by Sarah Vaughn
Why do you photograph your family? I take pictures to tell the story of our lives. I want to remember those daily things we do and places we go that make up our own special world. But last year I realized something in dismay.
As I viewed my Lightroom catalog, I saw that my images didn’t reflect the beauty and life that surrounded me. Sure, I had plenty of lovely close-up portraits of my kids, but most left no clue as to where they were taken and my big-girl camera rarely went beyond the confines of my garden. There was no sense of our daily lives, no setting to our story. We have been blessed to live on an exotic island in the Indian Ocean for a few short years, yet I had only a handful of pictures showing the places and spaces we will miss when we leave this plot of paradise.
My kids might not remember our favorite spot for a hike or the countless sunsets spent fishing on the rocks.
Unless I capture it for them.
Thus began my quest a year ago to take my camera to the streets and the country. I wanted to put the place back into my portraits. So ask yourself, when you look at your photo albums, how well do you capture your family in those spaces you love?
1. Get your camera on the move
The first step is to take that fancy camera out on the town. Taking my DSLR with me is now routine, but it wasn’t always that way. Between my purse, ten toys, sippy cups and snacks, I was already equal parts Sherpa and mom. My camera stayed home until I found an easy way to carry it. I bought a combination camera bag/purse for regular days and a light backpack for more adventurous trips. So keep using the iphone camera you love, but make it a goal to take your DSLR on normal family outings at least once a week.
2. Start with a list
Now that your camera is ready for a road trip, come up with a plan. Think about where you go and what you see on a daily basis that makes your life unique. I listed all those daily sights, routines and rituals I didn’t want to forget. Visits to our funny little yellow and blue post office. The fishermen with their old pirogues. My kids paddleboarding with dad. The list is not about your local tourist attraction or what others think is important. It’s personal. Do you go to the same coffee shop every Sunday morning or the library on rainy days? What are your family’s hobbies? If you like to hit the town, you will have lots of pictures of your family in cafes or museums. Since we live surrounded by beaches and mountains, my images reflect that.
3. Practice the environmental portrait
In a standard portrait, most photographers strive to capture the heart and soul of someone. We zero in on our subject, preferring the shallowest depth of field to render the background a blur. But in environmental portraits the background is just as important as the subject. The environment adds personality and context to the image. You will need to step back. And step back some more. Practice making your subject just one small part of your frame. Use a wide angle lens. And narrow that aperture a bit so that your background is more than just bokeh.
4. But also add some details
The little details can add a sense of setting to your story, especially when paired with more expansive views. My daughter’s girly obsession with cute shoes, boots and bags is a big part of her personality at this age.
5. Walk the neighborhood
If you aren’t quite up to a big trip to the supermarket with your camera and kids, start slow. With camera in hand take a walk around your neighborhood. It’s a great way to keep the picture-taking fun for your children and capture those places that you will want to recall.
6. Allow for the imperfect
Not all images of your outings will be masterpieces. But they don’t have to be to make you smile years from now. They just have to document memories important to you. You might not always get the perfect composition and your family won’t often be wearing that timeless outfit. They will still be images to cherish.
7. Sometimes look away
Often in my favorite images, my kids are not looking at the camera with a big grin. Sometimes they are lost in thought, have their interest engaged in something small, or just quietly at peace. I also take way too many pictures of my children from behind. They love to watch the world – and I love to see the wonder of their perspective.
8. Use your lines
Stretch your skills and practice using framing and leading lines. It will make your images compositionally more interesting.
9. Add action
Adding more environment to your image means more space in the frame for children to do what they do best: run and play. Up your shutter speed and don’t forget to have them running toward the negative space, rather than out of the frame.
10. Embrace the light – and the dark
Special moments occur in all kinds of light. The only way to get good at shooting in flat light or full sun is to practice. The flat light of a cloudy day allows you the flexibility to shoot anywhere. But strong sun can add brilliant color and bold blue sky to your images. Just be careful to expose so that you aren’t blowing highlights and shoot so that any shadows accentuate, rather than detract, from the picture.
Many of your family memories happen after the sun goes down. Try upping your ISO and using a natural light source at night to illuminate your subject. When shooting in low light overexposing a touch can help to reduce noise caused by the higher ISO.
Sarah Vaughn, California
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
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Nikon D700 and prime lens photographer Sarah lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, one boy and one girl where she loves to shoot single subjects outdoors in natural light. Her obsession began in high school and although she started her college days at an art school, she eventually transferred due to being “disenchanted with the emphasis on studio photography and large format cameras” and received a master’s degree in writing in publishing and even admits to having a few partly finished novels on her computer. Her love of photography came flooding back when she received a digital camera after the birth of her daughter and she hasn’t looked back since. Sarah is a romantic and a dreamer and loves spending time with her family, cafes, the internet which keeps her connected with her family and friends, Italian food, and a glass of something sparkly. Sarah is the instructor for Shooting 306: Photography Through The Eyes Of The Masters and a co-participant in the Watch Us Edit: CMpro Edition breakout.