Taking good photographs: framing your subject

(First in a series of posts on this topic)

One of the things I am asked advice on all the time is how to take good photographs of children. And while I appreciate the compliments, I am not an expert. I feel sort of weird giving advice. There are plenty of people who take far better photographs than I do. I feel like people are going to rise up and say, “You stink! Who do you think you are handing out any sort of advice.”

I do know that you don’t need fancy and expensive equipment to take good photographs. I have seen people with expensive cameras take awful photos and people with lower end point and shoot cameras take beautifully composed photos.

So I’ll share a few practical tips this week to help you take better photographs and let you know some of my own personal pet peeves ::cough:: dirty children ::cough::

First I need to make a distinction between photographs that capture the moment, capture a memory for you, and make you feel good when you look at them because of your memories. These are the kind of photographs like the Christmas morning present-a-thon, or school plays where your child is a tiny dot in a vast landscape. These are the type of photos you put in a photo album, snapshots. Not the kind that are worthy of hanging on your wall.

Photos like this one, which puts a smile on face remembering Christmas morning, but does nothing for anyone else:
A small forest died for this paper

Please continue to take those sort of photographs. Not every photo you take has to be great. The more photos you take the more likely you are to have a handful of good ones. I can easily take upwards of 100 photos, delete half on my camera before downloading them onto my computer, and end up with 10 or so that I am really happy with.

The number one distinguishing feature between good photographs and bad photographs is composition, or the way the subject(s) is arranged in the photo. This post is going to focus on framing.

even big kids look cute in hats

What does framing mean? It means that you should take your photo in such a way that that the subject of the photo stands out from the surroundings.

looking out the window

When I was an art major in college one of my professors in my freshman year drawing class had us hold up cardboard frames and view the still life set up in front of us through this frame. The point of the exercise was to determine what the most important and interesting part of the still life was before we began drawing.

The Five Year Old

Your viewfinder is this frame. Look in all the corners… what is there? Empty space? Do the things in the background distract from your subject, or enhance it? Does it look like things are growing out of their head?

Wearing A Hat

Get in closer…. closer. Rarely do you see photographs where people are too close to the subject.

Look at what is in the background. Is your adorable and cute child standing in front of a pile of clutter?

I often see photos like these.* What is wrong with this photo?

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When you look at it, what is your eye drawn to? It isn’t the adorable children with the orange peel smiles. It is all the clutter in the background. Nobody wants to look at your crap. Seriously, if people are commenting to you that Hey, they use Scott toilet paper too! Well, you might have a background clutter problem.

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And in this photo, not only is the subject of the photo occupying a very small portion of the frame, the clutter in the background is overwhelming, AND it looks as if she has two water bottles growing out of her head.

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Basically the same framing, but this time with the flash turned on. You can see how the flash completely washes out the subject. Unless you have a higher end camera with a detachable flash that you can angle away from the subject, try to avoid using the flash and position your subject near a source of natural light.

Now you are saying to yourself, “Okay so now I know what is wrong with all of my photos, but that doesn’t help me. What should I do to make them better?”

First of all… get closer. Nope, even closer. Closer still. Okay.

When you are looking through your view finder of the camera your eye tends to make whatever you are photographing the most important part . Your eye ignores all the extraneous things within the frame.

Really look at your children with a critical eye. Stains on clothing will show up more prominently in photos than they do in real life.

If you are tying to take nice pictures of them, remember that no one likes to look at dirty kids. You might be able to see your child’s cuteness behind the dirt, but the rest of us see dirt first and foremost. The exception to this, of course, is when you are taking a photograph of your child eating something like ice cream and part of the cute factor is their messy face. But if there is no food in sight and eating something is not featured prominently in the photo, well then just wash them off before taking their picture. Please? Do it for me.

These pictures are taken in the same room. Instead I sat my kids on the table to take advantage of the natural light coming in from the large window.

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Fill the frame with your subject.

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Get even closer.

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Now you are really able to see the children eating their oranges. There is nothing else in the frame competing for your attention.

Next up in the series, I am going to write about the “rules” in composing your photos. And give tips for making your photographs more interesting.

