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  • Writer's pictureNicci Smith

7 Tips for Documenting Your Child's Life in Photos

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Documentary-style photography is basically the way novice photographers have always captured scenes throughout history. The old Christmas photos in Grandma's basement? Documentary photography. Those photos taken the day you brought Baby home? Documentary photos. They are photos that documented an event. They captured the time, the location, the people, and the objects in a scene.

Documentary-style photos can be taken with your phone, a point-and-shoot, or a fancy camera. They can be taken anywhere and at any time of anyone or anything. They literally document the happenings of your life. There are a few ways to make your photos really pop though, and that is where this lesson comes in.

Tip # 1: See the Light

Find the light in your scene and photograph for it. The human eye is naturally drawn to light; therefore, our eye will naturally be drawn to the brightest portion of the image.

In the images below, you can see how the middle image is slightly darker than the two on the ends. It is somewhat flat but does maintain some contrast between where the light falls on her face and the shadow created by the table that she is sitting under. In the first image I took, Lola was looking at a wall and the light was coming in from the sliding glass door to her right. Notice how the light falls on her left leg and the catchlights in her eyes are on the right?

By positioning myself in front of the sliding glass door, I was able to control the direction of the light and allow it to illuminate her face, creating more contrast between the light and shadow.

In this image, the girls were laying in the hallway reading a book. The hallway was just bright enough to capture the image, but when I turned the light inside the bedroom on (on the left side of the image) it really created some light on their faces. This is probably one of my favorite images I've ever taken.

Tip #2: Let the Scene Play Out

One of the first mistakes that we make as parents is to tell our kiddos to stop what they're doing and look at the camera. For the love of Pete...STOP DOING THIS!!! When you're photographing a scene, let it play out. Documentary photography is all about capturing the moment - the people, the emotions, the events. When we interrupt it to have them look at us, it just becomes another snapshot and the moment itself is ruined.

In this photo, we were at one of our favorite local candy stores. JC and Lola were sharing their chosen candy with each other and I caught this image of JC spraying his candy into his little sister's mouth. This would have a completely different vibe to it if I had directed them to stop what they were doing and look at me and smile. This adorable interaction between a Big Brother and Little Sister put the essence of their relationship on display. It's both playful and loving.

When a moment is happening, let it happen. You can move to find the light and the right angle, there's no need to interfere. Once the moment is over, then you can direct them to look at you and smile if you absolutely MUST have one of those images.

Tip #3: Shoot Through the Scene

Our kiddos' faces are so stinkin' cute we often just want to zoom right in on them. Resist the urge and instead capture their surroundings. Photographing the whole scene helps tell the story in its entirety. This image is a prime example of shooting through the scene. This photo was taken at my brother's house during Thanksgiving. Had I zoomed in to just my sons' faces, I would have no context and it would simply be another image of their faces.

However, since I pulled back and took the image from another room, I not only give context to the image, but I can also see some of the scenes from the kitchen behind them. I know that my husband and JC are in the kitchen with my sister-in-law. I can see PJ's Harry Potter bank on the table behind him and it reminds me of how obsessed he was with that bank, so obsessed that he took it with him across state lines for Thanksgiving. There is context and depth that tells a story that is important to us in this image.

When you begin to train yourself to photograph the entire scene, you'll be able to look back at your images and tell your story.

Tip #4: Don't Forget the Details

Now that we've covered backing up and capturing the whole scene, we can't forget about the details! The gold is in the details - the little things you don't want to forget.

This first image was taken when my son PJ was reading to my mother. I love that you can see what book is being read and the contrast between her weathered hands and his new hands. The middle image is from a game of "Sorry" when we short pieces so we used a Lego guy instead. The third image is from a "baking" session with Lola. By zooming in really close, I was able to capture the flour that had fallen on her toddler feet and toes.

The details really bring a unique perspective to your documentary photos. They serve as small reminders of the intimate details of the event, adding even more depth to your images.

Tip #5: Move Around!

The best way to document a scene is by moving around...a lot. Try to photograph the same scene from different angles and see what draws the most interest. Feel free to lie down on the floor, stand on chairs, and shoot through things or over things. Photograph from above, below, or in between.

By resting my camera on the surface of the table I was able to offer a different perspective to this pouty face. Had I shot from my level, the image would have been angled downward and we wouldn't be able to see the pouty lips or the eyes under the furrowed brows.

The second image was shot from above - I'm sure I was standing on a chair. This angle allows for more perspective and gives life to the little, contemplative faces. It's obvious the boys are playing a board game and it appears they are waiting for the person off-camera to take their turn.

By placing myself on the same level as the mixing bowl in the third image, I was only able to see Lola's eyes as she was banging away on the metal, creating a fun perspective. And, finally, photographing a tired toddler meltdown from above, it emphasizes both her physical size and the size of the emotions she's experiencing.

Tip#6: Utilize Negative Space

I love, love, love negative space. Negative space is the empty space surrounding a subject. When used with children, it really emphasizes how small they are in comparison to the giant world around them. You can see negative space used in many of the images I've already shared in this post. The image of JC pouting at the table utilizes negative space at the forefront of the image. The deck in the forefront of the image outside the candy store also creates negative space.

In this image, I placed myself on the ground to capture as much of the blue sky as possible. The space above PJ's head emphasizes his tiny size. Play around with negative space and see if you love it. (It's totally okay if you don't, it's not everyone's jam.)

Tip #7: Have Fun & Try New Things

Don't forget to have fun with this. Like anything new, there will be some challenges and you'll make mistakes, but some of those mistakes will simply be happy accidents. It's a process and you'll learn what you love and what you don't love.

You don’t need special equipment to take great photos of your children – just use the tips above and let the scene play itself out. And when it comes to processing, KISS: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart. A few keystrokes in an editing program can turn a good photo into a stunning one, but too many tweaks can ruin an otherwise lovely candid shot. So have fun and get snapping!

I'd love to see some of your photos! Join me on Facebook and share your images with me!

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