Photographing Children in Natural Sunlight
People often underestimate the importance of lighting when it comes to the overall look of a photograph especially when photographing children.
There are a few basic lighting techniques and tips for photographing children when outdoors or on holiday, including front-lighting, back-lighting and shade.
Many might assume that the brighter and more direct the light is, the better the picture, however, I disagree. Yes children can look great in strong sunlight but overall I prefer softer Lighting techniques.
It's more flattering and creates a softness which is very suited to the persona and innocence of a child.
One thing I would advise while on holiday is that you avoid the harsh summer sunlight in the middle of the day (maybe not so relevant in the UK with our great British summer- NOT!)
It's also the hottest part of the day and the time when children can become hot and bothered, which doesn't help create great photos!
Above a photo taken in the mid-day sun when the light was overhead. Note the dark shadows under the face and eyes. The angle of the sunlight is quite unflattering and isn't going to make anyone look their best. It is also likely to make children squint making them pull unnatural, ugly faces. and is the best way
If you want to use hard direct sunlight as your light source then my tip is to take the photos early in the morning or late afternoon/evening (see photo right) when the angle of the sun is lower and will completely illuminate all the face.
This is known as 'front-lighting' and is the best way to achieve bright vibrant colours. You can see in this photo how crisp and colourful everything is, especially the blue sky.
The only problem with using 'front-lighting' is your subject i.e. child will be looking almost directly into the sun and they may squint. A tip to try avoid this is to have something dark behind you for them to look into e.g. a shaded wall, trees, someone wearing dark clothing or get someone to hold up some dark fabric or a towel.
One of my favourite Lighting techniques, is called 'back-lighting' and is quite literally the opposite of 'front-lighting'. Instead of the sun being behind you (and in front of the child) this time the light source is in front of you (behind the child) so the subject is lit from the back. (see photo below)
Here is a good example of a 'backlit 'photo I took. If you look at the shadows you can see the direction of the sun i.e. behind them. To the naked eye the girls were in shadow and looked quite dark which is how a digital camera on auto exposure would have viewed it. Like a camera your eyes expose for the lightest thing on view. But when you adjust the camera's exposure for a dark area, a whole new world appears!
Look how soft the light is on the girls. The light is bouncing off the floor and surrounding objects as well as the sky behind me.
The floor in the picture is bright and clean because you are over-exposing the bright areas to compensate for the dark areas. Their hair has a glow as the extra-strong sunlight hits it and they are able to open their eyes normally because they are not looking into the hard sunlight.
Another advantage of a backlit photo is the background becomes cleaner, brighter and simpler which focuses the viewer's attention onto the model.
As in this holiday photo, when photographing children on a beach, the sea behind has 'bleached out' quite a lot but just retained enough background to show where we were!
It might feel unnatural at first to shoot this way because you are pointing your digital camera into the sun but once you practise and see the results you will be pleasantly surprised.
The trick with 'back-lighting' is simply to get your exposure correct and with a modern day digital camera you can always check the screen and simply adjust the exposure accordingly.
So either shoot in a manual mode or use the camera's exposure compensation mode to over-expose the picture. You will probably find that you need to over-expose by 1-2 stops of light.
Also be careful the sun doesn't go directly into your camera lens and 'flare' the picture. You can shoot slightly off to one side or shade the lens from the sun with your hand or ask a friend to.
The other kind of Lighting techniques I love for kids and especially babies is to shoot in the shade. This is a great way of shooting during a sunny day and the sun is getting too high , also it's nice to be in an area which is not too hot.
This picture was taken in the shade of a tree in the early afternoon.
The light is beautiful and soft which makes the girls look even prettier and the clothes look softer and neater and the background insignificant and 'bleached out'. Imagine this front-lit with hard shadows and squinty faces and the clothes looking a mess, a totally different feel and picture!
Like 'back-lighting' you are exposing the camera for the girls in a shaded area so the bright sunny areas in the background become over-exposed and bright and clean. Your digital camera should automatically expose correctly in the shade but if not, do the same as if you were 'back-lighting'.
So these are the three main types of holiday lighting I would use photographing children outdoors, particularly in bright sunlight, although these tips can be applied to less sunny days too.
For more tips and advice on photographing children and babies please visit my online lectures at MyPhotoSchool.