(* I piled all this stuff up on my table from around my house, to try and replicate clutter. It was painful ;-))

44 Responses to “Taking good photographs: framing your subject”

  1. Michelle R Says:

    Great tips! I love taking pictures of the kids but I’m always jealous of how everyone else’s photos turn out! Get closer, got it!!

  2. Maria Says:

    Awesome advice.

    I agree with the camera thing that you mentioned in the beginning. I had a wonderful expensive 35MM (that I miss and think about taking out all the time but with digital…) and everytime someone looked at my pictures they commented on what great pictures the camera took. It used to piss me off “hey, what about the photographer..has nothing to do with me right?”

    I also agree with you that about the clutter pictures. I feel those pictures are sometimes as important because over time it is fun to look in the background and see what was going on. I love looking at pictures of me as a kid and see what where and how we lived.

    I used to feel that I couldn’t crop anything out of the picture because I didn’t want to forget but now I am trying to be more artistic in my photo taking.

    I really appreciate everything you mentioned and can’t wait to read more helpful information. I am looking forward to your next post.

    Thanks

    Maria

  3. Het Says:

    Great shots Chris and great advice. I love my old non-digital Pentax K-1000, the old standard highschool photography class camera. But Sometimes I dream and drool for a digital SLR.

    It also helps that your subjects are so darn cute. I have never seen such pinchable cheeks as those.

  4. sarcastic journalist Says:

    Good examples. I think most people forget how important it is to get down on the child’s level when taking a picture. And, if there was anything I learned in PhotoJournalism in college (I got an A! One of the two in class! The other was my husband!) it is get in CLLLLOOOOSSSEEEE.

  5. jody Says:

    Great post!

    Stains most certainly do show up more in pictures. I was intimate with that concept Christmas 2005. Almost every picture showed a grease stain on Cory’s shirt.

    I totally want to take a photograph class…..not sure where I will squeeze it in, but I have always wanted to take one.

    As for the SLR, I agree. My point and shoot takes the most awesome photos and is so easy. But, I want something with a faster shutter speed for taking surfing photos and children that move at the speed of sound. I am saving my ad money!

  6. Rachel Says:

    I try to crop out the clutter. ;) but you’re right - closer is awesome. It’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment when you’re trying to capture a memory.

  7. Mir Says:

    I think you should make up an agreement. “I, INSERT NAME HERE, do hereby solemnly swear to wash the crap off of my children before photographing them and posting their photos to the internet.”

  8. Courtney Says:

    Have I ever told you that I love you? Seriously, what a great topic! You may not be an “expert”, but you definitely know how to take great photos of your kids. I always wonder how you take such wonderful pictures of them. Today’s post was great, and I look forward to the rest of the “series”. Thanks Chris!

  9. CathyC Says:

    I am so making my husband read this. He thinks I make this stuff up. Thanks!

  10. Kimmer Says:

    Great post, can’t wait for the next one! I try to get in close, but frequently don’t have time to move or zoom in, so I tend to crop a lot of stuff out when I edit.

  11. Maliavale Says:

    I’m impressed!

  12. Sheree Says:

    Great tips!

    Grody kids are one of my pet peeves too. I do professional portrait work and you would be amazed at the number of hours I spend “cleaning” up kids with stains on their clothes. My personal fave is SNOT (urggggg). One kid was so bad, I was gagging while I was working at my computer.

  13. Kerry Says:

    These are great tips. Could you say something about photographing children together? I seem to have the worst time getting a good shot of more than one child at a time. Thanks!

  14. Kerry Says:

    And thank you so much for replicating clutter in your kitchen to make yourself seem more real. We appriciate it! hehe

  15. Deputy's Wife Says:

    Chris, I truly appreciate you taking the time to post these tips for all of us. Your pictures, in addition to your writing, are wonderful. Thanks again!

  16. Allanna Says:

    Chris,

    You’re awesome. Not only did you give advice, but you’re so sweet about it.

    And you WORKED to create clutter (and managed to let it stay that way for a few minutes). All. For. US. Because you’re that cool and nice!

    And you have such gorgeous children.

