Got baby, got DSLR. Now what?
October 25, 2011 7:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm a newbie to the world of photography, although it's something I've wanted to learn for awhile. Now that I have my first baby, it seems like a good time to get on the stick and try to figure out what I'm doing. I'm not sure where to start.

I have a Nikon D40 and have played with it, although mostly in auto mode, or with the flash off whenever possible. I did just get a spiffy little bounce flash that I really like, though. :-) I've read the basics on aperture, shutter speed, focal length, and how they work together, and I *think* I understand it. I've played with it some on my camera, though, and it only seems to work sometimes. The auto mode always seems to give me better pictures, but that seems like a waste.

I also have a three-month-old little guy who is changing by the day. There is SO much information out on the web that I have no idea where to begin learning what I need to know to capture a wiggly baby. The best thing to do is just dig in and start taking pictures, which I'm doing, but I'd like to be a little more focused in my efforts.

So, I would love any input, advice, links - whatever the mefi hive mind has up its collective sleeve. And I promise not to make you look at pictures of my baby. (Unless, y'know, you want to. He is super cute.) ;-)

tl;dr: What are the most important things to know to take great pictures of babies and kids?
posted by CrazyGabby to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Give yourself a challenge a week (or day, whatever you can manage): this week I focus on... Framing. Manual exposure fiddling. Night photography. Aperture priority. Bounce flash. Classic-looking portraiture. Macro photography around the house. Fast-moving objects. Etc.

You have a big field to explore and the only way to do it is a bite at a time. Start with the simple and keep doing new things.
posted by introp at 7:30 AM on October 25, 2011

What are the most important things to know to take great pictures of babies and kids?

Fast lenses. IMO, the 35mm f/1.8G is the best option in your case. Turn your dial from Auto to A for Aperture Priority and practice adjusting just that one choice. See how wider and narrower apertures affect your end results. If you want to try shutter priority or manual (which isn't as scary as it sounds!), make sure to watch the exposure meter in your viewfinder--it's your camera's way of hinting at the right settings to get the right exposure, but it's up to you to pick them. That way you know what's probably right, and you have the flexibility to make your own choices.

Don't try to get great indoor shots of your beautiful, wiggly baby with your kit lens. Only frustration will follow.
posted by litnerd at 7:38 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

You have a lifetime of learning ahead of you! Which is a good thing. Thankfully, there is a ton of info on the web, but as you have seen it's like drinking from a firehose. It's hard to not get overwhelmed.

Just one area to start with: The relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

By the way, the D40 is an excellent camera. I used one for years, regularly making 12x18 prints, and now my daughter has it. As you start reading about other photographers' experiences, resist the temptation to think you need a "better" camera. That day may come, but just stay focused on doing all you can with what you have.
posted by The Deej at 7:48 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

With the ISO/shutter speed/aperture link in mind, and the 35mm f1.8 (a 50mm f1.8 or f1.4 instead is also worth a thought, as they can take low-light shots just as well, and they're a little more "zoomed in," which is good for portrait shots), one quick answer:

Shoot in manual mode as much as possible, and experiment with the different exposure options talked about in the link, and you'll figure things out reasonably.
posted by stleric at 7:54 AM on October 25, 2011

Someone said, "great photography is 10% skill and 90% good editing". Take a million damn photos and only show people a handful.

I actually came in to suggest what litnerd said. Get a fast lens and start playing in aperture priority mode. It's pretty easy to form a good sense of the results you'll get from the shutter/aperture combos. Basically, take the scientific approach. Lock all the other features to one setting and just monkey around with changing one at a time.

Then, when you feel like you're happy with your understanding of that, switch back to Auto mode and relax ;)
posted by TangoCharlie at 7:56 AM on October 25, 2011

Best answer: Unless I'm deliberately trying to get some motion blur, or I'm shooting with off-camera flashes and need full manual control, my camera lives in aperture priority (Av) mode.

As for photographing kids:
Shoot from their eye height or lower.

Don't let the camera set its own autofocus point....learn how to quickly scroll through your autofocus points and select the best one.

Indoors, use fast glass and high ISO (ISO 800 is fine on any DSLR at this point). At low (numerically) apertures, be super sure to focus on their eyes. A 30mm f1.4 is expensive, but very much worth the investment.

Outside, use fill flash.

