“Yes, honey, I was there, too. I was just the one taking the pictures.”
Is that the way you want your children to remember you? As the ghost in the frame? We all talk about how important it is to document life, to capture memories for our families, to have a visual history of the day-to-day because the years are fleeting. Well, I have news for you: you’re a part of that. You need to be in pictures.
So you don’t like to have your photo taken, huh? I don’t, either. Get over your vanity. I say that lovingly. Take a shower, put on a little makeup, throw on that shirt you love but never wear because you’re afraid someone will wipe his little ketchup smeared face on your shoulder. This goes way beyond pictures – when you feel good about the way you look, your whole attitude changes for the better. Take care of yourself. Or don’t. Maybe you don’t have time to blow dry your hair today. Your children don’t care. What they will care about is that they can see what their mom looked like at 25/35/45/55, that she played with them, that she gazed at them lovingly, that she laughed with them … capture that for them. We need more than just the memories. We need pictures. You know that better than anybody. Stop making excuses.
Not sure where to begin? I’ve got you covered there …
1. Haul out the Tripod
It’s not necessary, but it sure does help. You could certainly hand your camera off to a willing helper or set up a mountain of books to get your camera to the right height, but a tripod allows you to really be in control of the shot as you fine tune your settings and work to get your framing just so. In many cases, it’s also much more secure for your camera. For my own purposes, a tripod is a necessity.
2. Choose Your Setting, Then Choose Your Settings
Identify your setting and prepare it as you would for normal shooting. Pick up (unless you’re going for that this-is-what-our-house-really-looks-like feeling), pay attention to your light as you choose your camera’s vantage point, and try to avoid a lot of unnecessary background distractions in the frame, especially objects that could potentially appear to come out of your head once you place yourself in the frame. Then set everything you can before even bringing the other subjects onto the scene: aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and white balance.
Prefocusing is key. If it’s a more formal group photo, this is fairly easy (focus on someone else, then join the group yourself), but even if you’re capturing more candid moments, you can ask someone else in the group to stand still for a moment so that you can prefocus (or even use a stand-in such as a stuffed animal just to get the camera focused approximately where you will be located). After prefocusing, be sure to set your camera’s focus to manual. If you don’t, your camera may re-autofocus on the wrong plane when the camera actually fires.
4. Close Down
Use a smaller aperture than what you’d normally select for the scene. I usually close down by 1-2 stops as compared to the aperture I’d choose if I weren’t in the image and could grab focus and fire all at once. The last thing you want is to finally get an image of yourself that you (actually!) love, only to find that your face isn’t quite in focus. Hedge your bets with a smaller aperture (for a full body self-portrait with my kids fairly close by, I’m often shooting at around f/5.6).
5. Let Your Child Press the Shutter
If you have a child that is four or older (or younger than that, if you’re a brave soul!), let him/her play photographer a bit. Place your camera on a tripod or identify a specific spot for your child to stand, then preset exposure, white balance, and focus. I also recommend turning off continuous shooting, else your child is likely to fire off dozens of shots in quick succession. Next, show your child what button to press, and take your place in front of the camera. You may be surprised how seriously children take the job of “photographer”!
6. Use a Remote … AND the Timer
We’ve all seen the images in which group is smiling nicely at the camera, and there’s a blur of clothes and hair entering from the left side of the frame. Don’t be that blur. You can, of course, simply give yourself a little more lead time with a longer timer setting, but you’re still running back and forth between the camera and the group. I recommend getting yourself a remote … then adding a short timer setting. That way, you have time to tuck the remote in a pocket or set it to the side before the camera fires. You’re not running back and forth, and you can pose naturally for each shot instead of producing a series of images with your remote-clutching-fist (you’re not fooling anyone) pointed at the camera.
7. Hand Off the Remote
Like letting a child physically press the shutter button on the camera, letting the child be in charge of the remote allows her to feel invested in your “session” together. It’s a fact of life that kids love anything with buttons, so you’re also more likely to get more extended cooperation (and consistently cooperative sessions down the road) if you let him/her be involved in this way for at least a few of the shots.
8. Use an Interval Timer
Better than the remote/timer combination, especially for lifestyle or candid photographs, is an interval timer. While interval timers are traditionally used for time lapse photography, they work beautifully for capturing a series of self portraits, firing automatically at your specified interval. That means that you and your children/family can relax a bit in front of the camera and perhaps even ignore it, letting it fire at will much like a third party photographer would photograph you. Newer Nikon models have a built-in interval timer; to date, no Canon DSLRs have native interval timers. However, you can purchase external intervalometers for most any DSLR. I typically set mine to shoot 25 images at 10 second intervals.
