Editor’s Note: Steven McConnell is a professional family photographer based in Sydney, Australia.
1. Get Out Of The “Auto” Mode
The good news is that Program and Auto modes can make all of the decisions for you. The bad news is that they also squeeze out all creativity out of your photos, too. Personally, when I photograph families I mainly use Aperture-Priority Mode. Other professional photographers insist on a using full Manual mode for complete control over their exposure - and I understand their rationale for doing that. I find that the best photographs of kids and families come about when there’s a great energy, connection and fun flowing between everyone (more on that later in the post), so I prefer to allow the camera handle some of the exposure calculations. This frees up my attention on being with the kids, instead of constantly fiddling with the controls and checking my histograms / previews on the back of the camera.
2. Learn To Use Aperture-Priority Mode
Another way of thinking of it thinking of Aperture-Priority is “Depth Of Field Priority”. In other words, I use the aperture control to determine how much of the photograph is in focus. If I’m taking a photograph of one person, for example, and want the background out of focus, I’ll open up the aperture to between f/1.8 and f/3.2. If I want the whole scene to be in focus, I’ll crank it closed to about f/8 or f/16. And if there’s a situation where one person is behind the other and I want to be them both in focus, I’ll choose something in between - depending on how far one person is back from another, and which lens I’m using.
3. Be Aware Of Fore, Mid and Background
When you take photos, you are making 2-dimensional representations of a 3-dimensional space. This creates some interesting challenges. As you’re looking through a viewfinder, you’ll be looking at a 2-dimensional “image” of your soon-to-be-created photograph. But you must continue thinking in 3-D. As you’re looking through the viewfinder, imagine that the scene you’ve seeing is cut into 3 sections. All objects that fall into the section closest to you are in the foreground. All of the objects that are the furthest form the background. Everything in between is - you guessed it - the midground.
There are no absolute correct measurements for depth of each section; the measurements will be different for each photograph. And for some photographs you might find that it helps to think in terms of foreground and background only. But being aware of entire depth of your photograph - and composing each photograph with all depth elements in mind - will help you create more captivating photos that are free of clutter. Before you click the shutter, always check what’s in your fore, mid and background.
4. Play Games & Connect
This is the most important - and most often overlooked aspect of photography. Almost always, your subjects will mirror back your energy to you in your photographs. So if you’re taking photos of your family and kids and notice that they’re looking all rigid and stiff, check in with yourself - how are you feeling? Are you trying to force something upon them, by any chance? Chances are, you’ve made the whole photo-taking thing way too serious and are probably just as rigid as they are. Keep in mind that photography is a way of capturing magic moments - it’s not meant to be a big deal. Put the camera down for a moment and focus on establishing a connection with your kids. Talk to them, play with them. Enter their world and allow yourself to get fully lost in it. Pull some funny faces, let go of having to look and act “proper”. When you see a magic moment, bring out the camera and photograph it - either candidly or by asking first if you can.
5. Learn To Backlight
There’s an old wives tale which says that you can’t point your camera into the sun. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the most amazing, dreamy and lively photographs are taken when you backlight your subjects. It means that the sun is coming from behind your subjects and hitting their backs, while you take the photo from their front. This technique is particularly suited to family and kids photography because it lends a very lively, bright yet soft feel to the photos.
It’s best done at sunrise and or sunset, when the sun is nice and low in the sky. Position yourself so that your kids are between you and the sun. It’s not a hard and fast rule - you can mix up the angles, as long as the basic principle remains - the sun is hitting their backs and you’re taking photos of their front.
The main thing to keep in mind when backlighting is that your camera meter will most likely try to compensate for the abundance of sunlight coming directly into the lens by under-exposing your photograph. To prevent that I use exposure bracketing to dial in 1 or 2 stops of over-exposure whenever I’m about to enter a backlighting situation. Because getting exposure right in these situations is tricky, I do pay very close attention to histograms and my exposure levels after just about every shot. As an alternative method to using exposure over-compensation, you can switch to spot metering and expose for your subject’s skin. The camera’s meter will then attempt to ignore the very bright background and take a reading that will result in your subject’s skin being properly exposed.
- All photos taken by Steven McConnell