I think people often underestimate the importance of lighting when it comes to the overall look of a photograph.
If you we to compare a photo of a child in the same environment with good lighting and bad lighting, I’m sure you would be shocked by the differences and quality.
In the same way an artist uses paint to form a picture, a photographer uses light as their medium and can create different moods and ambiance with different types of lighting.
There are a few basic lighting techniques and tips for photographing children when outdoors or on holiday, including front-lighting, back-lighting and shade.
Many might assume that the brighter and more direct the light is, the better the picture, however, I disagree. Yes children can look great in strong sunlight but overall I prefer softer light.
It’s more flattering and creates a softness which is very suited to the persona and innocence of a child.
However, there are no strict rules, I would encourage you to experiment and see what works for you and what kind of lighting you prefer and are comfortable with.
One thing I would advise is that you avoid the harsh summer sunlight in the middle of the day (maybe not so relevant in the UK with our great British summer!). It’s also the hottest part of the day and the time when children can become hot and bothered, which doesn’t help create great photos!
Here’s a photo taken in the mid-day sun when the light was overhead. Note the dark shadows under the face and eyes. The angle of the sun is quite unflattering and isn’t going to make anyone look their best. It is also likely to make children squint making them pull unnatural, ugly faces. and is the best way
If you want to use hard direct sunlight as your light source then my tip is to take the photos early in the morning or late afternoon/evening when the angle of the sun is lower and will completely illuminate all the face.
This is known as ‘front-lighting’ and is the best way to achieve bright vibrant colours.
You can see in this photo how crisp and colourful everything is, especially the blue sky.
The only problem with using ‘front-lighting’ is your subject i.e. child will be looking almost directly into the sun and they may squint. A tip to try avoid this is to have something dark behind you for them to look into e.g. a shaded wall, trees, someone wearing dark clothing or get someone to hold up some dark fabric or a towel.
One of my favourite types of lighting is called ‘back-lighting’ and is quite literally the opposite of ‘front-lighting’. Instead of the sun being behind you (and in front of the child) this time the light source is in front of you (behind the child) so the subject is lit from the back.
Here is a good example of a ‘backlit ‘photo I took. If you look at the shadows you can see the direction of the sun i.e. behind them. To the naked eye the girls were in shadow and looked quite dark which is how a camera on auto exposure would have viewed it. Like a camera your eyes expose for the lightest thing on view. But when you adjust the camera’s exposure for a dark area, a whole new world appears!
Look how soft the light is on the girls. The light is bouncing off the floor and surrounding objects as well as the sky behind me.
The floor in the picture is bright and clean because you are over-exposing the bright areas to compensate for the dark areas. Their hair has a glow as the extra-strong light hits it and they are able to open their eyes normally because they are not looking into the hard sunlight.
Another advantage of a backlit photo is the background becomes cleaner, brighter and simpler which focuses the viewer’s attention onto the model.
As in this photo, taken on a beach, the sea behind has ‘bleached out’ quite a lot but just retained enough background to show where we were!
It might feel unnatural at first to shoot this way because you are pointing your camera into the sun but once you practice and see the results you will be pleasantly surprised.
The trick with ‘back-lighting’ is simply to get your exposure correct and with modern day digital cameras you can always check the screen and simply adjust the exposure accordingly.
If you shoot with the camera in auto-mode then it will expose for the bright background and the child will be too dark. So either shoot in a manual mode or use the camera’s exposure compensation mode to over-expose the picture. You will probably find that you need to over-expose by 1-2 stops of light.
Also be careful the sun doesn’t go directly into your camera lens and ‘flare’ the picture. You can shoot slightly off to one side or shade the lens from the sun with your hand or ask a friend to.
The other kind of lighting I love for kids and especially babies is to shoot in the shade. This is a great way of shooting during a sunny day and the sun is getting too high, also it’s nice to be in an area which is not too hot.
This picture was taken in the shade of a tree in the early afternoon.
The light is beautiful and soft which makes the girls look even prettier and the clothes look softer and neater and the background insignificant and ‘bleached out’. Imagine this front-lit with hard shadows and squinty faces and the clothes looking a mess, a totally different feel and picture!
Like ‘back-lighting’ you are exposing the camera for the girls in a shaded area so the bright sunny areas in the background become over-exposed and bright and clean. Your camera should automatically expose correctly in the shade but if not, do the same as if you were ‘back-lighting’.
So these are the three main types of lighting I would use outdoors, particularly on sunny days although these tips can be applied to less sunny days too.
For more tips and advice on photographing children and babies please visit my online lectures at MyPhotoSchool.