How do the pros do a parent's job?
The Birthday Party
Who better for tips on party shooting than wedding photographers? We interviewed four favorites: Amy Grace of Southern California; Lora Swinson of Denver; and Rich Lavigne and Ron Antonelli of South Plainfield and Oradell, New Jersey, respectively. All four touched on similar preemptive strategies that can give parents a leg up: Prep the party spaces, plan and pace the celebration, and pay attention to lighting.
Start your party coverage by carefully picking party venues with an eye toward light. Amy Grace advises “reading the light. Light is the first and most important thing” and you should organize the day around it. Plan activities for the best-lit areas of your home, and time them so those areas are at their brightest.
If you’re setting up a backyard party like the Princesses and Pirates occasion Amy Grace recently shot, avoid harsh midday light and, if possible, center activities under the open shade of large trees, tents, canopies, or buildings.
Photo: Amy Grace
“Window light is your friend,” says Antonelli. “If you’re indoors with window light, you can probably work without a flash. And that’s a good thing,” says this busy pro, who also works as a photojournalist.
Next, declutter and reorganize the space in photo-friendly ways. “Removing distracting background clutter will keep the focus on the kids,” says Grace.
Rearranging furniture can help. If, for example, the cake will be served at a kitchen table, don’t let the table be near a wall, which may seriously limit your sightlines. Instead pull it out into the room. Likewise, when you set the table, don’t block views of your subjects with tall table arrangements or party favors. For beverages, short cups are better than tall soda or water bottles, especially those with colorful or distracting labels.
If your party is for young children, expect to do a lot of kneeling in order to be on their eye level. Your knees will thank you for a few strategically placed pillows. Also locate different activities against different backckgrounds so your photos don’t all look alike.
Next, consider pacing. To get a mulititude of facial expressions, alternate party activities between excitable and quiet events. Also, to keep the participants camera ready, organize activities so the messy ones—you know what they are—are stacked toward day’s end.
“Because many birthday parties are held indoors, in close quarters, a wider-angle lens can help to capture more of the scene,” says Grace. She recommends matching the focal length to the moment—wide-angles for group activities, portrait focal length for individuals. An all-in-one zoom is a good idea. Both Swinson and Antonelli also recommend investing in a 50mm f/1.4 (or if you can’t afford that, a 50mm f/1.8). Its high speed will let you shoot without flash, while its shallow depth of field will pick out your child in a pack, as well as capture great details.
You’ll want a camera with a zippy burst rate—at least 5 frames per second—and one that’s good at the high ISOs and can let you shoot without flash. With kids, you’ve got to be mobile. No tripods, monopods, or elaborate lighting setups.
Rich Lavigne, who shoots weddings with wife Anne recommends breaking through the innate shyness of your young subjects by degrees. “Shoot with a longer lens in the beginning so you’re not too close. Later on, when the kids are accustomed to you, switch to a wider lens and get in closer for scene-setting and storytelling. I mention cartoons or cartoon characters that are current. Most adults don’t know them, so when I mention one to kids, they seem to let me in a little bit.”
Lora Swinson warns that “a common mistake parents make is trying to get their child’s attention for every shot. If you’re constantly calling the child’s name and begging them to look at the camera it’s only going to pull away from the moments that you want to capture,” she says. “Take your time and enjoy the fun.”
In fact, everyone interviewed warned against trying to direct or force the kids into specific behaviors. “Expectations of heavily posed pictures are better left at the door at children’s events,” says Grace. “Better is taking a more naturalistic approach that will produce happier subjects and a truer story. I’m respectful. I recognize boundaries and shyness, ask questions and listen with care, laugh, mirror their silliness and enthusiasm. I do all this before I bring the camera to my face,” she adds.
With lighting, avoid having to use flash by cranking up to ISO 800 or 1600. “Indoors, high ISO settings are advisable,” says Grace. If you must use flash, avoid the harsh look of direct flash by bouncing a shoe-mounter off nearby ceiling or walls. Also, avoid mixing daylight and fluorescent sources.
When activities pick up, set your camera’s continuous shooting mode to fire off as many frames as possible. As Rich Lavigne puts it, “Parents should shoot through the moment. Expression is everything and a split second can make the difference between a smile and the perfect smile that can lift your child’s photo from good to great.”
Tip: Capture the Real Stuff
Pro wedding photographer Amy Grace believes that it’s the “in- between moments”—the messy faces, accidents, and interactions—that are the heart of a child’s birthday party. “Parents often aim to get that perfect, smiling shot, with everyone looking at the camera. I would encourage you to pay attention to lovely surprises, too. Think about the way your child is at this moment, and push the shutter when you see that pure character show itself.”