Take a little trip with me back to third grade.
We are in Miss Stelzer’s classroom in the old worn building of Murlin Heights Elementary School. You walk into the room and see the day’s plans written in perfect cursive on the blackboard.
You can smell chalk and books and crayons. You can hear the sound of little metal chairs being dragged across the green linoleum tiles. You can feel the bits of rubber under your fingers as you brush away eraser shreds from your paper.
It is all so vivid in my mind, and yet what does my third grade picture look like? My face in front of a generic blue backdrop. That’s it! I have zero pictures of linoleum or paper or cursive on the blackboard. Zero tangible memories of what it was to be in third grade. And that is a serious bummer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE PORTRAITS. You could even say that is my specialty. Nothing makes me happier than a beautiful face in front of a plain background with eyes in tack sharp focus. But even though that is what I love to capture most, I believe just as strongly in the importance of capturing the world around my kids! I want to remember their gapped, toothless grins and their messy bunkbeds.
I want to remember their summertime freckles and the white sandy beaches where they gathered seashells. I want to remember the way they smile when we make cookies and the kitchen where we made them. And I will bet that if you start including their environment in your photos, it won’t just make their albums and memories more full…it will make you a better photographer.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Choose the correct lens(es):
It is pretty difficult to get a lot of the environment in your images if you are in a small space with a long focal length. Shooting with a lens that is wider will let you take it all in without having to smoosh yourself against the wall.
Of course, how wide you need to go is completely dependent upon your space. I love my 35mm for indoor documentary photos as it allows me to include the room without too much distortion, but I also love to use my 15mm and 24mm indoors!
And if you like a lot of options without having to trade out lenses, a 24-70mm might be perfect for you. Just make sure you are working with something that lets you get it all in and fits your shooting style.
2. Close down that aperture:
I love shooting wide open and getting amazing bokeh, but sometimes I force myself to close down so that I can have a larger depth of field and really get a lot of context within the frame.
Indoors that can mean having to push your ISO a little higher than you like, but it is a worthy trade-off to remember the moment in its entirety.
3. Lay off the clone stamp tool:
Can I just brag and say that I have become a bit of a cloning master? If you were to look through much of my portfolio, you will notice that my house has no light switches, outlets, floor vents, or window smudges. At least it doesn’t in pictures… 😉
The fact is, there is a fine line between removing distractions and altering reality. You have to find the space in which you are comfortable letting things stay the way they are, but I would encourage you to keep a few images with all the real stuff of life in there.
In the same vein, I would urge you to lay off the original clone stamp…cleaning (at least cleaning just for the picture). Let the stuffed animals and laundry stay on the floor every once in a while. Because that is life and worth remembering in all its messy glory.
4. Capture the details:
Just as it is important to remember the actual background, it is important to capture the supporting characters of our stories, too.
Get some up-close, beautiful photographs of your kids’ toys or their chipped fingernail polish or their favorite pair of shoes. The little things will stand-out in their memories in a few decades and a beautiful picture of those things will surely be cherished.
5. Anticipate the things that will change:
We are in the process of building a house but have been living in a separate building on the property for the past year. When we bought it, there was this fantastic old tire swing in the yard and I kind of became obsessed with taking pictures of the kids on it, knowing that before too long we would have to take that tree down and put a house in its place.
In the same way, you can photograph the things that might not be permanent fixtures in your children’s settings: classrooms, bedrooms, playspaces…these are backdrops that can define an era for your child and it is important to include them in your photographs.
6. Exclude the people from the frame:
Like I said, if I had to describe myself as an artist, I would probably say that I am a portrait photographer. I like people and I like faces and I like them to be present in my work. But sometimes it is a good practice to shoot that to which you aren’t naturally drawn…to stretch your creative comfort zone a bit.
For me, this means shooting inanimate objects and spaces. Not only does it make me use my camera and my brain differently, but it also provides images that serve only to provide context to the story of your kids’ childhoods. In conjunction with the people-focused images, they help to create a stronger story in your work and their memories.
7. Capture the special places:
My kids and I love to go on little field trips and each one of them has a place that is most special to them.
My oldest boy loves nothing more than being on the baseball field with his friends. My middle son loves art and pondering paintings at the local art museum. My little girl loves to go putt-putting and ride the carousel at the zoo.
Sometimes it is weird to bring your camera in public with you, but it is worth having these settings be present in your work as they are important clues into who your child is at this stage in life.
8. Capture the mundane places:
They might not seem photo-worthy now, but the places that you are day-in and day-out are worth capturing, too.
The minivan, piled onto mom and dad’s bed, at the breakfast table, in the bouncer watching Sesame Street; these are the places that might not seem special now, but will be what you miss when they are gone. Capture them for that day when you will miss them.
So I don’t have a picture of Miss Stelzer’s classroom, and now that old building is closed and I couldn’t get one even if I wanted it. But I can make sure that my own kids have visual reminders of the backdrops that make their childhood so special, and together we can preserve more vivid memories of what life is right now.