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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Slick Trix for Kid Pix

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Photographing children may not exactly be like herding cats, but the analogy is apt.

Like cats, kids are adorable.

Like cats, kids get into all kinds of picturesque situations.

Like cats, kids have minds of their own.

For years Judith Goodman, my wife and partner, was a highly sought-after children's photographer, especially for the kind of gorgeous work shown here. Judy always seemed to have the knack for capturing just the right moment when the wonder, magic and happiness of being a child shone through.

It was a hell of a lot of work, as someone who accompanied her on some of these jobs can attest. Since she worked on location and never in the studio, Judy's equipment often would include, besides her cameras and lenses, a strong set of gardener's kneepads for all the time she spent on the ground, capturing a child's world from his or her level.

The press of other commercial work, not to mention the physical toll of years of knee-level photography, finally convinced Judy to stop photographing children commercially. Now, when she lifts a camera to photograph kids, it is to shoot our own grandchildren, Max, Eliot and Anna.

But whether it be professional or personal work, the same rules apply for making good children's photographs. Using these two recent examples, see how Judy turned what would have been snapshots into treasures:

1. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify. Jay Maisel, a well-known corporate and fine art shooter, always told his classes, "You are responsible for everything in your frame." This means cluttered backgrounds or other details, like, say, the edge of the dresser or sofa – or your dog's butt – that can distract the viewer from your subject, no matter how cute he or she may be.

Take the photo of Eliot and Max eating ice cream. The setting is a busy McDonald's – but you'd never guess it because Judy has eliminated virtually every trace of the restaurant in her photograph. For example, though she is sitting across from the boys you see almost none of the table between them. And the shot is tight enough to eliminate the distracting artwork on the wall above.

2. The Right Light. In the case of the boys, Judy was able to make use of soft directional window light to freeze a wonderful moment. See how the light coming from the left gently models each boy's face, giving it shape. In this case, the black and white film Judy used – Kodak T400CN – provided superb shadow detail and sharpness, further enhancing the photograph. Who says indoor pictures have to be flash pictures? Certainly in this case flash would have destroyed the mood and ruined the shot.

Virtually the same technique was used in the color picture, of an exultant Anna in her mother Johanna's arms. Here Jo and the baby were placed near a large window almost directly by Johanna's head. A corner window, visible in the picture, added fill light as well. This available light was bright enough for Judy to freeze motion on 200-ISO Kodacolor Gold film. To insure the right exposure, I first made spot meter readings on the brightest and darkest parts of the subjects' faces, then averaged these readings for a working exposure. Since Judy was using color print film, not exposure-critical slide film, she was able to set her camera to this average reading and concentrate on capturing the moment.

Which brings up the most important aspect of children's photography –

3. Patience. As Judy noted, in describing how she took the picture of Max and Eliot: "We didn't go to McDonald's because I wanted to photograph the boys eating ice cream. We went because we wanted ice cream." That is: the picture happened afterward, when the boys were too engaged in their treat to care about anything else – and when their grandma decided to put down her own ice cream cone to make the picture.

When photographing like this, trying to set things up often can be a waste of time. Better to wait till the child is doing what he or she loves, then be ready to make the shot.

Granted, Max and Eliot probably are used to their professional photographer grandmother regularly pointing a camera at them. What about kids who start mugging for the camera as soon as they see it?

"That's when you've got to be ready to take the second shot," Judy advises.

I've seen her do this a number of times, a number of ways. Sometimes Judy will tell the kid(s), "OK, make your funniest face," and make a shot just for them. Invariably afterward, the kids will dissolve into giggles. That's when Judy makes the keeper.

Other times, sufficient patience on your part can make kids forget about you as they go back to their games or other activities and let you make beautiful shots of children immersed in their own world.

Again, the key is patience.

Because kids move so quickly, capturing the right moment can be a challenge. Unfortunately, many of today's most popular amateur cameras simply are not up to that challenge. Both consumer-level digital cameras and most point n' shoots are plagued by "shutter lag" – a maddening delay between the time you press the button and when your camera actually takes a picture. That's because these cameras are taking their own sweet time focusing and calculating exposure before they can get around to capturing a particular moment.

And by the time they do, that moment usually is gone.

This is one time when good equipment simply is a must. In these situations, even the most rudimentary 35mm SLR, especially when used with manual focusing, can outperform most hyper-automated digimatics.

Shutter lag is a special torment to me – someone who reveres the capture-the-moment photography of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gianni Berengo Gardin, Bruce Davidson, Don McCullin and Claus Bjorn Larsen, to name just a few. It is no accident that many of these photographers use manual Leica rangefinder cameras, which are capable of freezing action almost instantaneously simply because they have no reflex mirrors to bounce up and down – and no electronics or time-consuming autofocus to stand in the way of making the picture.

So, is a Leica M6 necessary to capture the fast-moving world of children?

Of course not. Merely a camera that doesn't stutter while doing your thinking for you, good light and the ability and willingness to wait for a great picture to present itself.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


©Judith Goodman


©Judith Goodman

Imaging Odyssey 2001 - Baltimore, May 17-19

Shutterbug Magazine is sponsoring a huge photography trade show in Baltimore next week that will bring together scores of manufacturers and nationally known photographers for hands-on demonstrations, lectures and portfolio reviews.

Imaging Odyssey 2001 will open Thursday Morning, May 17 and run through Saturday at Baltimore's mammoth Convention Center on the downtown waterfront.

On the 17th Frank Van Riper will offer a two-hour workshop on the documentary photography he has done for his books and discuss combining words with photographs. Other lecturers at the show will include Rick Sammon on Travel photography, Monte Zucker and Bambi Cantrell on wedding photography, Robert Farber on Nude photography, and Hasselblad's Tony Corbell on lighting techniques.

For more information and to register online go to shutterbug.net.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Punchy Plug-Free Location Portraits

Colorful Black and White

Needing the Next New Thing?

Taming Your Flash

Stieglitz and New York – A Town to Match his Ego

Traveling Light(er)





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