Including: a random brain dump after the “jump” about photography and kids.
I realize no one’s asked, but I thought I might dash off a bit about at least how I photograph my kids. Because why not. Notes to self, even. To keep myself brief, I’ll do it in bullet-point style:
- I use a single-lens reflex camera (like I have since high school); I went digital not too long after first kid arrived on the scene, after six months’ borrowing somebody else’s.
- I get more control over the image with the SLR, but I bet handheld pocket jobbies with access to exposure controls can do a fabulous job; wish’t I had one to always have in the pocket. [Added later: thanks to the souped-up in-phone camera capacity of the iPhone 4S, I kind of do. Sans exposure control.]
- I have a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, because my single lens reflex camera pre-ditigal was a Canon, and I loved it.
- I have semi-permanent loaner of a gorgeous lens, a 17-40mm Canon jobbie. It has a red stripe on the end of it, which evidently means something to finer enthusiasts than me. What I love is that it feels IDEAL for the kind of picture-making I like to do. There’s a bit of a wide angle to it down at the 17mm end, when needed, but not too distortey (but a little distortey! good!); there’s a bit of a telephoto up at the 40mm end (telephoto meaning relatively speaking; for digital, 40mm feels more like 64mm in analog), but not so much that I get lazy and do intimacy stuff when I’m not willing to move my body. That’s at least my relationship to the telephoto. I know that a longer telephoto lens is great for portraiture, which I’ve borrowed one to do that (e.g., here).
- I have never once asked a subject to look at the camera. And I never will. It is their business to stay focussed on whatever they’re doing. As soon as I get them self-conscious, I have begun to wreck whatever good thing we have going on.
- As a corollary to the above: I have never asked a subject to smile. 100% of the time, when asked to smile, I grimace. Again, what I’m interested in doing is photojournalism, not portraiture. Or at best, photojournalistic portraiture.
- Exposure-wise, like many photographers, I am absolutely obsessive about natural light. That’s one of the things I love about digital photography, since you can toggle back and forth between ISO speeds to get to the point where you can use natural light on something. Once in a while I use the built-in flash, but that’s only to achieve a certain effect. The use of natural light, I think, accounts for 75% of the warmth and intimacy of any given image I’ve been able to get.
- I tend to keep the camera set at an aperture-priority setting, and usually at the median good one for face shots, like around f5.6. A tighter one, 4.0, if I want to push an effect like blurred foreground & background. Rarely do I seek out a sharp image foreground & background, since so often I’m focussing on the kids. But in a more landscapey image, then sure, I try for the f22 thing.
- Sometimes, though, speed is more important, usually when I want to emphasize movement. Then, we go down to a speed of 1/20th of a second or so. That feels like the point at which I can still trust to keep the rest of the stationary objects from blurring from hand shake, but the moving stuff will move.
- The two things I feel like I’m most attentive to, when it comes to photographing our kids (or anything, really) are (1) the quality of light in any given moment, and (2) the descriptiveness or narrative value of what’s happening in the moment. If both are rich, or compelling, then bingo! We’re off!
- I have learned from years of practice, and early on when I was getting more serious about amateur photojournalism that: Duh! The photographer moves! I frame shots, now fairly intuitively, by moving my own body. That’s essential, but it’s funny how easy it is for folks to forget that they have the ability to move themselves (rather than ask the subject to move or something).
- [Added later] Editing after the fact does a lot. By which I mean both the winnowing process after you’ve amassed the images, and the tinkering with them afterward. For instance, the image above was the last among about a half dozen I took of my son with a yogurt-besmirched face. Finally the light was right, but also, I finally tried it with him off center. In this case, the image you see is all of what was in the original (e.g., no cropping, virtually no tweaking of exposure). But I’ve also rescued poor exposures with post-production in Adobe Lightroom (a birthday gift last fall). Still, your capacity in post-production is limited by the raw material.
- Another common photojournalistic trick (actual photojournalists could chime in and be more authoritative & imaginative about this) is: we are over-accustomed to seeing things in the range of height of the average human being. Therefore, squatting down low, or standing on a chair will shift the point of view enough as to give us all a fresh take on something. Needless to say, with kids, squatting or lying down on the ground is critical. [Added still later] Hey, and a good 10% of the useable images I have here I took without even looking through the lens finder. And I don’t mean, I looked at the dang image on the back of the camera (that’s still anti-intuitive and weirdly mediated for me). I mean I just dropped the camera to hip, or held it above the head or off to the side (Hail, Mary!) and pressed the shutter release to see what would happen. With analog film, that was a photojournalist/street photographer’s trick that only the bold (or independently wealthy) would risk. With digital, yer a fool not to try.
- I am no expert on photographing kids, but of course I do it a lot. So far my own kids haven’t become self-conscious, nor have they begun to “pose” for my camera. THANK GODDESS. They are of course aware of it, and often ask to see what just happened in the camera’s screen jobbie on its back. Sometimes the older girlie asks me to take a picture of something, mostly I think for her own sense of documenting an item. I keep the camera close to hand, usually on an accessible shelf or something, so that the distance between perfect light/descriptive moment and me photographing it can be shaved down.
- I think about Mary Ellen Mark a lot (she’s photographed her children a great deal, and has come under fire for what’s been read as either exploitation or worse), and others who have documented their kids’ growing up, and in the public eye. I have no idea what I’ll do when the kids get older and older. I do know that the moment anyone says “Don’t take a picture, Baba,” I don’t. And I usually ask first, “Can I take a picture of that to share with people?” if the situation feels like something they’d have an opinion on. I never take pictures of them frustrated, angry, crying, or in pain, and can’t imagine ever doing that. I’m their parent, and in those moments, I have parental work to do. Not to mention I’d feel creepy-exploitative.
- I will for sure, and with some pain, I’m sure, halt all of this at such time as I’m asked to by them. I did make all the Flickr images “for friends & family only” when I saw once, a while back, that someone “favorited” an image, and his other “favorites” were on the severely unsavory side. Sigh.
- I hope that there’s some good that comes of visually documenting our family life, and that it outweighs whatever inherent risks there are in exposing my kids’ faces to the world this way. I know for certain that it’s all time-dated material — their youth, and my photographing and sharing it — so I’m enjoying it while it lasts.