Small Subjects with Big Impact: 5 Photography Techniques for Better Kid Portraits

Small Subjects with Big Impact: 5 Photography Techniques for Better Kid Portraits

See how easily you can get memorable kid portraits with these 5 shooting techniques that are approachable enough for beginners while also being stimulating practice for seasoned photographers. These techniques can be applied to any photography style and they will help grow your skills no matter where you are starting from.

1. Bouncing Around: The Quick Child-Friendly Flash Tip

Using a flash head, such as a Nikon Speedlight or Canon Speedlite, is designed mainly to be used off-camera and fired optically or via a radio trigger, such as a Pocket Wizard. However, there are situations when time or gear restraints force you to keep your flash on your camera’s hotshoe to be used as an overly powerful pop-up flash, which means the light risks appearing too harsh. Here is the quickest way to take advantage of your external flash when it’s on your camera and soften that light for portraits.

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Most flashes will have rotating heads. It’s instinct to just point the face of the flash right at the face of your subject but resist! Instead, point your flash straight up at the ceiling. This is particularly effective if you have white ceilings.

Straight flash is good at one thing: illuminating your scene. It can illuminate to a fault, though, leaving washed out faces and unwanted specular highlights. It’s also a fairly small source of light so the falloff is really quick – look at how dark the background is.

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If you bounce your flash off of the ceiling, the light spreads farther and is softer. It is also less strong so you might need to either strengthen the power on your flash or strengthen the light sensitivity settings on your camera. Notice that the background is better illuminated in this scene thanks to the light spread the ceiling provides when hit with the flash. Also notice how much more pleasing the catchlights are in the baby’s eyes versus before.

If there is no ceiling available for you to bounce your light off of, a bounce card will help. Most larger flashes have built-in bounce cards.

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Deploy it by leaving it up. It’s not as effective as a white ceiling simply because it is so much smaller – but it helps in a pinch! Alternatively, have a friend hold a piece of white board above your pointed-upward flash and angled toward your subject. Anything that allows the flash to hit a larger, white surface prior to hitting your subject will improve the light quality of your portrait.

2. A Walk in the Park: Turning Your Back on the Sky

If you’re stuck taking a portrait outside in the high noon sun, you’ll want your subject to face away from the sun. Light coming from behind your subject separates them from their background in a pleasing way. However, your subject’s face may be dark.

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To help combat this, position yourself so that the open sky is behind you (not a forest or buildings). The open sky behind you will help illuminate your subject’s face while the sun frames the edges of your subject and separates them from the background. Put a reflector in front of your subject for added fill light on their face. The sun coming from behind them will hit that reflector and bounce that light back into your scene – this is the same concept as bouncing your flash indoors with a ceiling or bounce card.

3. Hit the Books: Learn in a New Light for Back-to-School Portraits

Stylized back-to-school portraits can be difficult because they require advanced planning and, likely, some off-camera lighting. While these kinds of portraits are often in the realm of the professional, they are not beyond reach for a new photography pupil.

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Lighting will be your biggest challenge with stylized portraits because they tend to be very staged and formal. Here are some tips to get started. Do you homework! Stylized portraits take planning and practice.

• Natural Lighting: Build your “set” near a large window so that natural light comes in either to the side or in front of your subject. Have a thin, white diffuser (like a bed sheet or curtain) on-hand to soften the light and aim for shooting in the morning (when natural light tends to be at its most lovely). A reflector will help harness the natural light around you and bounce it back into the dark parts of your scene. Hold it up with the help of a Manfrotto 175F Justin Spring Clamp and a simple light stand.

• Continuous Lighting: There are a variety of LED lights that mimic natural light and don’t require the use of any radio trigger systems. Simply turn them on and position around your subject! For beginners, we recommend the Westcott Flex 1-Light Daylight Kit. This flexible, water-resistant, and portable light provides a fun introduction to the world of LED lighting. It’s also incredible bright, allowing you to rely less on cranking up your ISO.

• Flash Lighting: Strobe and flash lighting is complicated only because there are so many ways to do it and so many settings and compatibilities to think about. If you’re brand new to using a strobe light, a beginner’s favorite is the Impact 400W/s LiteTrek Monolight Kit. It can be used outside with the included battery pack or inside with the AC adapter. It comes with a simple sync cable that connects the strobe to your camera directly (provided that your camera has a PC-in port). The controls are intuitive and the light head is very portable.

4. Gain Some Perspective: Using Remote Cameras for Kid Sports Events

Did you know that you can easily fire a camera on court from the safety of the bleachers? Mount your camera where you cannot be and still fire it exactly when you want to by connecting your camera to a motor cable (available for any camera online or by rental for Nikon and Canon) and a Pocket Wizard trigger. Sounds complicated but it’s really not with some practice and the right tools.

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• Get 2 Pocket Wizards (the Plus X version is the easiest) and set them to the same channel (the display numbers will match).
• Attach a remote camera cable between your camera and 1 Pocket Wizard.
• Turn on your Pocket Wizards, then the camera.
• Keep one Pocket Wizard in your hand and press the TEST button to fire the shutter!

How far away you can trigger your camera will depend on the Pocket Wizard and your environment but usually you can be many feet away. This is great for car photography (with the help of hood-mountable grip gear), behind the catcher, above the rim, or anywhere too dangerous or too distracting for a shooter to stand. Just make sure your camera is really securely fastened, like with a Magic Arm. For more remote triggering advice, visit Pocket Wizard’s Wiki.

5. Take Your Camera for a Spin: Showing the Motion of Playtime

Fast shutter speeds are what you always hear about when freezing action. However, sometimes you want to express motion, not freeze it. The best way to show this is by doing the opposite: slowing your shutter speed down and targeting on your subject while panning.

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If you pan your lens at about the same speed as the moving subject, they will be sharp despite your slow shutter speed. This will take a lot of practice and at first your images will just look blurry. With time you will get the hang of tracking your lens alongside a moving subject, nailing focus on them, and allowing the rest of the environment to go soft.

With these 5 techniques, you’ll be able to either quickly solve lighting problems or push yourself to take your abilities to the next level. Bouncing your flash will produce softer, more natural results. Positioning yourself with your back to the open sky and your subject’s back to the sun will give you a more workable portrait on bright days. With a few simple tools, you can get unique shots without being anywhere near your camera. Lastly, just because you can freeze action doesn’t mean you should – illustrate the whimsy of childhood through panning effects.

We hope these techniques inspired you to get out and shoot better portraits. Apply these techniques to any photography challenge, make sure you’re using the best lens for portraits and grow your skills!

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Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. She is a Marketing Coordinator for BorrowLenses.com and also writes for SmugMug. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. Previously, she shot motorsports for X-Games, World Rally Cross, and Formula Drift. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

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