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How To Photograph Kids In Action: Swings

I’m a photographer and a dad, and when those two roles meet I’m a happy man. One of the fun things about photographing my own kid is creating pictures of her having fun. I believe that having pictures of your kids being happy and having fun hanging on the wall helps remind them that they are happy. This is far more important than having pictures of them in matching outfits. I’m enjoying creating a series of my daughter on swings through the years. Pictures with apparent movement help us feel the fun every time we look at the photographs. Here are some tips for making pictures of your kids on swings with lots of movement, and you’ll find that these tips work for many kinds of action shots.

Expression Over Perfection

The most important thing in pictures like these is capturing a great expression (which may or may not be a smile). I say that because it’s not important that the picture is crystal clear. This style of photograph is emphasizing movement, and you’ll be lucky to get frames with the kid recognizable, let alone crystal clear. Don’t sweat it. Make a picture of fun and have fun doing it.

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Her hand is cut off: so what? Expression is most important.

Camera Settings

Shutter Priority Mode

You’re emphasizing movement with blur, so you’ll need a slow shutter speed. Because shutter speed is most important, this could be one of those rare situations when you should choose Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv on your camera mode dial), but manual mode also works well. Depending on how fast the child is moving and how far away you are and what focal length of lens you use, you’ll probably want a speed less than 1/30th of a second. My pictures here were all made at about 1/10th of a second.

Aperture and ISO–Meh

The aperture you use is not important. You usually choose the right aperture to get the right amount of depth of field, but because the background is blurred by movement the depth of field doesn’t matter. The sharpness comes from moving the camera with the subject. ISO is also unimportant. You can adjust ISO and aperture to get the right brightness. On a sunny day, you may be using f/16 and ISO 100. My pictures were made at dusk, and I used f/3.5 and ISO 1600 to ISO 6400 as the sky became darker and darker.

 

Wide Angle Lens and Stand Close

It’s usually easier to make these pictures with a wide lens. As it happens, the kit lenses that come with most cameras are perfect. Just zoom wide and it’ll show more of the curving movement. A telephoto lens will also work, but the background blur will end up being much straighter, and you’ll have to stand farther away. I used a 12-60mm lens set at 12mm (24mm full frame equivalent). Be sure to stand close to the path of the swing and you’ll get more apparent movement and a good effect from foreshortening.

Focus Mode

Your focus mode is important. Choose AF-C or AI Servo so that the focus will change even while you kid is moving closer and farther from you. Choose the single focus area mode and keep the focus point on your kid’s face. Put the focus point in the lower half of the frame and to one side so that the body and face are all in the frame and there’s a little negative space in front or behind; centering the subject will be less dynamic. Move the point around as needed, but low and to one side always seems to work best for me.

Drive Mode

Format your memory card before you begin because you will need to shoot a lot of pictures. Set the camera to burst mode so it takes several frames everytime you push the shutter. It’ll take a lot of frames to get the movement down right, plus the more you shoot the better you get at anticipating when the good pictures will happen and you’ll notice what things to leave out of the frame in the background, etc. Because you’ll be shooting so many pictures, consider shooting jpegs instead of RAW so that your camera can keep up with its writing to the memory card.

Keep It Moving

As you shoot, you’ve got to keep the camera moving to get that blurred background. Begin shooting even before the optimal position and keep shooting as the kid passes you by. Face where the kid will be at the peak of action and swivel at your hips to keep the camera moving. Just keep that focus point on the kid as she goes by. Stop and chimp after the first few passes so that you’ve got the settings working well, but after that just keep shooting. If you stop to look at every picture you’ll miss opportunities and you’ll be focussed on the wrong thing (be a dad first!).

*Chimping is the act of looking at pictures on your camera right after you take them. It’s called “chimping” because you probably sound like a chimpanzee. “Ooh, ooh, look what I did! Ooh ooh!” :D

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Shoot Hundreds, Share One

As I said above, you’ll need to make lots of frames to help you refine your camera settings and backgrounds. The more you shoot the better the pictures will become. You may even get several that show good movement and good expression. But you should pick only the best one to share. When you share just one picture with great emotion and impact you look like a great photographer; the more you share, the more it looks easy to do and it becomes more commonplace. Of course, if it’s a different day with a similar effect it’s great to share another picture. Heck, make it a trademark and share a swinging picture of your kid in different clothes and different parks every day; your child will certainly enjoy the attention.

No Butts or Backs

I have a rule for Street Photography, and it fits well here, too: no butts. They’re boring. We’ve got to see faces, so take notice of where the kid is facing each time she goes by and move yourself to that position. If she’s not looking at you, it’s not going to be as good.

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No face? No good.

Have Fun

This is the most important thing. You need to have fun with your kid. Play with your kid and make a picture when it’s possible. They’ll have more fun and you’ll end up with better pictures. You’ll also end up with memories to go with the pictures. Since I’ve practiced these techniques with my own kid, I can also provide this style of pictures for my clients; the difference is that my clients only get the artwork which pales in importance with the memories of fun I have with my daughter. That I get both the memory and the art with her is wonderful, but it’d be a shame and a mistake to choose the art over the memory. Be present and have fun.

Here’s an article with more ideas about how to be an effective dadtographer.

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Conclusion

Making art of your own kids is the best thing about being a photographer. Making pictures that are naturally fun will allow you to make pictures with your kids more often, and when the kids see the pictures they’ll remember the fun times. Use the above tips for swings, but also try them for bike rides and hockey games and playing with the dog and sledding on snowy days. Movement in a photo shows excitement and your kids will remember that when they see the pictures on the wall.

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