"I'd like to be able to take better pictures but I don't have a very nice camera."
We hear this a lot. But here's the thing: it's not about the camera. Sure, technology helps but the foundation of good photography has nothing to do with the gear you're slinging around. In fact, it's been said that the best camera is the one you have on you.
All of the principles outlined below will help to improve your family photos whether you're using a point-and-shoot camera, the latest-and-greatest DSLR or even an iPhone.
1. Get down to their level
We adults are WAY bigger than the tiny tots running all around us. Try squatting or even laying down on your belly. This allows you to enter their world and see things from their perspective.
2. Get closer
Robert Capa famously said "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough". Granted, he was a war photographer but let's face it, parents fight the war on dishes, laundry, graffiti, play-doh bombs, embedded foot-Lego (damn that stuff hurts!) and projectile porridge all the time so let's just go with it.
3. Turn off your flash
In fact, jab a pen in it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it will make your image look worse. Straight dead-on flash obliterates a lot of the interesting features that make your child unique. Sure the face will be fully illuminated, but the results will be dull and flat. Instead, try placing your little one near a window or patio door. This has the effect of diffusing the light and creating nice soft shadows on little faces. If placed properly, you'll also be able to see the reflection of the window in your child's eyes (photographers call this "catchlight") which gives the eyes a cute little twinkle. Bonus points for catchlight!
4. Get their faces out of the sun
The easiest way to ruin an outdoor photo is take it while your kids are in direct sunlight. If you're outside, move them to a shady spot. No shade? Put the sun at their backs. Not only will they not be squinting into the sun, but you'll get that nice glow, or rim-light, all around them.
5. Let them be silly!
This needs no explaining to parents or kids.
6. The Rule of Thirds
When kids start doing something totally adorable, most parents will pull out their camera, put their little one right smack-dab in the middle of the picture and take the shot (usually while standing with their flash turned on). One of the easiest things you can do to improve your photo is to put them off to the side of the frame. This improves the photo 99% of the time. Yes, it's cliche. Yes, it's been done a billion times in the history of photography. But it also works.
7. Come up with a way to illicit an emotional response.
When we do engagement sessions or family photos, we like to play little games to help get the emotional response we're looking for. Try asking your child to look into the lens and see if they can see the shutter tripping. They will gaze intently into your camera and you will capture the wonder of their perfect little faces. (It's also a great way to get them to hold still, however briefly). Or you can say things like "Okay on the count of 3 everyone hug Dad. Ready? One. Two. THREE!". If you trip the shutter at just the right moment, you will capture some genuine emotion as everyone laughs and canoodles.
8. Anticipate the moment
Wayne Gretzky famously said "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been". When we shoot weddings or families, we're constantly trying to "read the scene". We're always looking for signals or cues that give us hints that something awesome is about to happen—a look, a gesture, a kiss. Try to do this with your kids. Try anticipating the moment when something magical is about to happen and then position yourself in the best possible spot to capture it (hopefully, by using some of the guidelines above!).
But most importantly...
Don't worry about taking perfect photos. I know, I know—that's counterintuitive to what this article is about. But I'll tell you a little secret: some of our favourite photos of our kids are ones that have so many glaring technical errors, that if they ever got out, I would forever be banished from the community of professional photographers. But even though they suck photographically, they illustrate something special or unique about our kids and we will always love those blurry, underexposed, poorly composed photos. They are special to us, and that's enough. Sometimes being in focus doesn't matter. As parents, we're all just doing the best we can.
So what are you waiting for? Go get some great shots!
Nathan Demers is a wedding and family photographer based out of the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, with the occasional wedding in Halifax, Nova Scotia (don't ask, it's a long story). When not out shooting, he enjoys spending time with his family, writing author bios in the third person and a really good cup of coffee.