Sure, you get family photos taken once a year to capture the different stages of your children's’ lives...but you can’t force kids’ emotions and a photographer obviously isn’t around during daily life when they do the darnedest things. Here is one easy step towards taking better photographs of your children, since you’re there to capture the most true version of themselves! This can be applied no matter what kind of camera you have, whether it’s a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, or a cell phone.
Unless purposely avoided for some artsy purpose, the catchlight is possibly the single most important element of portrait photography. It’s the small reflection(s) of the light source in the subject’s eye that gives life to the photo; maybe because it’s what we are subconsciously used to seeing as light bounces off each others’ eyes. Listed below are some more specifics about how to capture the catchlight, but in general it is incredibly simple to achieve.
Face your kids towards a window to avoid harsh, sideways shadows and get a good catchlight in their eyes. Cloudy days will even out the light and also make for gorgeous skin tones and colors. If it’s too sunny out, white curtains can do an incredible job of diffusing the light as well. The closer to the the window (or even better, a glass door) they are, the softer the light will be; the further away they are from the light source, the harder the light will be. This may seem like a strange concept, but just try it and it will make sense!
As I’m sure you’ve heard, early morning and the couple hours before sunset are the best times for outdoor photos. When the sun is close to the horizon, face your subject towards or away from the sun so you don’t get sideways shadows on their faces. I typically arrange them with the sun behind so I don’t get squinty eyes. Once it crosses below the horizon, there are a couple minutes where you can turn them towards the spot where the sun went down to catch the last of the light in their eyes.
On cloudy days you can typically still tell where the sun is so if it is just slightly overcast I would position the sun behind (the cloudy sky will act as a light diffuser to light up the eyes) and if it’s too darkly clouded, I face my subject toward the brightest part of the sky.
The ground, especially in an open area like a field, can surprisingly act as giant softbox, helping create that catchlight that is so key. If you are in a shady area (helpful when it’s super sunny out), try to face your kids towards a sunlit area, rather than into the shadows.
*Random note: light colored eyes pick up a catchlight much easier. See the two photos below for an example, they were taken in the exact same spot, facing a glass door. You can see it in each of these cuties' eyes, but Hatcher's (right) catchlight is much stronger.
If you find or create that catchlight, not only will your portraits be brought to life, but your focus will be better as well, improving your overall photography. Good luck capturing those sweet little faces in these precious times of life...and feel free to share some photos with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you put this tip to use, I’d love to see them!