Guest Post: When Photographing Family, Light is Your Friend

Hello again!  It’s so nice to be back guest-blogging for one of my absolute favourite magazines. Thanks to the great peeps at Canadian Family for letting me have some space to chat with you about one of my ongoing obsessions: capturing memorable family pictures.

Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to share with you some tips and ideas that I hope will help you take better pictures of your family and friends and pets and whatever else you like to photograph. You don’t have to have an expensive camera to capture great images, but you do need to have a lot of patience and a little creativity. I hope to offer some technical insight as well as some ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

If you only remember one thing that I talk about over the next week, remember this:  think about the light. Light is one of those things that makes or breaks a photograph. It’s like make-up—when it’s perfect, you shouldn’t notice the light itself but the right light can make an otherwise ordinary image shine.

The light is your friend—let it in! In a bright scene, your camera can work faster, so a wiggling baby looks crisp and sharp and not like a big peach-coloured blur. Your camera’s shutter has to stay open as long as it takes to properly expose an image, so if your images are full of motion blur, you can fix that if you find a way to brighten up the scene. If you have a dSLR, you can play with the aperture and shutter to find the right balance of enough light and the creative effect you want.

If you absolutely must, you can use your flash—but really? Don’t. The built-in flash in most cameras, including high-end dSLRs, are awful for portrait work (and, in my humble opinion, just about everything else). I never use mine. The kind of natural light you want creates gentle shadows that give your subject depth and texture, while flash flattens those shadows and creates other ones that are harsh and unflattering. Trust me—step away from the flash unless you truly have no other choice.

The exception to this is where you might least expect it—on a bright sunny day outside, you can use your flash as a ‘fill flash’ to lift some of the raccoon shadows that appear under peoples’ eyes. See, that’s the thing about photography, every rule also has a good reason for breaking it!

Get used to looking for the light when you’re taking a picture. Notice where the light is falling, how it is illuminating your subject, how bright or dark a scene is. Light from a lamp will add a yellow cast to your pictures, fluorescent light makes things look a little green, while direct sunlight can be harsh and cause those under-eye shadows or unflattering contrasts. The warmest, most forgiving light is that golden glow from early morning and late afternoon, and there’s a good reason why so many artists choose to have studios with north-facing windows—the light is gentle and soft and gives your subject a gorgeous glow.

Bright but diffuse natural light is the perfect light for capturing portraits. If you can, place your subject near a window but not in the direct glare of the sun. Outside, a cloudy day provides soft, even lighting for taking portraits, as does positioning your subject in an area of open shade.

Steal this idea from the pros: pick up a piece of bright white Bristol board or foam core. Position your subject with the window or light source to one side, and then prop up the foam core on the other side so it bounces the light back onto the darker side of your subject. This works really well if you can get your subject to hold the Bristol board in front of them, just out of view of the shot —it casts a lovely soft light up at the face and makes great catchlights in the eye that make eyes twinkle.

It was only when I had my third child that I realized one of the best places for taking portraits of a very little baby is strapped in the car seat! The light is bright but diffuse, and the strapped-in subject isn’t going anywhere—now you’ve got a captive audience, too. Don’t like the car seat pattern? Drape a pastel-coloured receiving blanket over it before you strap baby in.

Back in the day, photographers were told to always shoot with their backs to the sun, but doing that often leads to shots of kids squinting and looking anything but natural. Try shooting with your kids between you and the sun, especially at sunset, or if you’re up early like me, at sunrise. To capture a great silhouette picture, first point your camera at the sky and hold the shutter button half way down to lock the exposure, then move the viewfinder back to your subject. The camera will expose for the bright sky, leaving you with a silhouette of your subjects.

I hope you’ve found some of these tips useful!  I’d be happy to try to answer any specific questions you might have in the comments, and maybe even in one of the upcoming posts for this week.  I plan to offer some thoughts about basics like composition, colour and creativity to give your family snapshots pop, but if there’s a topic you’re particularly interested in, I’m open to your suggestions.

—Dani Girl, Postcards from the Mothership

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