  17. Jane Says:

    Thanks so much for these very helpful tips. I’m sure you’ve really helped many people create treasures for future generations!

  18. LLD Says:

    Love the orange slice pics.

    Thanks for this ‘helpful’ post - I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to more!

  19. Jennifer Says:

    Thanks! This was very helpful!

  20. Stephanie Says:

    Great pictures! Love Mir’s suggestion. Is that dirt I see under the youngest boy’s fingernails? Made you look! :)

  21. CaliforniaGrammy Says:

    Great advice, Chris. Even though you are not a “professional” you take some of the best pictures of your adorable kids. And I cracked up at Stephanie’s comment about dirt under the fingernails—made ME look! I’m lucky enough to have the 35mm digital Canon, using my lenses from my “film” model and love it. It takes lots of practice, though, to get the right composition. I’m still working on it big time!

  22. Katie Says:

    Ha! I love how it was painful for you to make “clutter.” I already will stop taking photos mid-action to move a toy out of the way. Thanks for the advice, I will definitely try this “get closer” thing next time.

  23. poppy fields Says:

    Thanks, I would like to improve the photos I take. Getting closer to the subject is an idea I am going to play around with. I don’t have a great zoom, but I can still physically move in more.

  24. Holli Smith Says:

    Thank you! That was very helpful!
    And yes, I bet that was so hard gathering your clutter. My table NEVER looks like that either! (JUST KIDDING)!
    It helps when your kids are just so darn cute!

  25. Montserrat Says:

    Wonderful tips. I’ve found with that many children you become an ‘expert’ fast, there are so many to “experiment” on. :D

    Just found your blog and am perusing all your posts. Love the home schooling ones especially.

  26. agpie's mom Says:

    did you say what kind of camera you use? i am curious because you seem to have the depth thing (maybe aperture?) right - where what is behind is a little blurred - like in your picture of the iced tree branch on your other blog. and the picture where you have the moving child w/ candy all around (shutter speed). i am trying to master these things with a digital SLR (i spoiled myself with the camera, but shyed away from the class.)

  27. Kate Says:

    How about some advice for what to do when your toddler wants the camera? So *every single* photo is of him frantically running towards the camera??????

    :) Seriously, though, great post.

  28. theotherbear Says:

    Great tips. But overshadowed by the fact I laughed my head off when I realised you MADE that clutter. For the internets. HAHAHA!

  29. Dy Says:

    Hi Chris, came over from the other blog to read this, and LOVED it. I have a few questions, though (and yes, I’m too impatient to wait until the series is finished, even though they’ll probably be answered at some point - shhh, don’t tell my eldest, okay?)

    CLOSER - zoom or physically close? Combination of both? Do you actually get within arm’s reach of the Small Ones with the camera? And if so, what kind of threats, er, conditioning does it take for them not to reach for it?

    Fill the frame - I’ve been trying to do this lately, because taking good photographs has become a back-burner obsession (that’s “goal” for the motivationally impaired - we’d like to do it, but we don’t really focus on it all at once) of mine since our Christmas photos all turned out to that that 1950’s reel-to-reel quality to them. It was creepy. So, how do you fill the frame of a moving target without ending up with 300 nostril shots to delete before uploading? Does cropping work?

    What resolution do you usually use?

    And finally (yes, because this is all for me, right?), indoor shots are killing me. Please address indoor shots. :-) Pretty please.

    Dy

  30. Overwhelmed! Says:

    Love this advice, thanks! Sometimes I’m appalled, while looking at photos I’ve taken, by how much clutter surrounds my subject. I try to pay attention to that.

  31. Andrea Q Says:

    I’m glad someone else hates pictures of dirty kids!

    For Dy—I’m not Chris, and I hope I’m not hijacking, but I will share my answers…I find my photos come out better if I move in closer to the kids. When I zoom in, my camera gets all wonky and blurry. If they are interested in the camera, I put it away and try again later. Yes, I’ll miss some shots, but I just tell myself that some memories belong in my heart, not in my photo albums!

    I bought a 2 GB memory card so that I could shoot all of my photos at the highest resolution possible and take hundreds of action shots. Sometimes, I still don’t get the photo I’m going for! Even professionals miss the kiss or the bouquet toss.

