UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


SLC-1L-10: [COVID DIARIES] Shoot the Kids

Hey, there's a pandemic. Have you heard?

Looks like we might be spending a lot of time in the house with our immediate family these days. Maybe that family includes kids. And maybe they are starting to go a little stir crazy.

Keep reading for some ideas for any lighting photographer who might be looking to make the best of some unscheduled family time.

Some Assumptions and Basic Tips

Given Strobist's readership, I am going to assume that the audience for this post is likely to have a decent camera and at least one light with a soft modifier such as an umbrella or a soft box. (If not, hit Lighting 101 to gear up and get up to speed.)

Honestly, one light will get you a long way. Because that means you can turn any blank wall into an impromptu portrait studio.

If you have a wall with a nice color or medium gray tone, fantastic. Use that. If not, most of you will have at least one light/white wall in your house. You deepen that tone if you like by keeping your light close to your subject and moving subject and light away from the wall to shoot.

Also, mind your ceiling. It's probably eight feet high and white. That can be very limiting for light placement when photographic someone who is standing. You can buy yourself some lighting height flexibility (and reflection control) by photographing a subject who is seated.

Shoot the Kids

Right. This one's pretty obvious. But the fact remains that you may never get a better opportunity to spend some quality time making nice portraits of your kids and/or family.

I took the photo up top an a whim 11 years ago, and it remains one of my favorite images I have ever made. It was a quick portrait for a Christmas present for my wife. I wish I had done more formal photos like this. Cobblers kids and shoes, as they say.

You can shoot outdoors, as I did. (With a 47" octa, top right, and a speedlight kicker, back left, if you're wondering.) Or you can shoot indoors if outdoor options are limited, or if it is still too cold where you live.

The thing is to just do it. Take advantage of this opportunity. Make a big deal of it. Announce it the day before.

"Hey kids, we're doing fancy portraits tomorrow. Get ready to play dress-up and be famous."

Make it a game. Make it fun. Rope them in. Keep them interested. Give them some keywords to act out.

Pretend you're:

• rich and famous
• mysterious
• a super genius
• secretly a wizard
• currently reading my mind

For younger kids, say 4-9, this brings them into the collaboration. And not only does it make things more fun, it will prompt a fantastic range of expressions.

Play Some Mind Games

Here's a trick that you can steal from photographers who are really good portraitists: Set up the moment. Give your kid a construct as a prompt for a portrait.

Long-time readers will remember this exercise with actor MaryLee Adams, seen above. (Click through for more.)

The point with her was to work through varying amounts of intensity. But you can easily adapt this to kids as well.

Have them look up at you. Grab and lock focus on their eye. Then tell them something like, "I want you to look down. When I call your name, you look up at me. But what I don't yet know is that you are a wizard, you're annoyed with me, and you have just decided to turn me into a rat."

That will get you an expression worthy of a portrait. Try all kinds of things. Be creative.

Or, simply challenge them to give you the worst expression they can.

My friend Sara Lando does this. She hits her workshop folks in an exercise I like to think of as three minutes of hell. Because it makes everyone very uncomfortable at first. But it never fails to produce interesting (and often, amazing) photos. And on top of that it loosens everyone up, allowing them to take (and give) far better portraits.

The point here is not the lighting. Keep that part simple, so you don't waste any mindshare on it while shooting. The point is the creativity and fun and shared experience. And you may well get an amazing portrait out of it.

Don't have anyone to photograph? Grad some treats and shoot the dog.

No Dog? Turn the Lens on Yourself

In fact, here is Sara Lando from back in 2012 to show you exactly how to stretch your lighting and photo chops through creative self portraiture.

Let Them Steer

Maybe your kid is a little older, and not really into being photographed by adults. But of course they'll still wear out a phone battery taking selfies in the bathroom mirror.

So, set up a studio for them, and give them the shutter button. This is much easier than you might think.

You'll need a remote shutter release, whether wired (make sure it is long enough) or wireless.

Fortunately, if you don't have one they are refreshingly inexpensive. Just make sure you double check to get one that fits your camera.

The idea is, you design the light and they can then make self portraits that look, well, lit. Here are some tips.

• If your camera has face and/or eye detection, turn it on to help your batting average for focus. If not, zone focus and use a deeper aperture for depth of field. (And recheck often.)

• Stand a mirror up behind the camera (or set up in front of a wall mirror.) This will give them the visual feedback they need.

• Experiment with them to find the best light source. They might like the look of a big soft box or umbrella. Or they might prefer a ring light if you have that. Experiment.

But the main thing is to give them the control. You are the lighting director, they are the creative director. And knowing that a photo won't ever be made unless they push the button will give them more confidence.

Teach Them to Drive

Are your kids, say, age ten or older? There is absolutely zero reason they cannot learn to do this lighting stuff themselves.

Seriously, lighting is not hard. Teach them how to do it. Remember the page in Lighting 101 that walks you through a first session with your new lights? (The lighting exercise is at the bottom, under all of the gear stuff up top.)

That's exactly the first exercise of the day that we do in a small-group lighting class. I've written down all of the steps and walked you through it.

Now, you do that with them. Work through it together. Photograph each other. I suggest you let them go first.

You might be surprised at how fast they pick it up. Because unlike us when starting out with flash, they're fearless.

Now You Show Me Yours

If you try some of the things from this post, and are on Twitter, please share your ideas and results!

We all have a tough time ahead of us. Let's all take care of ourselves and those around us, and make the best of it.

This article was published as an entry in Strobist Lighting Cookbook. New articles and how-to's appear monthly. To receive notifications for new posts, you can follow via email or via Instagram.


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