Do you ever feel like Nemo’s dad, Marlin, from Finding Nemo? He meets a new group of fish and they say, “Hey, you’re a clownfish: Say something funny!” Once people find out you’re a photographer, the pressure is on to be able to make a great photo on the spot under any conditions and one of the hardest of those circumstances can be photographing children. But I’ve found one key that helps me photograph kids, and that’s practicing being observant.

Readiness from watching

Now, don’t go get your binoculars and hang out at the park, ’cause that’s creepy. But when you’ve got the grandkids or the nieces and nephews hanging around (as you’re likely to at a reunion this summer) watch them and notice when they look good. You’ll notice that rather trying to photograph kids playing in the full sun at noon you’ll get better pictures when they stop for a snack on the porch. You’ll see that the light looks great when they stand this close to the window, but when they are farther away the light is too flat. You’ll see that the white fence or the white minivan reflects a terrific and soft light on their faces even when they are backlit by the sun. You’ll see that their faces light up when they play with some people and not so much when they have to play with others.

I noticed that when this kiddo looked out the window, the light was soft and directional. when I got down low, the couch behind her made a dark background that helped her face stand out — it reminds of learning about chiaroscuro in art classes as a kid. I made a quick portrait with her and I keep this setup in my back pocket whenever I’m visiting that house.

Having observed these things, you’ll be ready to make a picture. When you get the group together for a family portrait, you’ll know that those two cousins don’t like to be by each other and you’ll move them. You’ll know that fences and cars and sides of houses make good reflectors. You’ll know the sweet spot for various windows at various times of day and how to find that sweet spot even in a new place.

These girls were saying goodbye to one another and I noticed that the light reflecting off the white car in front of them gave a soft and flattering light. So I asked them to hug one more time (something they were already doing) and then asked them to make a silly face — they both gave me this stoic and sarcastic look that I just loved. I’m ready to use the car as a reflector again next time, and I’m ready to be surprised by their reactions to my directions.

Readiness from practicing

However, watching isn’t really enough. You need to practice utilizing these spots all the time. Maybe you’ll ask a friend or spouse to step into that spot of light for a picture, or maybe you’ll grab a bunch of bananas and put them in the light to make a picture. The important thing is that you not only practice noticing the light but also practice making your camera record that light satisfactorily. ‘Cause when you get kids into that sweet spot, you’ve got precisely 0.27 seconds to make a picture before they are ready to go do something else and if you are still messing around with your camera settings then you’ll have missed the chance.


You’re a photographer and you should be able to make a picture under any circumstance — or at least working toward that goal. If you watch your subjects and observe your surroundings, you’ll be able to make a good portrait just about any time.

The observation stuff pays off well for kids because your opportunities are fleeting. But, as you practice paying attention to kids’ behavior, you’ll find the same things hold true for adults (we just hide it better). And naturally, if the window makes a great light for kids, it’s going to work well for adults, too. You just need to make sure that you know where a good spot of light is and that you are confident you can make your camera record the light well and you’ll be set whether you photograph kids or kings.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.