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22 Do-it-yourself photo shoot. How to take the best photos

Think about it

The absolute necessities are theme, location and lighting. What makes a photo shoot different from just taking pictures? You have an agenda. You want to achieve a level of formality to document a stage in the life of your child, the passage of time on your parent’s face. These are not just standard pictures of a birthday or a party. You want more than that. You want to remember and capture people for what they really were in that moment, what they were thinking and feeling.

Shoot when no one is looking

A photo shoot is successful if you have captured the “moment” along with some of the surrounding context of the event or the location. The look of wonder on your baby’s face. The joy of discovery as your child holds something new in her hands. The moment of reflection and wisdom in the face of a grandparent. These are the very moments we strive for—what we call “essence moments.” These will be the photos you’ll be the most proud of because it means you will have captured more than a memory. This photo-journalistic approach can be a challenge to master, but if you set up your shoot, you’ll have a better chance of success.

Location, location, location

It’s important to be aware of natural light—whether you’re shooting in your home, at a soccer field or someplace unfamiliar. Natural light makes for the most interesting and honest photography. But when you’re on location, you may want to scout out the location beforehand so you better understand where to set up, where you want the subject(s) to be positioned and to learn what time of day has the best light (for example, from 11am-1pm you will get the flattest results). If you have a piece of white form core board, or even a white sheet lay it on the ground or place it in a way that reflects the light (for emphasis or drama, to fill a dark spot). Experiment with still-lifes when you can to get a feel of the different subtleties manipulating the natural light. But the less you have to worry about the lighting, the better, that’s why scouting and picking an optimal location is so important.

The most natural shots are taken when your subjects are in familiar surroundings. They will be relaxed enough to open up to you emotionally— and forget about the camera. Lining up the kid’s soccer team for a posed photo is not going to be as successful as a shot taken while they’re playing.

Set up your location with the natural activities you expect to capture. Your grandparents drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Your children playing in the yard. Your friends setting up the dinner party. You’ll either have to plan to be at the right place at the right time, or you will have to stage the activity. Either way, stage it so that the subjects can stay active. Don’t force something unnatural, unless you’re going for a more abstract and artistic photo concept.

Lights, camera, action

Ok, so you’re where you need to be, the lighting is just right and you have everything staged. Now what? Ask your subjects to do what they are there to do. Direct them to engage with their surroundings, and engage them in conversation—not so they look at you, but so their mind goes to the place that you want reflected on their face. For example; “Grandma, tell me the story about how you and Grandpa met.” “Jenna, what was the best present you got last year?” “Ok kids, start playing.” Once your subjects begin to get lost in their memories or activities SHOOT THE PICTURES! Your subjects may snap out of their memories, but keep coaxing them. “What happened next…?” “How did that make you feel?” Don’t forget to encourage them. “You’re doing a great job. Let’s keep it going.”

If you can zoom in on a face without being “in their face”, that’s optimal. The context of the surrounding is also important, and you can shoot wide and crop in later. I get right in and snap shots and then back off—joking about my aggressiveness. “How’s it feel to be a star?” “Ok, I’m going in for the nose hairs.” Making people laugh is a great way to loosen them up and it makes you less obtrusive.

If your subjects are getting distracted or tired, take a break and review your shots. If you are feeling good about what you have captured call it a wrap, but if you’re not happy, keep going. All your planning and set-up is wasted if you didn’t get the shot(s). But in the end, if the kids are crying, and the grandparents are cranky, it’s over. You’re not going to get any more out of them. You don’t want the camera to be a source of negativity as you’ll probably want to take pictures of these people for years to come.

Don’t forget the details

Don’t forget feet, hands, details in clothing, books on the desk, sports equipment, an unfinished piece of birthday cake and the hand on the coffee cup. All these details give the visual accents needed to round out the mood of the shoot, the essence of the subjects and the sense of place.

Also, if there is a way to keep your camera snapping while laces are being tied, dishes being washed or sports equipment being put away, you’ll be able to achieve an arch of a story that helps give a cadence to your final production. It’s up to you how far you want to go with it. Are you capturing a moment or do you want to tell a story?