9. The One Person Rule
When you’re taking photos with more than just one other person, arrange it so that one person is doing something different than all of the others. Depending on the setup, it can allow that person to really shine and be the subject of the photo. I encourage you to allow yourself to be that main subject. Some ideas:
- You look at the camera, but ask your family to look at you or one another.
- You sit (or stand) still, but have your children run, dance, or jump around you.
- You face the camera; kids face away.
10. Get a New Perspective
Set the tripod up low (kid height) so that full body shots don’t completely include the adults. Or set things up so that you’re shooting from behind. Or pull way back and get a ton of context and just let be as your family prepares dinner in the kitchen or plays together in the backyard. Get creative. You don’t all have to be smiling and facing the camera. Sometimes it’s great to capture life unscripted.
11. Document your Day
Charge your battery, load a fresh memory card, mount your camera on the tripod, and spend one day setting it up and shooting lifestyle scenes wherever you go – from breakfast to bedtime. This will be easiest if you’re spending the day close to home. Not only is it a fantastic documentation of life that you and your children will surely appreciate having, but it’s a great way to start really paying attention to your surroundings, such as the color and quality of the light in the various rooms of your house at different times of day.
12. Shoot Your Own Perspective
This one doesn’t require a tripod. I am talking about going beyond your regular hidden position behind the camera and shooting yourself actively involved in your scene. Basically, I want you to bring some limbs into the frame! It helps to have a wide angle for these shots, which are some of my personal favorites … THESE are the moments I’m experiencing as a mother. They don’t just capture my observations – they truly capture my experiences and – most importantly – my involvement with my family. I close down quite a bit for these shots, since my depth of field usually needs to extend from behind the camera (where I’m located) out towards the other subject(s) in the frame.
13. More Ideas
Here are a few more ideas that can help to generate interesting and natural family self portraits:
- Have everyone make a silly face or do a silly pose. It may not produce the picture you want to hang over your living room mantle … but then, again, it may. Either way, there’s a good chance that it will help you and your kids/husband/etc loosen up.
- Ask your kids to deliver the same expression that you do, or play Simon Says with them. It’s a great way to get them to engage with you instead of with the timer light flashing on the camera.
- Let someone else be the director. Ask the oldest child what he/she wants to do, or have your youngest give everyone else instructions for posing or making a certain face. Letting your children be the boss for once makes the experience fun for them, and they may just think of something fantastic that never would have occurred to you.
- Make sure everyone is touching, especially if you’re posing. It’s a classic rule of family portraiture, and yes – it still applies here.
14. Use What You Know
Most of the same rules apply here that would apply if you weren’t in the frame. Don’t be above bribery to get extended cooperation, make sure kids are well fed and well rested, and wipe faces and style your subjects ahead of time (if that’s something that is important to you).
15. Put Your DSLR on Autopilot for a Friend or Family Member
Whether you’re running a three legged race with your six year old, giving birth, or giving a speech at your little sister’s wedding, there are likely to be plenty of times when you know you need to be in the frame, but the logistics of setting up a self portrait are impossible. Know how to turn your camera into an oversized point-and-shoot so that someone else can get some shots for you. I understand that you love manual mode, BBF, and toggling your focus points — but if you hand your camera off to your brother-in-law that way, you may not get anything salvageable. My “autopilot” settings before handing over my camera are:
- aperture priority at f/2.8-f/5.6 (depending on the situation)
- auto-iso (maximum iso 12800, minimum shutter 1/100)*
- matrix metering / evaluative metering
- auto area focus selection
- shutter button autofocus
* If your camera doesn’t have auto-ISO, set your ISO a stop or so higher than you’d use yourself … better to have the camera using an excessive shutter speed than to risk motion blur!
Image by Malcolm Wilkerson (just moments after our fourth baby was born!)
16. Have Fun
It may sound obvious, but allow yourself enjoy the experience. While I emphasize not putting off your pictures until “tomorrow” (and tomorrow, and tomorrow), also keep in mind that there will probably be more opportunities to set up these “sessions” if this one doesn’t work out. This probably isn’t a one time deal, so if your kids are truly not cooperating or you just can’t get into it, cut yourself some slack. Odds are that your goal here is not to document tension or holding your three year old in a headlock to keep him in the frame (unless that sounds like fun to you). When it’s no longer fun, cut your losses and go upload your card … I bet you got some unexpected keepers anyway.
Have some of your own favorite family self portraits? Have other tips or approaches that have worked well for you? Share with us in the comments!!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.