10 Tips for Great Photos of Kids in the Backcountry: Part 1

By Uncle Dan

One of my favourite activities in the backcountry is taking photos of the kids enjoying the wild. In the next two posts I share ten tips for taking great photos of your kids in the backcountry.  Here are the first five:

1) Have the kids wear clothes that have solid and vibrant colours

When you are taking photos of your kids, chances are their clothes are going to make it into the photo and in many cases, what your kids are wearing will be a focal point of the shot.   With this in mind, as you get the kids’ clothes ready for a trip, make sure that they have solid colours that will nicely stand out against the colours of the backcountry.  In the spring and summer, the wilderness contains many shades of green and brown, so I make sure the kids are wearing lots of reds, blues, purples and yellows.  It is generally a good idea to avoid shades of pink because pink tends to clash with a predominantly green background.  It is also worth avoiding clothing ornamented with complex patterns and writing.  Clothing with skulls, crossbones, princesses, fairies and cartoon characters, which is so common these days, should definitely be avoided!  The key is to keep it simple, clean and vibrant.  Think about this also when you purchase packs, lifejackets, boots, hats and everything else that your children will wear.   Lots of colour variation in your gear will make for interesting subject matter in your photos.  Take a look at the photos below.  Can you see how the distinctive colour of the fleece in the photo on the left (or above depending on your browser) makes for a much better photo?

The red colour of the fleece makes Josh pop out in this image.

The brown colour of the Anna's fleece blends in the with the background and the busy pants and socks are distracting.

2) Keep the background simple and clean

When you are taking photos of your kids it’s easy to get so focused on what’s in the foreground (what you kids are doing) that you forget about what’s going on in the background.  As a result, photos can often contain distracting background elements, such as the limbs of a person who is not fully in the shot, ropes from a tarp, messy gear, or a bright yellow Parks Ontario garbage bag.  A critical step towards fabulous photos is avoiding messy, distracting backgrounds.  Here are four strategies for keeping your backgrounds simple and clean.  The first, and most obvious one is to keep your campsite and gear tidy at all times.  If you have five kids like I do, however, this can be hard, if not impossible.  Fortunately, you can implement the second strategy at the campsite, which is to shoot from the inside of the campsite outwards, so that any mess on the campsite will be behind you and not in front of your lens.  Third, when taking photos at a campsite, zoom in and take tighter shots. Tight shots mean less background to worry about.  Finally, take the kids away from the mess at the campsite to more scenic and aesthetically pleasing areas of the environment, such as a nearby river. However, even when you are away from the campsite it is possible to ruin a great photo by forgetting to mind the background and for instance, capturing half a person in the shot.  So, wherever you are, make sure you pivot and move around until the background you see through your viewfinder is simple and clean.  You’ll have to work fast and effectively divide your attention between your subject and the background. In your zeal to catch the perfect shot of your kids in action, make sure you don’t forget about what’s going on around them. Check out the two photos below.  Both of these were taken at a campsite in the backcountry. Which one has a better background?

Notice the clean background behind Eva.  This photo was shot from inside our campsite looking out to avoid a messy background.

Notice the distracting background elements in this photo. Also notice how the pink suit doesn't quite work.

3) Focus on one or two kids at a time

I have five kids and over the years I have learned that it is very hard to capture a great photograph of all of the kids at once.  The more kids there are in the photo, the greater the chances that at least one of them will be picking his/her nose or looking awkward.   My solution has been to focus on one or two kids at a time rather than trying to capture a photo of a whole group.  Ok, you might be able to squeeze four kids in if you’re lucky, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Great looking group shots require some careful planning, posing and a lot of retakes.

Taking pictures of too many kids at once can be a disaster.  Actually, this is a "candid-posed" shot (see below) that took a few tries before we got it right.

Taking pictures of too many kids at once can be a disaster.  Actually, this is a "candid-posed" shot (see below) that took a few tries before we got it right.

4) Master the “candid-posed” shot

Candid shots are great, but sharp, high-resolution candid shots can be difficult to obtain, particularly in low light situations.  Unless you have top-of-the-line camera gear, kids in action can end up looking blurry or ‘soft’ (a little fuzzy). And, if your camera tries to obtain a sharper image by increasing the sensitivity of its sensor (increasing ISO, in photography language), the photos can look quite grainy.  So what's one to do? Well, another option is to have your kids pose for photos.  The problem with this option is that when people pose, they typically look unauthentic, plastic and even goofy.  Fortunately, there is a third option!  Sometimes, when I see a moment unfolding that I want to capture, I just quickly tell my kids to “freeze” and they know that they ought to pause in their tracks for a quick photo.  This way (assuming very cooperative kids) I am able to capture a more ‘candid’ and impromptu aspect in my ‘posed’ shots.  I call these “candid-posed” shots and they can look fabulous! It might take a bit of practice for the kids to freeze naturally and not completely stop what they are doing and take on a fake pose.  But this improves with practice.  Candid-posed shots are especially useful when the photograph requires a very low shutter speed, such as at twilight or when one is trying to blur the flowing water in a river.  In these situations, it really helps to have cooperative and patient children who will hold a pose for five to ten seconds (i.e. not a toddler)!

This is an example of a "candid-posed" shot.  Anna (when she was much younger) took this pose naturally, but then held the pose so that I could take a few photos.

 5) Mind the light

Ask any professional photographer and they will tell you that the best lighting conditions for photography occur early in the morning, just after sunrise, and early in the evening, just before sunset.  During these times the sun throws a beautiful golden light that can create a dramatic look without leading to too many bright and dark regions in the scene.  During the day the sun is very bright and this typically makes the regions of the scene that are in direct light look too bright (photographers call these ‘hot spots’) and other regions that happen to be in the shade look too dark. The end result is a very ‘busy’ looking scene with lots of high contrast bright and dark spots.  So, the best time to take photos of your kids is early in the morning and early in the evening when they are bathed in golden sunlight. However, you can also take some great photos during the day.  If it is sunny outside and the sky is blue, add a polarizing filter to your lenses.  The polarizing filter will make the sky look especially blue in the photographs and the rich blue sky can be used as a beautiful background.  Blue skies make for great paddling photos!  On cloudy days you can take advantage of the clouds, which act as natural light diffusers that reduce some of the hot spots, providing great lighting conditions for portrait shots.  On partially cloudy days, keep your camera ready and watch for moments when a cloud covers the sun.  As soon as the sun is occluded, start shooting.  Overall, the key is to make the best of the light you have by being strategic about what times of day you plan to be behind the camera lens.  Take a look a the two photos below.  Which of the two photos makes better use of the light?

Anna and Josh paddling in the evening sun.

This photo was taken mid day. Notice how distracting the light and dark spots are in this photo.

Stay tuned for the next five tips for taking great photos of your kids in the backcountry!