Last year I attended a workshop at the Nikon with SmugMug. Up until that point I hadn’t realised just how important it was to store your images in more than one place. As a result of this workshop, I also learned some valuable tips on how to take photos of children. But no one seems to know more about this than Russian mother, Elena Shumilova, who went viral last year with the photos of her children playing in the countryside near her home which she then uploaded online. Over 60 million views! She even started getting letters from people in their nineties telling her that her images had moved them to tears.
I believe that any parent is keen to capture their kids on film. We want to remember them as they grow and change and to be able to preserve at least some of their childhood forever. However, we also want them to remain as natural as possible too. Studio photos can be unnatural and not capture your kids as you might want to remember them. Plus, what child enjoys being coaxed for an image by a complete stranger?
Elena has mostly been quiet since her photos have gone viral. Instead, she focuses on raising her kids and continues to photograph them every day. But SmugMug were invited to share a behind-the-scenes look at Elena in action – have a look at this beautiful video:
So, how can we capture better photographs of our kids? How can we make sure they are natural? Elena shares some of her most valuable tips.
How to get your kids to look natural, not “posed”
So you catch your kids in the perfect moment — they’re outside playing and laughing, the lighting is just right, and you see this perfect picture you want to capture. You rush to get out your camera, but then…they see the camera. They stiffen up. They start posing. The moment is lost. What do you do?
When photographing children, the single most important thing is to photograph them often — every day. You can’t just do it sporadically, or they’ll freeze up as soon as the camera comes out. Consistency is key. That way they’ll be comfortable around the camera. It’s these everyday scenes that you want to capture — the ones you’ll remember best when they grow up.
To get the most genuine photos, I try to catch them in the moment — when they’re playing with each other and have completely forgotten about the camera.
The types of clothes that work the best
I follow a pretty simple rule: clothes shouldn’t be distracting. They shouldn’t take attention away from what’s happening in the photo. For such a simple rule, it’s harder to follow than you might think. Kids’ clothes today are designed to grab your attention—with bright colours, cartoon characters, and writing all over them. In photographs, all this takes attention away from your kids.
When I started pursuing photography seriously, I actually replaced all their outfits. This took quite a while to do, but now I know that anything I pull from their closet won’t interfere with the photo.
How to best capture kids of different ages.
A lot of parents have asked me how did you get your one-month-old to look so calm? Infants are notoriously difficult to photograph because they’re often crying or fidgeting.
Here you’ll have an advantage as a parent. I’m his mum. I’m around him 24 hours a day, and I know when he cries and when he doesn’t. Let your parenting instinct help you choose the right moment.
The Golden Age: Ages 2–4
Something I noticed while photographing many children, including my own, is that there seems to be a universal age when kids are the most photogenic. That seems to happen between ages two and four.
Kids around this age behave very naturally. They don’t care that someone is looking at them, they don’t care what others think, and they don’t care that a camera is pointed at them. They aren’t yet self- aware. And so, they’re free.
Ages 5 and Older
It gets a bit more difficult when they’re older. As early as age five, they start to become more self-conscious when the camera comes out. They start to pose. The key here is to be very patient. Let them play while you disappear into the background. My best photos always happen at the end of a photo shoot, when my kids have forgotten all about the camera.
How to get good photos of your kids with pets
Just like people, every animal is different. Some pets like to be photographed, and others don’t.
Because every pet is different, there isn’t a magic formula for this. I spend hours observing our farm animals, figuring out how they move and what angles work best for them — just like I would for people. I’ve also tried bribing pets with food, but it doesn’t work. It’s almost impossible to get a good picture when they’re chewing or licking their paws. So I’ve learned the hard way not to feed our pets during photo shoots.
With animals, you have to rely on a bit of luck — and constant patience.
Don’t give up
This is the most famous photo I’ve taken. It’s been viewed over 10 million times — but I almost didn’t bring my camera that day.
Before I took this photo, my confidence was at a pretty low point. I had tried for a photo of my son and dog 14 other times — not 14 other photos, but 14 full photo shoots, all failures. I was convinced that my hands were too clumsy, or my dog was not the right dog for it, or my kid was not the right kid for it. I was just feeling desperate that day and didn’t even want to bring my camera. But something told me to bring it. And on that fifteenth day, it all just came together.
This dog of ours is now famous — but he’s not all that photogenic from most angles. He’s actually a pretty difficult dog to work with. From the previous 14 photo shoots, I’d learned what angles and body compositions work for him and my son.
It‘s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to think, “Oh, why bother, it won’t work anyway.” And it may not for the first 14 times. Those 14 photo shoots weren’t failures though, because I learned from them. And they’re what made the fifteenth one possible.
Don’t give up.
Rather than creating high-pressure elaborate setups, observe your kids in everyday simple situations. Do it every day. Bring your camera along. And then — when the right moment comes along — you’ll be ready.
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