photographing family : Elia

Mary Dougherty

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ABOUT mary

I'm a fine art film photographer living in the mountains and traveling to tell beautiful stories





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They drove through the night and arrived in the wee hours of the morning. My sister in-law and her family – who I rarely get to see because of the distance between us – visited for a few days before they continued north for Christmas. It is hard to believe but it was the first time I was able to meet my niece Elia. All of the trips we planned to go down had fallen through, and it meant I was way overdue to take some photos of her.

I photographed her around the house and got a few snapshots of daily activity, and went outside to capture a more simple portrait. She was fast, not quite walking but on the brink and as expressive as ever. I know it will be a while until I see her next and she will have changed so much, but I’m glad the family will have these photos to remember her at this stage. I think she’s just a doll.

For those of you who have little ones, or like me have the chance to visit them over the holidays, I thought I’d share my approach to documenting family at home. It’s so fun to have a collection of family photos to look back on, but it is not always easy to capture them. Before I tell you my rules of thumb, I should mention there are general rules of composition that influence every image. This includes: balance, color, rhythm, symmetry, flow and all of the other traits that can be applied to any visual work. Of course, I don’t stop and think of each of those items, but after studying art and training myself to think visually I would like to say it has become second nature. To simplify this for you, familiarize yourself with the rule of thirds if you aren’t already, and that will get you off to a good start with image composition.

If I didn’t lose you after that long-winded paragraph, here is my advice in three easy points to get you started on taking some killer family pics in the next few weeks


1. Use Natural Light! Use Natural Light! I’m guessing you don’t have a full lighting studio in your basement… but if you do, congrats you can skip to the next step.

Natural light is a great option because there is no extra equipment and it’s the most flattering (lightbulbs = different colors of light = strange skin tones). The easiest way to find natural light inside is to head to a window. You don’t want direct sunlight pouring through a window, but a soft generous light that fills the space. Don’t have a window low enough? Open a door or use a chair to make sure your subject is in the light. Above are two pictures illustrating the advantage of a subject facing in vs. away from the light source. The biggest different here are the lack of catch lights (the bright sparkle in the eye) in the image on the right. They bring the eyes to life and add depth to an image, so it is obvious when they are missing. While I love Elia with her little tongue sticking out on the right, her eyes are dark (aka. not facing the light source aka window) and the image lacks a vibrancy seen on the left.


2. Patience + Perspective go hand in hand.

Letting the picture come to you rather than forcing it to happen through desperate shouts to smile and say cheese takes patience. Plus, I don’t like the camera monsters formed when children are trained to respond to such behavior. While you are waiting for the right moment or allowing your subject to feel comfortable with the camera I like to try different perspectives. Elia pulled herself up and down while standing at the window seat and was clearly focused on squats and lunges instead of paying attention to what I was doing. No problem – I shot from above to capture her delicate eyelashes, tiny fingers and swirl of hair – details of life at this age that will quickly change as she grows.


3. Be Happy. I’m a big believer in keeping photos fun, so if that means letting the baby hold the rubber duck while they sit so they stay happy, go for it. If you are patient and willing to not push for photos but let them come to you then you will get the right shots. Sometimes this also means using your camera as a prop to play peek-a-boo or shooting from the hip (look mom no hands eyes!) so that you cross the barrier the camera can create between your subject. Also, don’t be afraid to take breaks, walk away and come back later when the time is right.

There you have it. Dust off those camera manuals and read up on shooting in manual, aperture or shutter priority so that you can start to make the camera do what you want. I hope that was pared down enough to give you a good start but with enough content to make it worth while! Happy Photographing

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