Having received many enquiries from Sigma users asking how to improve their family photographs, we put the question to portrait photographer, Fiona Allison. Here are her top techniques on capturing some stunning family portrait photographs.
I have been photographing children since I started photography in 1979 with my first camera. It has been my career and a passion ever since!
Children can be absolutely amazing on a good day but don’t be surprised if you hit one of their bad days. It happens to us all.
It is very important to be completely familiar with your camera and equipment. Try not to use Auto all the time – read the camera instructions and experiment a bit! Always shoot in RAW (if possible) and at varying f stops depending on circumstances.
Your shoot can be unplanned and informal; candid family snapshots often capture the real essence of the child and produce a very pleasing and much prized family record.
A more formal shot, however, requires an element of planning.
Most young children have a short attention span, so it is important to prepare everything in advance, especially if you are shooting indoors – I have never yet photographed any small child who would wait even two minutes for me to get organised, so be aware that speed is of the essence.
Getting the child to respond to you can be made simpler by involving them in the shoot.
Whenever and wherever you shoot you need to be in control and interactive. Give praise and make the kids feel good and important in the nicest possible way. Make it fun to be part of! Remember also, that it isn’t imperative that the child always smiles!!!! Personally, I’m a great lover of the more thoughtful and solemn shot.
- Aim for soft diffused lighting – a day with clouds that diffuse the sun. Bright sunlight will give too much contrast with blown-out highlights and harsh shadows
- When using flash, try fill-in (under expose the flash element) rather than full blown flash, or if possible, redirect your flash to bounce off a white or soft gold reflector placed at 45 degrees to the child. Reflectors soften the shadows really well.
- Make good use of the available light, space and surroundings, but keep backgrounds as plain and simple as possible, so that your shot does not become too ‘busy’ and the background intrusive.
- Use selective focus to keep your subject sharp and the background less evident.
- Use a high ISO or flash bounced off a white wall, ceiling, or a reflector.
- Try to use plain walls or unfussy backgrounds.
- Keep the child a reasonable distance away from the background to avoid shadows.
- Use furniture to your advantage.
- If you don’t want to use flash, soft window light is beautiful but you may need to increase the ISO setting accordingly.
With some babies you can be quite loud and noisy, but others need quiet, gentle and careful handling. You will know almost immediately which kind you have to cope with. If you want a great face and a good eye contact shot with a baby try using a squeaker. I buy mine from a pet shop because they are a bit louder than the gentle baby ones. Don’t give the squeaker to the baby until you’ve got your shot, or you’ll have a screaming session when you take it away!
Do remember babies can frequently be messy at both ends, but still give you the most wonderful shots, so just be handy with tissues for the face end and leave the other end to the mum and a powerful room spray.
Drape an upholstered sofa or chair back with a white or cream shawl or blanket and lean your baby up over it. You may also find a large bean bag or a mass of pillows (draped) useful – just place the baby in it – it will be adequately supported. From there you can shoot full length or a head shot as you wish.
Use an adult, back view, with baby looking over the shoulder, similar to the sofa shot.
A baby old enough to lie on its tummy and press up makes a handy head and shoulder shot.
Shoot close up if necessary to avoid as much extraneous background as possible depending on the lens you’re using.
Shoot at the level of your subject. This means you may be frequently be on your knees.
Minimum use of toys or you’ll end up with a shot of a ‘child in a toy shop’.
Don’t overdress the baby – keep it simple.
The Trerrible Twos
These little terrors are incredibly mobile, temperamental and the most difficult to photograph unless you find a saint, but worth all the agro if you can cope with it. It’s worth all the hassle when you get that great shot of a toddler in this awkward age group! Bribery is not an option – don’t do it!
These are lovely to work with. They have many interests and lots of enthusiasm. It’s just a matter of overcoming any shyness, gaining their cooperation, and getting them to take direction.
They either like it or loathe it. If it’s the latter, hard luck!
The teenagers who like it, can be over the top with fashion, make up, the lot, but they’ll be great to work with. Treat it like a real fashion shoot and they’ll do the work for you.
Experiment and don’t always put your subject dead centre. Triangles are good for groups.
When shooting more than one person, make sure there is some form of a link joining them together.
Keep everything as simple as possible. For APS-C size sensors, an ideal lens to use is the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 as its fast aperture allows shallow depth of field and fast shutter speeds to capture the moment. A more versatile lens in terms of focal length would be the Sigma 18-200mm or 18–250mm but what you gain in focal length, you lose in aperture size. For full frame cameras, the 24–70mm f/2.8 and 70–200mm f/2.8 are ideal.
I always use Lastolite collapsible reflectors and backgrounds, which fold away easily, but you can use a large piece of white board, but it’s not so easy to carry around.
Your histogram will give information about your exposure.
Hopefully these tips will help you capture some great photographs which you will treasure forever.