Portraits of Babies and Children

We have been discussing photo composition the last few sessions. This week we are going to cover baby and children's portraits.

I want to look at and discuss three types of childrens portraits:

1. Formal portraits

2. Informal portraits

3. Candid shots

I would encourage you to try to advance your skills from candid shots to informal portraits if you are not currently at that skill level. We will cover some tips and example photographs that will help you do this.


First some general points.

When attempting to learn baby/children portrait techniques, ALWAYS have your equipment ready for instant use when around children.

Keep your flash(es) mounted or connected to the camera at all times, ready to turn on the instant you see interesting opportunities.

Keep your flash(es) turned on while the children are playing or exploring and keep spare batteries handy.

Babies will not normally pose, so you have to have your equipment set up and ready to go. Be prepared to invest more than one session to get outstanding baby portraits.

If the baby gets irritated or cranky, save your film for another time (although introducing a new item that baby has never seen sometimes gets you some great "I was crying but now I am not" photos).

The best way to photograph babies is too set up an area with props, toys, and lighting, and shoot pictures as baby plays, or while the baby's mother interacts with him/her.

Soft lighting also can give you some outstanding photos of a sleeping baby.

Children may be posed, but they quickly get tired of it all and quit cooperating. The best way to photograph younger children is to set up your equipment and photograph them as they play or as they investigate an unusual object.

Smaller objects that are sticky, that move, or that make unusual noises will focus children's attention on their hands and can result in some outstanding informal portraits.

A piece of scotch tape rolled into a ring with the sticky side out is an excellent thing to use to occupy a younger toddler. They will have all sorts of interesting expressions and poses as they explore the possibilities of the new toy.

Have a new item to give them as soon as they tire of the tape.

Just be sure you watch them carefully to ensure they have NO chance to put the item in their mouth! Having mother hovering behind and to the side just out of camera range is usually a good idea.


Older children may be more self conscious. It helps to divert their attention if you tell them you are checking your equipment and to ignore you.

They will soon quit paying attention to the flash, and you can get some candid photos.

Giving todlers something new to investigate is also a good technique for getting good informal portraits.

As with all portraits, be sure to focus on the eyes! Nothing ruins a good portrait as easily as eyes that are not in focus.

Now, on to looking at some example photos.

First, a few formal portraits.

These are usually done in a portrait studio or outdoors with studio lighting type setups.

The lights are usually diffused to give soft lighting, using either lightboxes, umbrellas, or reflectors.

Fill is almost always used, but can be ignored if the main light source is broad and even, such as a lightbox or indirect daylight from a picture window.

(Harsh lighting can be used for special effects if desired, but please experiment beforehand to be sure you get the effect you want.)

Props are usually used to help keep the children busy and to give a more formal look to the photos.

Look at this photo:

Note the props and soft lighting, which are indicative of formal portraits.

Now look at:

Note the very soft lighting used here.

Look at this one:

Notice that the photo utilizes fill to augment the main lighting, which tends to soften the shadows. This is normally desired in baby or children portraits.

Now look at this photo:

Note the complex lighting setup, which has more light on the background than on the subject, while still lighting the face with fairly soft light.

Now look at this one:

This photo uses a lighting setup with very little fill on one side of the face, which is usually seen in portraits of statesmen or "character" subjects.

Informal portraits are usually done with fewer props or in more everyday situations. They should also utilize multiple light setups, and the lights should be diffused to soften the shadows.

If you have to use a single flash as your light source, please make every attempt to soften the light with a reflector or small umbrella.

Look at this fine example:

Notice the soft lighting? This one appears to have NO fill, but the soft main light makes it look good.

Look at the center photo on the bottom row on this page:

This is a good example of a mother helping pose her baby. (However, I personally would like to have seen a little more reflected fill on the baby's face.)

Now look at this one:

Note the soft shadows behind the statue and books, evidence of a broad light source.

Look at this page, which contains 4 photos:

The three baby photos are good examples of informal portraits.

The lower left one is an example of a photo that uses the baby to add interest to a product (the quilt) or uses a prop (the quilt) to add atmosphere and a particular feeling to a baby setting, rather than being a portrait per se.

The upper left one is a great setting, and could be a fine portrait. However, the broad variation in lighting on the faces (sunlight on one, open shadow on three) weakens the photo.

Look at this one:

Does anyone care to analyze the lighting setup on this one?

It appears to have been taken with natural daylight (no direct sun) with fill flash, or with a fairly sophisticated multiple light setup. Note the hair highlights on the left side of the lady's head and the right side of the boy's head. The fill flash is evident by the small but distinct chin shadows, which indicate a flash almost directly above the lens. The lack of a smooth floor or backdrop makes it impossible for me to determine which setup was used.

This photo is a good example of an informal portrait with natural elements used instead of props.

Now for candid child photos.

Candid photos are often photos of opportunity, but a little effort on your part can allow you to get informal portraits in candid settings.

Again, if you have to use a single flash as your light source, please make every attempt to soften the light with a reflector or small umbrella.

Look at this one:

This appears to have been taken with on-camera fill flash to augment the natural light.

And here is another:

While this is a good example of a photo that can be used to document a moment in the childs life, the direct on-camera flash main light gives a shadow that is too sharp and harsh.

Now look at this one:

Is an example of a candid shot or an informal portrait?

I say it is a candid photo, because the eyes do not appear to be the sharpest areas in the photo.

Finally, look at this photo:

This is a good candid portrait of a child at play.

It appears to have been made with natural light.

For some more tips about photographing children, visit the Sears Portrait Tips pages: http://www.weelittleweb.com/new_moms/tip_1_page.html