Take Great Photos of Your Kids Every Time

In order to take great photos, you need to know how to take bad ones first, right? Here is the first in a series of simple rules to keep in mind in order to take lousy photos...

Rule #1. Ignore the lighting
Who needs natural light when you've got a built-in flash right? Wrong. On-board flashes can ruin almost any photo if you let them. To be fair, an automatic flash can generate a fair photo out of poor lighting conditions, but more often, it masks beautiful lighting conditions. Take the photo at left as an example: an automatic flash would have blown out the magic of these sparklers. Look also at the lower photo: here we see a nice soft glow of the candle on Tommy's face as he blows out his birthday candles; an automatic flash would wash out the candle's warm glow by blasting everyone with harsh white light. Ans worse, itwould outline the subject with a dark shadow on the back wall.

Does this mean never to use a flash? Heck no. Flashes rock when used properly. In fact, (even though implied that I didn't) I used a flash on the birthday candle photo*, I just dimmed the flash considerably. How can you dim the flash? Many SLRs have adjustable flashes, so you can simply set the onboard flash a stop and a half below the ambient light.

Most point and shoot cameras (and some SLRs) won't allow you to adjust the flash, so you need to devise your own adjustment strategy. I've found napkins and scotch tape to work well. Napkin layers dim the intensity of the flash and also diffuse the light like a soft box does. Use trial and error to determine how many layers of napkin you need: try it with one, two, three or more layers of napkin (tip: yellow or red napkins will warm the light). And even if you don't want to dim the flash much, a single napkin layer will help diffuse the light.

How should you balance the flash with the ambient light? Many photographers use the back light front fill method: use the natural light as the key lighting (back light), and the flash as a filler to soften shadows (front fill). This fill flash is set around 1-1/2 stops below the key light. If you don't have a light meter, use trial and error.

The sun at noon is a bummer, not a boon. Shooting outdoors in the sun can yield great photos but you need to do it at the right time of day. When the sun is low in the sky (morning and evening) it shines sideways, which creates long dramatic shadows that go sideways. The color of the sunlight is also warmer, i.e, golden reddish. High noon sun casts shadows straight down on your kid's face (which makes it look like spanky has two black eyes), and the light is harsh white.

The raking light of morning and dusk also highlights the texture of things, such as clothing. The shadow difference is evident in these two photos. The high noon shot works well enough though because Tommy's face is in a shadow, and he's not looking at the camera. But you can also see the difference in the light quality: see how white and bleached out the pavement in the background is? The morning beach photo above has much warmer light. The photo at left of Moms with Jack was taken in a nice evening light that's raking sideways and has a yellow tint. Raking light also highlights the folds in fabric, which adds a ton of depth to photos.

*The flash is evident in the photo because you can see the shadow behind the man's head in the background.

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