CDLC Editor
CDLC Editor

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Back to School Portraits

August 22, 2014

It’s that time of year again, when millions of children leave the comforts of home to start a new school year. For parents with children going to school for the first time, this is an important milestone they will want to remember for years to come. Even for an older child, documenting them at the start of each year, or when they start new legs of their education (such as entering Junior High, and High School) is a rewarding project.

Luckily, great back-to-school photos are easy to take – with little more than a basic digital SLR (for greater imaging control) and some attention to details.

Here are a few tips that will elevate what may have been just a quick snapshot into a truly meaningful portrait:

TIP #1: Fill the Frame

Any time you’re shooting people, a goal should be to effectively fill the frame with your subjects. Moving or zooming in close to them and excluding unnecessary background details goes a long way toward a strong portrait (that doesn’t mean the background isn’t important – more on that in Tip #3).

Don’t just snap the picture without thinking for a moment what you want the picture to ‘say’ (and show) about your child. For example, if your little boy is dressed in a suit and tie for the first time in his life, you may want to step back, or zoom out to get more of a full-length shot that shows him proudly wearing his new clothes. On the other hand, if your teenager is heading off to school with the same jeans they wore all summer, you may be more inclined to zoom in for a tighter head-and-shoulders portrait that emphasizes the person instead of the clothes.

A fundamental part of good composition is knowing when to shoot vertical pictures. In most cases, vertical composition makes it easier to effectively fill the frame with your child, without distracting clutter visible in the background. Luckily, the high resolution of Canon’s digital SLR cameras allow you to crop and reframe your images for even more creative control.

TIP #2: Make Room to Zoom

As the famous photojournalist Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Simply zooming a standard kit lens to its longest telephoto setting (such as setting an 18-55mm lens to the 55mm focal length) gives you a good starting point for filling the frame with one or two people. You don’t need super telephoto power here, but if you happen to own longer telephoto lenses (anywhere from 50mm to perhaps 200mm at the top end), you’ll be even more effective at zooming in and minimizing any distractions in the background.

A pleasing side-effect of using telephoto lenses for portraits is that you have more control over what is in focus – you can easily get sharp (focused) faces and soft/blurred backgrounds, which help the most important part of the frame – your child! – stand out in the photo. The ‘soft background’ effect will be more noticeably blurry when you combine long lenses with wider apertures (more on that in Tip #4). Whenever you shoot, take that extra moment to look out to the corners of your viewfinder and ask yourself if by getting a little closer, you’ll get a more powerful shot.

Remember, you don’t even need a zoom: Often, the best zoom lens is your own two feet.

TIP #3: Consider the Background

One important difference between casual snapshots and pictures taken by a more serious photographer is how the background in a scene is handled. The key question to ask is this: Will the background ‘say’ more about the subject or will it just be a cluttered distraction? Back to school portraits are a great opportunity to use backgrounds to create a sense of place that tells a story about the moment you are capturing in-camera.

For example, if you drive your child to their school and can photograph him or her with the school in the background, this can actually strongly convey to a viewer, not just that it’s a portrait of your child, but that it’s in the context of his or her school — and possibly the first day of school. In this case, it might actually be useful to have your daughter or son stand a bit to one side and allow the school to show in your background. In fact, wider-angle lens may be helpful here because they will include more background into the frame.

A good portrait technique with a wider lens is to step in fairly close to your subject, focus on them, and the wide-angle lens will often render a sharp person with a slightly blurred (but still recognizable) background. Nothing says portraits can only be taken with a telephoto lens! However, be careful of ‘fisheye’ distortion that very wide lenses may cause with subjects that are too close to the camera.

Other backgrounds you may want to include in this type of portrait: At the bus stop (perhaps as the bus rolls up in the background); inside the classroom (if allowed); or even at home where your child usually do their homework, or heading out the front door – with the right ‘props,’ such as books or a knapsack, this will help create that sense of place.

Alternately, a solid-colored sheet of fabric or photographic backdrop paper can make a simple, inexpensive and clutter-free background.

TIP #4: Wider Apertures = Softer Backgrounds

In addition to selecting an appropriate background for your portrait, another important part of good portraits is knowing how to control that background so that it doesn't distract form the main subject.

A common, and very pleasing, approach is to have an in-focus subject against a gently blurred background. With an out-of-focus background, the viewer’s attention is riveted to whatever does appear in sharp focus in a photograph.

Digital SLRs makes it easy to blur a background when you focus upon a nearby subject, (especially if you’re zoomed to a telephoto focal length, as mentioned in Tip #2). This effect is achieved, in part, by using wider apertures – these are represented by the lower-value f/stops such as f/1.8, f/2.8, f/3.5, or f/4.

For beginning digital SLR photographers: Set the camera to the Portrait mode (on Canon EOS models with this feature, set the Mode Dial on top of the camera to the icon that looks like a woman’s face).

