TEN TIPS on how to photograph children – part 1

Children may be spontaneous subjects, but photographing them needs a little planning on the part of the photographer – plus good camera craft and lots of patience. 

How times have changed. I am fortunate to be of a generation that that could photograph children without being demonised as an evil pervert. Point a camera at a child these days and you will immediately be branded a dangerous monster. This paranoia, fostered and encouraged by official agencies, has even got through to the children themselves and we are all poorer for the loss of beautiful images of childhood.

But let’s not be too negative, there are still many enlightened parents who are overjoyed to have natural, unposed photographs of their children, and you may have children or grandchildren of your own… perfect subjects.

Sensible parents can be a tremendous help by keeping an eye on things (wiping runny noses etc.) but only assisting when asked. It can be very frustrating when mum moves in to straighten clothing just at the moment when the child’s expression is perfect and you press the shutter button. So talk things through in a really informal, friendly way before the photo session starts. Stress that you will all be working together to produce lovely pictures of the children. You need their help.


I went along to photograph Rory and Niamh, whose parents are good friends of ours. I had the advantage that the children knew me and were relaxed in my company. I did go armed with a few carefully chosen presents – the sort of things that would make good props for the pictures. I knew, for instance, that Niamh loved making pictures, so I took along a colouring book for her – and a book for Rory, of course. The plan was that these books could be used not only to occupy and interest the children, but the white pages of the books would act as reflectors, putting light back into their faces. This did work remarkably well. I also took along a golden tiara for Niamh (Rory certainly wouldn’t want one of those), and bubble-making pots for each. These proved unsuccessful – I spent so much time helping the kids make bubbles that a didn’t get a single picture of them blowing bubbles themselves.



Top right photograph: After trying unsuccessfully to get a picture that caught both children at their best, and with Rory’s attention flagging, I decided to photograph the children individually. I gave Niamh her tiara, which she immediately put on her favourite teddy and gave him a cuddle. This made a lovely picture. You simply MUST be ready and waiting to capture these wonderful moments when they happen 

Lower left photograph: From behind the camera I asked Rory what he had in his bulging pockets. He continued to look out of the window while distractedly fumbling around in his pockets to find out. This made another natural pose


Talk through your plan with parents
Find a position in good natural light
Try to ‘confine’ your subjects in some way
Check the background for unsightly elements
Take your light reading and set the exposure
Try to set a shutter speed of at least 1/125sec
Set white balance
Have toys or props ready
Drawing books make good reflectors


When all is set, bring in your subjects



Photograph of the two children: The pictures were taken beside a patio window. A large white reflector was placed off picture to the right. Getting the two children in the same frame and with good expressions proved almost impossible. Niamh would always go one way, Rory the other. When they came together it was for a fraction of a second; they were always on the move, and so was the camera. Shooting at 1/45sec at f3.3 without a tripod has taken its toll – and this picture is not quite sharp as a result




Bottom photograph: WRONG! The problem with this sort of set-up is that there is a high possibility that when your subject leans over the book, you will only see the top of his head – like this


Next, in part 2 – TEN TIPS while taking photographs of children





How to photograph sunsets – part 2

Photographs of sunsets are really very simple to record because once you have arrived at the correct exposure for the sky, you can adjust your shooting angle and move around to silhouette subjects between you and the sky without worrying about changing exposures at all – you are really just photographing a colourful backdrop (the sky) with shapes in front of it (silhouettes). It is how you position yourself and arrange those shapes that can make or break the picture – and that’s all about good composition.

You will generally create a yawn if you include nothing but sky – no matter how dramatic or colourful it is. Neither will you create any feeling of the place in which the picture was taken. So look for interesting buildings, objects, trees and people doing things and try to include them in your sunset pictures. Often these subjects can be researched and found well before the sun actually sets – we all know it’s going to go down in the west – so a bit of pre-planning can pay dividends.

If we photograph a colourful sunset across an expanse of water, down a rain-soaked street or a snow-covered field, the rich colours will be reflected right into the foreground of the picture. The eye will then be led along these reflections. Photographing over reflective surfaces like this can almost double the colour of the sky.

People can make wonderful subjects for these outline shapes (silhouettes). Depending on what the person is doing, the inclusion of people in your sunset picture can add an immediate sense of romance, atmosphere, action or stillness. However it is vital that the outline of the person included is kept ‘clean’. It’s no use photographing someone running across the beach with a wonderful sunset behind him if his outline shape is obscured by a boat pulled up on the sand, for instance.

