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Smartphone Photography

A parent sees their child like no one else can; and sees beauty in their child with heart-tugging clarity. Whether gazing wistfully through a window on a quiet September morning or stuffing chicken McNuggets in their maw, one’s own children are endlessly beautiful, compelling, and intriguing. This leads to taking pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Studies show that by the age of five the average child will have been photographed over 600 gazillion times. Most of these pictures will suck. Here, I suggest that through intentional photographic practice, and exercise of a discerning editorial eye, you can cut this number to fewer than one bazillion and see more outstanding photos overall. I focus on smartphone photography since it is the most convenient and accessible way to photograph children for most people.

Taking the Photograph

  • Use Natural Light whenever Possible. This typically involves being outside, or in a room with plenty of windows. Smart phone cameras are pretty good at dealing with florescent or incandescent bulbs, but it often gives skin a sickly hue. Never put the sun behind your subject. Early morning and before dusk generally offer flattering light.
  • Avoid the Flash. There are few situations when direct flash will result in an acceptable image; mugshots and DMV photos.
  • Zoom with your Body. Many cameras boast of their zoom capabilities, but without a tripod and a perfectly still subject, zooming will degrade the image by exaggerating small vibrations. Keep the zoom pulled all the way out, and simply move your body to fill the frame with your subject.
  • Get Low. Crouch or kneel to take photos at eye level with your child. This engages them more in the process, while producing images that lend more dignity to your pint-sized offspring. Pictures taken from an adult point of view have a place, but they tend to foreground the child’s relative smallness, cuteness, etc. rather than their individuality and dramatic presence.
  • Purposeful Posing. Take a few moments before snapping a photo to survey the scene. Everything will end up inside a small rectangle, so how best to fill that rectangle? Where will your child sit/stand? What do you want to feature in the background? Is there suitable light or would it be better to move elsewhere? Will they be facing forward, turned to the side, gazing into the sunset? The idea here is to have a good idea before you start shooting, so you can get the shot you want more quickly. This will keep your child from wilting under the pressure of “sit still and smile!” and hopefully improve their relationship with the camera down the road.
  • Play Peek-a-Boo. It’s difficult for kids to look at the camera lens of a smartphone. First, it’s not obvious where the lens actually is, and second, there isn’t a warm relationship there. If possible, poke your head out and engage your child while holding the phone in position and pressing the shutter. Your camera may also have a “one touch” feature that will take the photo when any part of the screen is touched.

Editing Photographs

  • Delete, Delete, Delete. If you’ve got a series of photos that are basically the same, try to make the tough decision of which one picture is the best and delete the others. This is hard to do since they’re all adorable in their own way. However, through hard-hearted deletion, you can train your eye to discern a “good” photo from a “great” one. This will lend itself to better, more deliberate photo taking, while also making it easier to transform hundreds or thousands of images into a manageable, thoughtfully edited collection.
  • Adjust Contrast and Saturation. In day-to-day life, I try to take good pictures “in camera,” and do as little editing as possible. However, adjustments to contrast and saturation sometimes make a good photo even better. Boosting the contrast a few degrees will sharpen lines, add depth, and give your photo a crisper feeling. Increasing saturation will enhance colors, which can be nice for bluer skies, greener grass, and more vibrant backgrounds. Decreasing saturation can also make ruddy or inflamed skin more neutral. In both cases, keep it subtle since skin tone will be affected.
  • Avoid Filters. Smartphones come with a host of filters built in, and photo-sharing apps encourage you to add filters to give ordinary pictures more pizzazz. In my opinion, filters should be used sparingly if at all. First, they tie the photo to current trends in digital photography, and even to certain apps or brands; this will make your photos seem dated just a few years down the road. Second, they encourage sloppier photo-taking; “Not a great pic, so I’ll just put that Polaroid filter on it!”

These are just a few suggestions. In general, I’d recommend simply being more intentional about the photos you take while taking fewer photos overall. Ultimately, it’s about the discovery and sharpening of your own sensibility. This will hopefully lend itself to more cherished photos and a better photo-taking experience for kids and adults.