For more experienced digital SLR users: Set the camera to the Aperture-priority mode (Av mode on Canon EOS digital SLRs), and then set a wide lens aperture. The lower the number, the wider the lens will be open — and the more likely your background is to be intentionally thrown out of focus. With most zoom lenses, this will be a setting such as f/4 or f/5.6. Some more advanced lenses offer even wider possibilities, such as f/2.8 or f/1.8. If your lens offers them, consider using these wide apertures whenever you shoot a portrait and you don’t want or need a sharp background.

TIP #5: Flash: It's NOT Just for Low-Light

Always remember: Shadows will look harsher and darker in a finished photo than they do to your naked eye when you look through your camera’s viewfinder.

Many new photographers may not realize that one of the best times to use a flash is in bright sunlight: If the sun is shining and you have harsh shadows falling on your child, try popping-up your built-in flash. As long as you’re fairly close to your child (say, within 8 or 10 feet), the flash will be pretty effective in minimizing some of the harshness of shadows. If you’re standing further away (for instance, with a telephoto lens), this is when a larger accessory Speedlite can be quite handy. Either way, remember that in the outdoors, flash photography with EOS cameras is totally automatic. All you have to do is turn the flash on; balancing flash output to the daylight is handled by the flash.

For users shooting with an accessory EOS Speedlite, a good portrait tip is to set the flash to its High Speed Sync mode (indicated by an icon on the flash with a little lightning bolt and the letter “H”). Once this is done, set the camera to a wide lens aperture in the Av mode. With the High Speed Sync mode engaged, you’ll be able to take flash pictures at shutter speeds even higher than the camera’s normal top x-sync speed. This will allow very wide lens openings, even in bright sunlight — with automatic flash fill as well. (Please note that High Speed Sync is not possible with the camera’s built-in flash unit).

For more information, take a look at this more detailed Canon Digital Learning Center Tip on Fill-Flash use with EOS cameras and Speedlites.

TIP #6: To Pose, or Not to Pose?

Most parents’ instinct for this type of shot is to pose the subject, and have him or her look directly into the camera (and hopefully smile!). If this is the look and feel you want, just keep a few quick points in mind:

  • Even if the subject is a small child, if they stand straight up and face directly into the camera, pictures will tend to make them look bulkier than they truly are. Most pros would suggest having the person turn slightly to one side or the other, moving their feet, hips, and shoulders so they’re turned slightly away from directly facing the camera. Furthermore, a slight turn 'slims' the body and adds a bit more depth than a head-on portrait.
  • Tell them to relax their shoulders, but to keep standing straight (don't 'slouch')
  • Don’t try to force big smiles, especially if the child is a bit nervous. Remember, the first days of school can be challenging for young ones, even if it seems pretty routine to adults
  • Keeping that last point in mind, consider taking the portrait on a stress-free day, such as during the weekend before or after your child’s first day. Your child will probably be more relaxed, more patient, and easier to work with – and so will most parents!
  • Of course, effective portraits do not have to be formal or posed. They don’t need to include a big smile. They don’t even need to have eye contact with the camera.
  • In fact, you may get pictures that say a lot more about your child’s personality, and what they are really feeling in the moment, by stepping back with your telephoto zoom lens and taking unobtrusive candid shots.

Try that approach – maybe at the bus stop waiting your child for the bus, or interacting with friends or family, or when they are trying on new school clothes, or just quietly thinking about the school year ahead. You may be surprised at how a candid portrait can often tell a much more powerful story than a ‘smile for the camera.’

TIP #7: Sharing is Caring

Think about how you want to share the pictures of your child going off to school. Remember, the potential uses and way to share and enjoy your digital photography is seemingly endless!

One exciting possibility is using multiple pictures in either a slide show or as a sequence to be displayed in a digital picture frame. Numerous other possibilities exist for letting others share your pictures, including posting them on photo-sharing web sites — another reason to consider taking a series of shots rather than just a few quick head-and-shoulder pictures. Various third-party software companies market effective software for taking multiple pictures, combining them with sound or music, and burning them onto a CD or DVD. If you plan effectively and shoot a sequence of pictures, you can quickly produce disks that are easy to mail out to grandparents and other family members and can be viewed either on computers or most DVD players (a quick computer search for slide show software will generate numerous options for Mac and Windows users).

If you shoot these types of pictures at the beginning of each school year, you’ll begin to build an extensive collection of photos of your children as they grow and mature – images that will be treasured by family members, and your children, and their children, as well.

Summary

The start of school, or the beginning of a new school year, is great opportunity for parents to take meaningful pictures of their children. With a little bit of time and forethought, it’s easy to go far beyond the typical quality of quick snapshots, and really use the camera’s features to get effective, attention-grabbing portraits.

Some things to consider:

  • When to take a horizontal or a vertical shot?
  • How much of the background and WHAT background do you want to see?
  • Do you want to zoom in for tight framing, or use a wider lens to include more of an important background?
  • Would a flash help control the light?
  • Why settle for a forced or fake smile, when a candid may tell a better story?

Take more than one or two pictures, change your compositions, and move the child a bit as well to avoid a stiffly posed look. Think about ways to share the pictures you take: sending an e-mail with one or two is only scratching the surface of what you can do. Like most pictures you take of family, they’ll come to mean more as time goes on.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

All images are copyright Erika Silverstein, Rudy Winston

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