Top photograph
Having photographed the Taj Mahal during the day I was determined to return at sunset. I had worked out roughly where the sun would go down and found my way to a spot beside the river where I could position the setting sun behind the building. The atmosphere was absolutely still and a slight haze has diffused the sunlight and put subtle detail in the shadows. The inclusion of the man has added human interest, scale and narrative. Centre-weighted metering mode was used and although the light reading was taken mostly from the sky, part of the building was included. This has helped retain detail in the shadows without over exposing the sky

Centre photograph
For all I know, this couple might have been planning a divorce, but photographed against a setting sun the message is a romantic one. All detail the figures and the bridge has been removed by exposing for the brightness of the sky – this has created strong silhouettes. Even the hard, angular structure of the bridge has added to the composition

Bottom photograph
Even a poor Thai fisherman gathering supper for his family will stop to appreciate the beauty of a sunset over the sea. Don’t be afraid to point your camera straight into the light in these situations. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The Rule of Thirds is used here – horizon on a top third, man on
right hand third, sun on intersection of two lines

How to photograph sunsets – part 1

There’s more to photographing a sunset than just capturing the colour. So how do you can inject more visual appeal, drama and romance into your pictures?  

Sunsets have always attracted photographers and artists, and so they should. But there’s more to capturing a great sunset photograph than just pointing a camera at a colourful sky. It is unlikely that you will need to improve on the colour of a really good sunset, either with filters or in Photoshop, but if you want to capture the romance and spectacle of the moment, you simply must resort to sound composition and good camera craft.

Strangely, it is rarely the glory of the sky alone that rivets the viewer or stirs the imagination in a successful sunset picture. It is more likely to be the inclusion of a foreground: people, landscape or other objects that the sunset is actually lighting or silhouetting. It will be the whole scene that will tell of the romance or drama, not just the sky. In an exotic location, a picture of the setting sun can express the thrill of travel like few other subjects. However, the most common mistake leading to boring pictures is to get so dazzled by the splendour of the scene that you cease to look at it objectively – you must bear in mind the way the camera will record it.

TOP PICTURE: an interesting foreground has been included in the picture of the lighthouse. There is no detail in the silhouettes of the rocks – just outline shape, that’s fine. The eye is moves over them and across the bay to the island and the sky, taking in detail as it goes. The pictures has much more to say about the subject and is far more rewarding to look at. Notice how that colour has been reflected right into the foregound

SECOND PICTURE: Yawwwwn… okay, nice colours. But where is the real visual impact? The only thing that can be said about this is that it is correctly exposed and the lighthouse has been placed on one of the vertical lines of our Rule of Thirds. The picture has no depth. Bin it!


BOTTOM PICTURE: A wide angle lens has been used to include lots of interesting foreground details. Notice how the reflected colour of the setting sun has been brought right into the foreground adding more value to the whole image. The camera was put on a tripod and a shutter speed 1/30sec was used at f11. The exposure was taken from the foreground. The small aperture has helped created a nice sparkle flare around the sun
NEXT in part 2 – Photographing people at sunset

Photography forums

I’ve recently joined a couple of photography forums – and I’m seriously impressed by the way the members are so willing to share their knowledge… and the depth of some of that knowledge. I can highly recommend http://www.talkphotography.co.uk/ to anyone with an interest in photography.
It’s all about sharing information – far better value than paper magazines…. it’s free!
I had a bit of fun by asking the members what was the first thing they photographed with the camera they got for Christmas.
Answers and still coming in, but so far they range from…
The inside of the lens cap, the floor (by accidentally pressed the shutter button), and ducks.

How to photograph people -simple portraits 3

I’ve been enjoying showing you some of these black and white images of mine. This time I’ve chosen a photograph to demonstrate the importance of good composition within a simple portrait. 

The picture itself is pretty simple. A telephoto lens was used, and this has foreshortened the perspective and pressed the farmers together from front to back. This in itself has had a powerful effect on the composition by making all three heads the same size. It has flattened the perspective into three layers.

Lines of composition do not need to be obvious. The horizontal line created by the top of the metal gate, which runs along the bottom third of the picture, is a pretty obvious line of composition. So, too, is the diagonal line made by the man’s forearm. This line is extended upwards across the lighted side of his face. The area of the hand and face has become the focal point. Diagonal lines of composition can be very effective and appealing.

The less-obvious line of composition is the eye line of all three farmers. This follows the line of the arm towards the bottom right of the picture. There is little to satisfy the eye down there and it is drawn back into the top third of the picture by the light on the man’s hand and face. Then the whole process starts again – the eye is being drawn around the picture in a cycle, gathering information as it goes, but always coming back to the focal point.

How to photograph people – simple portraits 2

My portrait of the rabbi was well received yesterday. So I thought I’d show you the second portrait I took immediately after the first. I asked this man to sit beside another small window in the synagogue and gave him precisely the same treatment.
Powerful sidelight is ideal for this type of subject because sidelight enhances texture – and that ‘texture’ reveals every wrinkle and line in the sitter’s face. I went through a stage with this photograph when I thought that perhaps it would have been better if I had turned the man’s head towards the light just a little more. But now I feel it is best the way it is. The intense shadow hides almost as much as the light reveals – and, for me, that adds rather than subtracts from the overall effect.
I believe black and white has far more impact and appeal for this type of photograph. 
The total time taken to capture both the portraits amounted to no more than 5 or 6 minutes. It is vital to get things right first time in these situations. So practise by photographing friends at every opportunity. This practise will pay off handsomely when you find yourself in a situation where you need to pose a complete stranger and get the picture you envisage quickly and without fuss.
I was asked yesterday if I had any plans to do a Portrait Photography Workshop. This is a very good idea and I will see if I can set something up for later in the year. Meanwhile my next DVD will be out in the spring of 2008 – and that will cover Portraiture in Natural Light. I will keep you informed.

