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How to Take Great Family Pictures

By Kandie Demarest
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #24, 1998.


Camera If you are like most parents, you are usually disappointed with what comes back from the photo lab. The harsh flash shining off your baby son's bald head overpowers his adorable grin, while the shadows cast from the high noon sun darken the joyous expression on your teenager's face.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do to eliminate some of the common pitfalls of picture-taking with your family, from infancy to adulthood.

Four Simple Tips

Photographic expertise or camera "know-how" is not so important with today's sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras, along with the automatic mode available with many 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras. The more important things to remember deal with the practical aspects of snapping successful pictures, such as background, framing, lighting, and mood.

Come in close on the person, especially if you are striving for portrait-style pictures. Fill the frame with your child's face, drawing the focus to his eyes - after all, the eyes are the windows to the soul.

Pay attention to the lighting in the environment. Avoid taking pictures in bright sunlight. Instead, opt for snapping photos in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun is gentler and more flattering. (Or if you have no choice about timing, try to seek out a place in light to middle shade during the peak sun hours)

Try to use natural lighting; but when your only option is using a flash, try using a diffuser on the flash unit to mellow out the harsh glare. (You can make your own diffuser by cutting a rectangular piece from an empty plastic milk carton and taping it over your flash unit. Take care that it does not interfere with your camera's sensing device.)

Be aware of the background in your pictures. Stay away from distracting, cluttered or busy backgrounds. On the other hand, make a point of keeping a special part of an experience in the picture - for instance, the beach picture would be extra special with part of the sand castle your kids built included in the scene.

Realize that colors do matter in the final image. Colors lend a lot to a photograph by brightening it up a bit, bringing out the color in your daughter's eyes, or by just adding a focal point. Try bringing along brightly colored hats, scarves or toys as colorful and usable props. Most of my best pictures were taken with hats: winter hats, summer hats, Easter bonnets, baseball caps. They draw the focus to the face and add color where it might otherwise be hard to squeeze it in.

Picture Perfect

By keeping these four fundamentals in mind, you are off to a good start. Photographing babies can be difficult, but being the parent gives you an edge. You know your child - what makes her laugh, what gets his attention, her favorite song - so you can quickly decide which repertoire is called for to elicit a picture-perfect response.

When I first started photographing my son, he was the perfect subject. He would be relatively still for a long time, be happy with a few soothing words, and look for me when I called his name. But then he grew! At about 8 months of age he was more active and harder to photograph. I found these tricks worked wonderfully throughout his toddlerhood and well into his early childhood:

  • Developing a good eye-camera response was very easy when I started the "Where is Mama?" game. I would hide behind my camera and ask "Where is Mama?" and when he would look directly at the camera I would jump up and tickle him and say "Yes, here she is!" He soon learned to look for me behind the camera, which made for some great wide-eyed pictures of him. (You might try "Peek-a-boo" or "I'm gonna get you!" as alternatives... they also work well with other peoples' babies.)

  • Avoid saying "Smile!" This simply is a request for a canned expression, which usually results in boring "school picture" expressions. Attention-getters such as silly noises or using the beep mode on automatic cameras work better than the old "Smile" routine. Or consider setting the camera up on a tripod with a remote cord to take more relaxed photos. The best advice is to simply take pictures of people in action - children playing a good game of chess or a grandfather reading a storybook to his grandchildren has interaction, feeling, and a natural charm that does away with stiff, awkward posing altogether.

  • Let your subject choose a few of his favorite things to bring with him during the picture taking. This captures part of his personality for you to cherish later in photo album moments as well as helps the subject to feel comfortable which leads to nice, relaxed pictures. Also, if you have a family pet, by all means take some playful pet pictures. One of my favorite pictures is of my 3-year-old, gently but very proudly holding his pet rat Splinky.

  • Offer new exciting activities to photograph. Try setting up a water or sand play area, starting a small garden patch, or making mud pies. Another really fun way to capture the wonder-filled spirit of a child is to give them a magnifying glass and go for a nature walk with them. While they are exploring the world as only a child can do, you can be snapping away recording it all with your camera.

Don't let the job of photographing your family rob you of the experience of being with your family. Now that you know the tips for good, eye-catching photos, just go out and play with the kids and your camera. Keeping these camera hints in mind along with a fun-filled attitude, you are sure to come up with a roll full of "winners." Who knows - maybe your photo will be on the next PHS magazine cover!

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