    If you start with the highest resolution possible on your camera, you have more pixels to work with when cropping. My 6 MB camera takes a maximum of 2816 x 2112 images. To get a quality 4 x 6 print, I need about 1200 x 800 pixels, which is only about 20 percent of the image I see on my screen. HTH.

  32. t in hd Says:

    I have just one word: crop! I too, take a thousand pics to get those few gems. But as often as not, those gems are hidden in an otherwise mundane photo. That’s when I get in there and crop away–pull that adorable face out of the photo and cut away everything else around it. This way, if my original photo hasn’t been framed very dramatically, no worries, the photo can still be great. I’ll reiterate the above point about using the highest resolution available on your camera. It’s worth it! The more pixels you have to work with, the better. God bless digital photography!

    And re: background clutter, I’m obsessive about it. I HATE background clutter hijacking my photograph. Moreover, if anyone is going to notice my house in the background of a photo, I want them to see it in a positive light!

  33. Amy S. Says:

    Coming out of lurkdom to say THANK YOU! I am always struggling with the camera, as is my husband who will also benefit from these tips.

  34. Dy Says:

    Andrea Q and t in hd, thank you, both! I just got a larger card because of the resolution issue, and I couldn’t do much cropping on images w/ the low resolution. Makes total sense.

    Had to laugh about the clutter. I married a wonderful, delightful, hardworking, brilliant… cluttermonger. I can’t tell you how often one of the boys will ask if they can take pictures, and I say no b/c I just *know* they’ll stand right by the desk (or the breakfast bar, or the foyer shelf, nightstand…) hubby likes to stack things on. Cropping can be my friend! YAY!

    Dy

  35. Lianna Says:

    Thank you for posting such an informative post! I usually don’t shoot pictures of children, but after reading this, you bet I’ll be looking for kids to be my subjects!!! I look forward to the rest of the series. Thank you again!

  36. Erna Says:

    These are great tips. I just wish my children would cooperate sometimes. I may just have to get a digital with zoom sometime. I love this. Until then, I’ll try and crop some of the good shots to “make it work.” LOL! My three-year-old now tries to run away from the camera. I guess that’s what happens to bloggers children’s at some point . . . or maybe just mine. LOL!

  37. Erna Says:

    Just wanted to add . . . I look forward to your other tips on photography. I’ll have to print them out and have them on hand to review. :0)

  38. emily Says:

    Thank you! You do take fantastic pictures and have every right to give this advise. Thank you! I am a faithful reader of your other blog, I wish I had more time to keep up here. You are hilarious. I was wondering why you had three rolling pins out at one time with no other baking supplies. Can’t wait for the next tips.

  39. Blogspotting at Triple Venti Says:

    [...] In the Trenches of Motherhood - is offering up some sage advise on taking good photographs. She really give some good pointers for those (like me) that tend to think the photo looks good in the viewfinder, but not often quite as happy with the result later. She tells you why. [...]

  40. robin Says:

    Oh my word. I take such crappy pics—and now I know why! Thanks!

  41. greatexpectations Says:

    I love your sites. Just letting you know that and the fact that I just linked to this post on my blog today. Thanks!!

  42. We Love Baby! » Picture perfect: Getting good shots of your kids Says:

    [...] Chris, of Notes from the Trenches, recently posted the first in a series of pieces on Taking Good Photographs at her other blog, In the Trenches of Motherhood. My favorite of her suggestions is that you “Get in closer…. closer. Rarely do you see photographs where people are too close to the subject.” Chris accompanies her post with terrific examples of shots of her kids (who are adorable, if you haven’t noticed). [...]

  43. We Love Baby! » Something for me ~ Photography Says:

    [...] a really important part of my life. I’m so inspired by photos taken by pros like Karen, Chris, Heather, and [...]

  44. chinnee Says:

    helpful tips, Chris. I am very new to photography (interest only developed after i had my gal), and it doesnt even strike me whats wrong with my photo. I only knows how to operate a normal automatic camera, and guess that makes close up even more difficult (especially kids move fast!)

    Hope to learn more from your site.

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