How to photograph people – a simple portrait

The inside of the synagogue was a blaze of coloured wall tiles and, understandably, most of the visitors waned to take photographs of these. When I set eyes on the faces of the rabbis and scholars, I’m afraid the colourful surroundings faded into the background – such wonderful faces! While the others looked around the synagogues inner sanctum. I made a beeline for the man handing out the obligatory skull caps. There was no time to spend on chat and I don’t think the poor chap knew what hit him, but I wasn’t prepared to give him the chance to refuse to have his picture taken. I took him gently by the arm and sat him down by a small window – the best light available. 

Setting up a tripod was out of the question, it was a case of making the most of the conditions as they were.

Fortunately, there was a table between us and I was able to rest my elbows on this to hold the camera still for the 1/15sec exposure. The result – a simple, but powerful portrait, whose impact is due to the sidelighting, which brings out the quality of the man’s features and the unblinking expression on his face.

The penetration and gravity of this simple portrait centres on the man’s doleful, knowing eyes. A frown or a smile is so often merely a transient, fleeting expression, and a more reliable giveaway to a someone’s personality is to be seen in the eyes. When we photograph someone looking straight at the camera like this, an intimate and hypnotic link is forged between the subject and the person looking at the picture.

The lower picture shows the simple set-up where I took the portrait. Just one small window and a table. It’s sometimes all you need.

First published in my book ‘A Practical Guide to Travel Photography’.

Photographing Christmas lights

Following our festive theme, here’s a picture of one of those houses festooned with OTT Christmas decorations. Well, you’ve got to take a few photographs, haven’t you?
Once again, the old methods work best in these situations…

Find your best angle.
Get the camera on a good firm tripod.

ISO down to 100.
Aperture stopped down to f11.
Long exposure. 

Again, I just used the ‘Bulb’ setting on the camera, opened the shutter for a couple of seconds or so. Checked to see the image was okay, and moved on to the next shot. Keep it simple. It’s always best.

What do you do with your White Balance (WB) setting for pictures like this?
Take it easy, that’s what. In this case I stuck it on Auto White Balance (AWB). Doesn’t seem a thousand miles out to me.

Try to take these pictures just before it goes completely dark. The perfect time is when there is still a touch of colour in the sky.



Have a wonderful Christmas everyone, and thanks for visiting my new blog. I hope you are enjoying it and finding it useful. Please do post your questions and responses.

Photographing Christmas

Okay, let’s get a bit festive and look at how to produce a couple of simple, atmospheric pictures this Christmas.

I put the camera on a tripod. A flash unit was hidden away on the fireplace behind the couple. I didn’t bother setting up flash synch cables or infra-red gizmos. I just got the young chap to fire the flash with his spare hand when I had the shutter open.
I used the ‘Bulb’ setting on the camera and fired the shutter with a cable release – the simple, sensible type that screws into the shutter button. This is the type that you can no longer use because the camera manufacturers have stopped putting the screw thread in the shutter button. Clever – now you have to buy expensive electronic release cable or silly remote controls (have you ever tried using one of those things outdoors in the wet on a bitterly cold night?). Ggrrrr!
I set the aperture to f11. ISO 100 was used. The shutter speed would have been around 2 seconds.

It is a big mistake to try and use wide apertures with this type of shot. Those small Christmas tree lights can often appear as fuzzy little blobs at wide apertures. The magic starts at f11 – just look at the sparkle around the candle on the mantle piece. You do not need star filters to get this – just stop down and use a slower shutter speed.

Depth of Field 2

In my last post I showed you a landscape photograph I took with a very wide aperture in order to limit the depth of field. Also contributing to this limited depth of field was the use of an 85mm lens. Normally, the longer the focal length of a lens the less depth of field it will give. So using a wide aperture with an 85mm lens is guaranteed to limit it and throw much of the scene out of focus. It is a technique that must be used with great care in landscapes. It can look dreadful. Usually it is used to isolate a particular part of the scene. In the case of that picture taken in Thassos, it was used to give an abstract feel to the shot.

It is far more common to aim for the maximum depth of field when taking landscape photographs. That means smaller apertures – f16 or less.

A wide angle lens is a favourite for landscape photographers because it has inherently tremendous depth of field. It also has and the ability to exaggerate the perceived perspective, which has the effect of creating the illusion of depth within a two dimensional image.

In the picture of the old wooden wreck above, I wanted the absolute maximum depth of field, so I have used a wide-angle lens, stopped the aperture right down to f22 and used a shutter speed of 1/4sec. The camera was, of course, put on a tripod, so I was able to use ISO 100 in order to get maximum quality.