There are two kinds of photographers at family events: those you know are making pictures and those you don’t. My mother-in-law is really good at the former. She captures every grouping at every party and gets most of the people to look. I’m really bad at that kind of picture and am trying to get better at it. But I’m pretty good at the candid shots. I do two things when I’m making pictures: I look for good light and I use a telephoto lens.
Good light is usually coming from the side, and it’s usually coming from a window. If there’s a window in the room I want to photograph, I turn off the overhead lights (make sure no one ends up chopping carrots in the dark) in order to get only one color and one direction of light. The room lights are usually a different color than the window light and it makes a muddy looking picture.
Using a long lens allows you to isolate your subjects and remove many distractions sitting around the room and extra people from the edges. A telephoto lens also gives you a shallower depth of field, which also helps your subjects stand out from the background. Lastly, a long lens means you don’t have to be close to your subjects, which makes being candid much easier.
It’s essential that you be away from your subjects so that you can work the scene without disturbing them. I shot about ten pictures before I go this vertical that I love. With each shot, my frame got better and better. I cropped out the glass on the table, I shifted my body so the plant wasn’t distracting, and several other things like that. The long lens lets you work without disturbing.
I made this portrait of my wife and daughter a couple of years ago at her parents’ house. When I saw the window light and the actions they were doing together, I turned off the overhead light and situated myself to shoot. I’m working on making more and better snapshots, too, but this is one of my favorite pictures. The most important thing I did with this picture, however, was to print it. It sits in our home as a reminder of fun times with fun people.