We’ve all heard about ‘momtographers’ or ‘momtogs’ who are taking over the photo industry and putting professional photographers out of work. They are credited with making pictures of their own families, and then making pictures for their friends and extended families, and often starting a business and flooding the market with adorable, highly desirable photographs with creativity and fresh perspectives bursting out of each frame. And good for them. The industry needed a kick in the pants, anyway.
But this article isn’t for momtogs. No, this is for the under appreciated dadtographers out there. That’s me, by the way. I bought a camera seven years ago, started a ‘portrait business’ immediately, and quit my job a year later to be a full-time photographer. So here are some tips for dadtogs, a few things I wish I’d known earlier on, to help you make better pictures and have an easier time progressing on your journey.
(Disclaimer: I’m a dad, so I’m speaking from a dad’s perspective, but these tips are totally useful for moms and uncles and aunts and grandparents and Marvin the Martian. To all of you I say, “Go for it.” Take your photography wherever your heart desires, no matter who or what you are. This is meant to be a helpful post; please leave helpful comments.)
1. Be a dad, then be a photographer
It’s hard being a dad these days, with so many things pulling your attention and time hither and yon. Making time to spend with your family or kids is important — the most important. So don’t ruin it by going out to make pictures with your family.
Rather, go out with your family and make pictures while you’re at it. I’ve had good success taking my daughter to the park, and taking my camera with me. Or going hiking, or going to the beach, or going for a walk or a bike ride…and taking my camera along. The goal is spending time with the kid, but there are often opportunities to practice my picture making while I’m at it. If you go out with photography as the purpose, you’re being selfish, and selfish parents aren’t much fun. Your photography will last a lifetime as long as it doesn’t appear to be keeping you from your family.
The last thing you and I need is for our wives to see the camera as an obstacle to family time. Personally, I like taking my camera because it helps me have more fun at the park. Watching my kid play is nice, but making a few pictures while she plays helps me to be creative and relax my mind after the daily grind. This makes me more likely to go to the park in the first place. My camera is actually facilitating more family time.
2. Keep it simple
Remember, the goal is more family time, not more pictures. To that end, take just one lens, and no bag. This not only gives the photography less emphasis, but it also helps you to practice using a specific tool, which makes you a better photographer. Some days I take my wide-angle, some days I take my fast telephoto prime, and when I want to have fun I take a Lensbaby. The time I’ve spent practicing at the park and on walks has made me proficient with each of these lenses so that when I am doing dedicated photography I’m fast and effective because I know what results each lens will yield. I usually use a Spider Holster to keep my hands free when I’m not shooting. But remember, push the swing, go down the slide, chase around the yard first, then make a picture when you’re free. Family first, pictures on the side.
3. Relax. Seriously.
If family time is you goal, you’ll get better pictures for the rest of your life. If pictures are your goal, your blood pressure will be elevated and no one will want to go on walks with you anymore. But you and I know that you’re going to have dozens of walks and park times this year alone, so you’re not worried about making the best picture right now. If you get a good one that’s great, and if not, then maybe next time, or the time after that.
4. Never say “smile”
One great way to ruin family time at the park is to force poses on your kids. I see a lot of moms and dads at the park with cameras trying to get their kids to be cute and pose in a place, or do something over and over again so it can be photographed. This makes park time miserable, and it makes your stress higher, and it leads to saying things like, “You won’t get a treat if you don’t pose for my pictures.”
We bribe kids with treats if they behave at the dentist; let’s not make our photography comparable to dental work, and let’s certainly not taint our family time that way. (No offense, Dentists)
5. Get down and move along
You’ll find that the most engaging pictures of children are made at their level. I’m over six feet tall, and if I’m continually pointing my camera down at my daughter then the only backdrop is the ground. Instead, I try to get down to her level so that I can make nicely out of focus trees in the background, and show some environment. Kneel down, sit down, crawl on your belly if you have to, but getting down low will make your pictures better. If you’re lucky, you may even get dog-piled while you’re down there.
Also, take the opportunity to practice photographing movement, both freezing it and emphasizing it. Move with your kid and use a slower shutter speed (try 1/20s) to make her look sharp and turn the background into an impressionist blur. You’ll probably have to use a smaller aperture to extend the shutter speed, but that’s OK because the blur will do the job of isolating your subject that we usually use shallow depth of field to accomplish. You can even make this into a game, chasing the swings, or playing tag.
6. Very important: Pass the camera
Don’t be the invisible parent. Your camera has auto modes so anyone can make a picture with it. Flip the switch and hand it to your spouse to make a picture of you with your kids. One reason is to make sure you are recorded for posterity and to prove to your teenager that you did, in fact, spend time with him as a child. An even better reason is so you can feature the picture your spouse makes for you, which goes a long way in building good will toward your camera during family time. Just look at this incredible picture my wife made for me.
7. Don’t be creepy
The fact is, Dad, that you and me are not Moms. A man lurking around the playground with a camera does not make the same impression as a woman with a camera. Be a dad first, and make pictures second. Interact with your kid, say hi to other parents and be more interested in people than in your pictures. You’ll make friends with other parents over time and they’ll be happy to let you practice on their kids, too. But don’t be sneaky in any way. It’s creepy, and that’s not the impression you want to make at the park.
Even though I make a living as a photographer, I’m never going to give up my dadtographer status. Making pictures during family time has made it easier for me to have family time, and I’ve become a better photographer because of the extra practice, not to mention all the fun adventures I’ve recorded, and I know you can have a good time of it, too. What’s more, as your children grow, so will your skill. By the time they’re teenagers, you’ll be making such good photographs that their friends will be begging for you to come along on outings so they can have great pictures, too…Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?