Christmas is a magical time of the year for kids, and it is also one of the best times of year to capture memorable portrait photos of them. I am of the opinion the best portrait shots are those that are not posed, natural looking and showing the person in a natural manner doing what they do normally.
Okay, it is possible to get a great studio portrait but I still prefer to go for the natural surroundings.
Christmas is one of the times of the year when your kids will go through a load of emotions, including anticipation (wondering what Santa is going to bring them), excitement (waiting for the big day), insomnia (Christmas Eve waiting for Santa), happiness (opening their gifts), satisfaction (having finished the traditional roast lunch with all the trimmings) and boredom (having to interact with the relatives when all they want to do is pay with their new toys). Yep, kids go through a range of emotions and it is these that make for great portrait shots. It is easy to see that the Christmas period is a great time to get your camera out and capture those memories.
This candid photography is totally different to the normal posed portraits, and as such it requires a different approach. Whilst the approach is different, it’s not that difficult providing you use the right gear and the correct technique.
This type of photography is indoors, therefore the ambient light is going to be low. The first thing you need is a fast lens, i.e. one with a maximum wide aperture that will allow you to keep the shutter speeds fast enough to avoid camera shake.
There are plenty of fast lenses on the market, and the prices range cheap (i.e. less than a hundred bucks) right through to stupidly expensive (i.e. costing several hundred bucks) and everything in between.
First off, there really is no need to spend a fortune on a lens and the one I recommend is the cheap and cheerful 50mm f1.8 prime lens. These lenses are available for all makes of cameras, and if you shoot a Canon camera (like I do) I highly recommend the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens, which you can buy for less than a hundred bucks. Right then, this lens is not made out of top quality materials (it is mainly plastic), it feels like a child’s toy rather than a serious lens, and it is a bit slow and clunky but the image quality of this lens is superb and it rivals that of lenses that cost several times more. You really have to see what this lens can capture, it is unbelievable considering its bargain basement price. If you want a lens to capture candid shots of your kids this Christmas look no further than this lens, and trust me, there is no need to spend lots of money.
You will get the best results if you have a flash or speed light. Whilst you may prefer to use natural ambient light a little bit of flash light will improve your indoor shots no end, so make sure you use it. With this type of photography you don’t need a top end powerful flash, although you will need to make sure it has ETTL mode on it.
The Canon and Nikon branded speed lights, whilst good, are very expensive but they do have all the features you need. A while back I had to replace my Canon speed light and, not having much money at the time, ended up buying a Godox Ving speed light. Okay, the Godox is not as well built as my Canon 430EX was but it is still tough and durable. The Godox is also more powerful, has HSS and ETTL modes, and uses a single cell battery (which means no more AAAs) it costs a fraction of the price of the Canon speed light. I was so impressed with the Godox Ving I bought two more to allow me to have a ganged three light set up if I wanted. If you want a top quality flash so you can take photos of your kids this Christmas I highly recommend the Godox speed lights.
I use my speed light off camera and since I use it in ETTL mode (as explained later on in this post) I use radio triggers to fire the flash. The alternative is to use off camera flash cable, but I don’t like having several feet of cable running all over the house when I am taking photos because it is a tripping hazard. The flash triggers I use are the Yongnuo 622s and I have nothing but praise for them.
These flash triggers are super cheap (a fraction of the price of Pocket Wizards and the like), easy to use, are jam packed with features and excellent value for money. If you want to fire your speed light off camera you won’t go wrong with the Yongnuo 622 triggers. There really is no need to go and spend hundreds of bucks on flash triggers as the Yongnuos work fine.
Right then, you won’t be making your kids pose or stand still and smile at the camera, oh no, you will be letting your kids do what they want to do when they want to do it, and you will be there to capture the action.
I always set the camera in continuous focus mode and burst mode.
The continuous focus means I can track my kids as they move and still get them in focus and the burst mode allows me to fire off several images in quick succession. It’s amazing how the slightest change in facial expression or movement can create a stunning photo. I take hundreds of photos, and whilst it takes some time to sift through them all and find the keepers (many of them get deleted) it is well worth it.
With regards to the exposure mode, it is entirely up to you and whatever you are comfortable using. As long as you get the photos exposed how you want them to that is all that matters. I always use manual mode since it allows me to quickly tweak the exposure without having to revert to using exposure compensation.
I always use flash for indoor photography and taking candid photos of the kids is no different. Even though I set my camera in manual mode I will always use the flash in ETTL mode. The kids will be running around, and you will be moving around the room taking shots from different angles and locations which means the subject to flash distance will continuously change which makes using manual flash an absolute mission. Messing around changing the flash power manually will result in missed shots so why bother with it? ETTL mode is best here, just keep an eye on it tweak the power using the flash exposure compensation as necessary.
I use the flash both on camera and off camera obviously depending on what the kids are doing. If the kids are running around the flash stays on camera, however if the kids are on the floor playing with something, sat up the table eating or just finished eating or in a semi stationery state I use the flash off camera. Even though the flash to subject distance doesn’t change that much I still use the flash in ETTL mode, and tweak the power using flash exposure compensation.
Setting the flash manually will disrupt the flow and also disrupt the kids.
Flash light can be harsh and I always soften it. When I use the flash on camera I use a small softbox designed specifically for speed lights. When I use the flash off camera I set the flash on a light stand and fire it through a shoot through brolly.
So there we have it, if you want to capture natural photos of your kids this Christmas doing what they do best all you need is a fast lens, a speed light, a set of radio triggers and a light modifier and that’s it. If you need to go and buy this equipment please don’t spend too much because there really is no need because there is some excellent budget gear that will help you get the shots you are after. Happy shooting, and Merry Christmas.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.