As a parent we get all caught up in taking photos of our children but then later we look at them and they aren't as spectacular as they could be. As a professional photographer, and a father of 3, I'm going to share with you a few tips to make your photos looks almost as good as the ones taken by the pros.
1. Turn off your pop-up flash
There are few things in a photo that look worse than the harsh light from that little pop-up flash on your camera. It is also the source of red-eye in your images. If you only do this one thing, your images will improve dramatically.
2. Figure out the areas of your home with the best natural light
Start a list of areas in your home that have great natural light and the time of day it happens. Let's say you are a stay-at-home mom and you're fixing dinner and you see great light streaming in through the kitchen window. Stop and note the location and time of day in your iPhone. If you do this regularly, over time you build up a list of times and locations in your home when you know you can get great light and thus a great photo. When you are planning a shoot this list can be very useful.
3. Learn to see good light
Something professional photographers are very good at is noticing great light. It can be the warm red and orange tones right before sunset or the cool blue tones on a cold winter morning. Maybe it's the soft light coming in the living room window, created by reflections off the huge white concrete patio deck just outside. When you learn to look for good light first, then it's simply a matter of putting your kids in that light and clicking the shutter.
4. Buy a fast-prime lens like a 50mm f/1.8 (includes Amazon affiliate link)
Buying a fast lens like a 50mm will make your photos look amazing. You will get that smooth bokeh (that blurry out of focus background is called bokeh) and you can take pictures in less light. One of the problems with the kit lens that came with your camera is that it sucks in low light. If you are trying to get a picture of your newborn in their crib, and and you don't want to turn the light on, or use the flash (see #1), you might get a slow shutter speed like 1/4 second and your photo will be blurry. When you shoot at f/1.8 that is less of a problem. If you were shooting with your kit lens at f/5.6 and got a 1/4 second shutter speed, with the 50mm at f/1.8 you would get about 1/50th second, fast enough to handhold a 50mm lens.
5. Shoot from their eye-level
One of the things that makes photos look like snapshots is when they are taken at our eye-level. We stand up, look down at our kids, and shoot. This is a recipe for BORING! Get down on their level.
If your toddler is on the floor, lay down on the floor and shoot. If your infant is laying in the crib, get down and shoot through the crib rail. It provides a different perspective.
Also try different angles. If the kids are at the playground and coming down the slide, lay on the slide and shoot them as they are coming down. If they are on the swings in the backyard, try swinging with them on an adjacent swing and shooting them at the same time (this could be tricky, so don't drop your camera).
6. Pay attention to your background
Nothing can ruin a photo faster than a tree branch or a lamp post coming out of someone's head or a pooping dog photobombing your background. Learn to visually scan the edges of your frame before you click. Look for unsightly things jutting into the frame.
Photographer Zack Arias has a mantra that was drilled into him in photo school, "Head in a clean spot". It means makes sure there is nothing distracting behind the head of the person you are shooting. If you learn to always say to yourself "Head in clean spot" when you shoot, your photos will improve.
7. Learn to shoot in manual mode
OK, this one is tough and will take some time to master. I fought learning to shoot in manual mode and tried to stick to something easier like Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, but to really get the best possible results you will eventually need to learn how to master manual mode. It's far too much to go into in this short post, but I'm working on an e-book on the subject. Enter your email address in the subscribe box below this post to be added to my newsletter and you will be one of the first to know when that e-book is available.
8. Always have your camera with you.
Having a camera available at all times is one way to dramatically shorten the learning curve. It would be ideal if this is your DSLR but you could also use a small mirrorless camera like the Nikon J1 or Fuji Xm-1, or even your iPhone. The main thing is to always be practicing.
9. Take a lot of pictures
A dirty secret of photography is that it takes a lot of bad photos to get one good one, and only once in a while do you get a great one. Ansel Adams said, "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." In our photo centric world of Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, 365 projects, and the like, this seems like an absurd statement today, but I believe it's still true. The rub is that to get those 12 photos means possibly taking hundreds or thousands of images.
If you take the time and practice using these tips, you will find yourself taking images you can be proud be of. I would urge you to print one or two of them and hang them in your home. In this digital world we often don't see our images in print and that's a shame. Seeing a photo you shot, printed large and hanging on the wall, feels very different that looking at it on a screen. You should try it.