The 3 Cs – Children, Cake & Chaos

Photographing children…a pleasure or a chore? That definitely depends on the children involved! I know every new parent thinks their newborn baby is an angel but ask them a few sleepless nights later and I’m guessing their response may have changed a little. Children can be adorable, smile sweetly and provide fantastic candid shots of pure emotions.  They can also attack you, whilst trying to smother your camera in cake and transition through mood changes faster than a PMT woman lacking chocolate. So, when faced with littleluns to photograph, what should you do?

    1.  If under attack – distract, distract, distract!

My nieces and nephew sometimes like to combine efforts and become a force to be reckoned with.  Over time I have learnt that venturing near their play HQ is much like entering a lion’s den. Dangerous, with the potential for great close-ups. They tend to turn into terrors when I’m at my most vulnerable, as I’m trying to subtly sneak a fun, candid and interesting perspective shot in before they realise what I’m doing.  Invariably, at this point I am sprawled out on the floor in an awkward position or squished in the corner. They are homing missiles, hunting down anyone who has dared to venture into their vicinity without playing with them. [On a side note, I have also noticed that this homing missile tendency quickly switches to the opposite when the approaching adult is offering either a nappy change, bath time or bed time – a great opportunity to capture the majestic sight of an escapee child scampering away!]. There is also no denying it, they have an astonishing ability to thwart most shots just milliseconds before the shutter is completely down.  So, with all that in mind, what on earth can a photographer do to improve their chances?

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What was going to be a nice photograph of relatives until my niece decided to add her own subtle modification to the composition, just as the shutter closed

Firstly, depending on the number of children, you need to determine whether your kit is at genuine risk. I either hasten to get the camera to safety, pushing it onto a nearby perch of some kind, or just sit there playfully fending them off.  The latter does come with the familiar burn of lactic acid build up in my arm as I hold my camera high like the world cup trophy. The dilemma is that I want to hold on to my camera because their playful moments provide some of the best shots, taken from within the action.  It definitely helps that I know their personalities well, so I can predict what they are likely to do next.  When it’s children I don’t know, I tend to protect the kit out of instinct. It becomes my baby, as I cradle it to my chest and look mildly startled as toys start to become airborne and dribble comes into the equation. This is the moment when you need to bring out your best distraction techniques. Start a game, ask a question, point at a person, make a joke, pull a silly face, start to awkwardly dance on the spot (yes, I have done all of these)…just do something to make them pause mid-carnage. Then you can negotiate and buy yourself time to seek reinforcement from another adult, reposition to cease being a sitting target and get your eye-wateringly expensive equipment to safety.

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My niece enjoying exploring the swathes of spring flowers at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

It is in moments like these that you discover how good a photographer you truly are.  To stand a chance of getting more than a montage of out of focus eye close ups I recommend using a wide angle lens with a short focal length, or a versatile zoom lens.  Inquisitive children love to get really close to the lens, peering into the camera. You don’t want to constantly be stuck unable to focus on them unless they are a fair distance away. Much to their annoyance, I tend to keep my finger hovering over the shutter button at all times, regardless of whether the camera is up to my face or down by my side. In fact, I sometimes take pictures when the camera is by my side to capture shots from their level and line of view, rather than the adult perspective looking down on the tops of their heads.  Unless they have wonderfully elaborate hairstyles, above shots are rarely worth bothering with. This technique is very hit and miss though, relying on instinct, practice, speed and experience. Sometimes it produces some amazing photographs alongside a host of out of focus, jaunty angle shots. Don’t forget though, you can fix a wonky horizon in editing software, so you just need to keep all of the key subjects in the frame, well exposed and focused to give yourself something good to work with later. Worst case scenario, you end up deleting some shots off your memory card. Best case scenario, you have a fantastic one of a kind photograph.

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My nephew didn’t even notice that I was lying on the lawn in front of him to take this picture.  He was busy taking a brief break from digging up the garden to read (and cover in soil) his favourite tractor book

    2.  Make the photography fun 

We all know that children have famously short attention spans, as do a fair few adults. When I have encountered kids getting grumpy with me for taking their picture it is usually accompanied by moans that I am being boring and not playing with them enough.  My response is to turn photography into a game and get them involved.  It’s amazing how quickly they become little posers and start requesting to see the pictures when they realise you’re giving them attention in the process.  I have asked them to do impressions, pull faces, hold something interesting, show me how to blow bubbles etc and they have all worked. If there are a few children playing together they gradually start to engage when they notice what their play buddies are doing.  Before long you have them all competing to have their photo taken.  The logistics of this can introduce new problems but at least they are smiling in the photographs, rather than turning away or looking glum.

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My niece’s birthday offered up the opportunity to get a candid cake, candles and smiles shot

As they get older I start to convince myself that if they did any damage their spending money could start to pay off at least a bit of any damage they caused.  I consequently become a trusting soul and occasionally pass over my camera. Admittedly, I am talking about an entry level DSLR, not a £3,000 pro camera setup, but nevertheless it is a camera I love and forked out hundreds of pounds for so I prefer to see it in one piece at all times! This takes guts and I strongly recommend you vet them extensively before progressing to this level.  When I say older, I mean 9 years old kind of level of old. There is no way in a million years I would let the 2 year old or 4 year olds loose near my DSLR. It wouldn’t last 2 minutes in their hands!  The 9 year old has her own point and shoot camera though so the world of cameras isn’t completely foreign to her, mine just seems large, heavy and needlessly complicated in comparison.  She started to become intrigued by what I was doing, following me around and asking questions about photography, so I thought it was a great chance to engage her enthusiasm and creativity.

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Turning the tables: The view I am gradually becoming accustomed to as my niece starts to turn the camera on me

At Christmas I was taking pictures from the rooftops of Westminster in London when I bit the bullet and decided to call her over. I set the camera up on the tripod, switched on the autofocus and continuous shooting mode and encouraged her to experiment with turning the barrel and pressing the big button. She absolutely loved it. I became her model, she directed me into positions and got some great shots in the process.  There’s nothing quite like nurturing genuine interest to make you feel a little bit less nervous about the whole child + camera + rooftop scenario going on.  Every time I have seen her since that day she has chatted about how great an experience it was and now carries her camera around with her, asking me for tips.

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My 9 year old niece’s photograph of me using a DSLR for the first time, with a 300mm lens attached, on a windy rooftop

A couple of months ago we were reunited on a holiday in Norfolk when she asked if I could help her take a well exposed photo of the sun setting over the ocean. We suddenly realised we were about to miss it so we grabbed our cameras and raced out the door to get to the top of the cliffs in time.  Behind us came excited calls from the other children as they rushed to get their wellies and coats on as fast as they could to join us.  As we all stood together in a line, looking out to sea and appreciating the amazing colours being thrown up into the sky, I was pretty proud of the fact that they had all started to engage with photography rather than resisting it.  One was taking pictures, whilst the others were enjoying the chance play together and be our models.  It was quite the transformation from the moment, a year earlier, when they had collectively tried to smear chocolate cake all over my camera! The sun setting then brought with it the fun of herding them back to our accommodation in the half light, with the promise of a hot chocolate waiting for them, but that’s another story. The calm was nice whilst it lasted!

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Sunset across the ocean, viewed from West Runton, Norfolk
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