome
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Harry John Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23 February 2010 at 15:35
Polyglot, you are so right. Thanks for putting that on the table.
Harry Lew
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Post Options Post Options   Quote wimski99 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 April 2010 at 21:05
Thank you for sharing your 'tips & tricks' with us! Nice reading!

Edited by wimski99 - 07 November 2010 at 15:57
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Dave18 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16 July 2010 at 12:05
Harry
Are these images taken with manual focus or do you use auto?
regards

David
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Post Options Post Options   Quote uthookem Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 November 2010 at 21:28
Harry, thank you for this article. I started shooting with an SLR when my wife was pregnant, and I have taken some amazing pictures (to me, anyway) of my now seven-month old. One trick that this has helped me with is to remember to ZOOM IN!

Thanks!
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Post Options Post Options   Quote DaveK Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 November 2010 at 21:36
Loads of pictures of your daughter!

Thanks Harry, for your helpful contribution! It's a very nice read too!

Edited by DaveK - 03 November 2010 at 21:45
Best regards, Dave
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Jocelynne Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 November 2010 at 21:45
Frankman, wonderful and definitive study and essay. Impressive, to say the least. Thank you for all your effort on our behalf. I should like to have a paper copy. Could you put the text in a form which could be printed easily, directly from the computer? I would be obliged. And I know that I speak for others, too.

Thank you, again.   
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