Shoot LOTS of photos. Put it on a burst mode. If I'm doing a wedding, I'll take a couple thousand photos and get it down to 100-200 keepers. With my own kids, I keep everything, but only "publish" about 5-10%. 90% of photography is taking TONS of photos and ruthlessly throwing out ones that aren't spectacular. You need to know how to use the camera and frame a shot, obviously, but the art happens later, IMO.

Editing is everything. You need to preserve your ability to edit. So, shoot RAW files rather than jpegs, which preserve a lot of extra shadows and highlights. Learn to use the histogram on the LCD to overexpose right up to the limit of the camera's capture abilities. Invest in Adobe Lightroom. The Luminous Landscape photo blog has some good info on this sort of thing.

Don't be afraid to play. Digital photography is free once you have the gear! Join some groups on Flickr to get feedback and expose yourself to lots of styles. Pick some you like and figure out how to emulate them.
posted by pjaust at 7:57 AM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Shoot RAW. Edit RAW. Better post-processing means better images. A RAW file is like a negative, whereas an in-camera JPG is like a print you get from Walgreens. I'm sure the JPGs look fine, but more flexibility is always better than less flexibility.

Find a fast prime lens in the 28-35 focal length range. Shooting with better glass gives you better images, shooting with faster glass gives you more flexibility, and shooting with a prime forces you to work a little more for your shot.

As an alternative to going into full manual, I would suggest going into auto-aperture or auto-shutter mode, using the EV +/- (exposure compensation) function to make your shots at the correct exposure. Remember that when the exposure is "correct" according to your camera, what that means is that your scene averages to 18% gray. This is often what you want, but often, it's not. Take a few test shots where you shoot things at the "incorrect" exposure. After you have an idea of what shooting at -2 or +2 looks like, you'll have a better handle on how to shoot your baby when he's in the dark, or when he's backlit, et.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:00 AM on October 25, 2011

Hey also - one of the things I always struggle with when photographing is lighting and what I think you could call the "dynamic range". Like I look at something and can resolve detail in the bright spots and detail and interesting colour in the shadow, but my photo of the same scene is blown out in the highlights and black in the shadows. Your camera interprets and represents light differently than your eye/brain on its own, and learning to work with that and use it to its advantage is the real trick. Again, though, it's all a matter of practise.
posted by TangoCharlie at 8:02 AM on October 25, 2011

ISO 800 is fine on any DSLR at this point

Bear in mind that the D40, while a good camera, is an old camera with an old sensor. While ISO 800 images will still be printable of course, there's more of a quality dropoff between ISO 100-400 and ISO 800 than for a modern camera. Shooting at ISO 800 means gaining a considerable amount of noise and losing dynamic range, tonal range, etc.

That said, when you edit RAW in Lightroom, you can work relative wonders.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:05 AM on October 25, 2011

There are so many good points listed above that I'm not going to +1 all of them so instead I'll say that the single-best thing I ever did for my own photography was to spend time looking at images (from other photographers) that I loved and trying to figure out what made them special. I didn't learn the rule of thirds or how to underexpose because someone said, "Learn the rule of thirds / how to underexpose" but instead through conscious desire to emulate what someone else had done.

I suppose in some ways it's the same thing as the suggestions above to give yourself a challenge regularly, except in this challenge you don't know what the rules are in the first place.
posted by komara at 8:26 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the risk of adding to too much information flying at you: yes, a high ISO increases noise, but I shot at 1600 regularly with my D40 and it was fine. Better to have some noise and get the shot you want, preserving the lighting you see, than to be afraid of a high ISO and end up with a blurry, unusable shot due to slow shutter speed.

These photos were shot with my D40 at 1600 and 800 ISO.

Too many photographers get hung up on noise/grain. But does anyone think these photos are no good because they are too grainy?
posted by The Deej at 9:26 AM on October 25, 2011

I agree with komara that looking at lots of fantastic photography is probably the best time investment any photographer can make. Get some good photography books. Read through collections of well-regarded photography. I strongly advise skipping the Flickr generation at this stage, and diving into the wider world of image making.

Especially potent are books by single photographers. Examining how a person expresses themself through their images, and how their visual style continues through their work is invaluable. It will take a while to get your visual language together, but constructing it is one of the most valuable things a photographer can do.
posted by Magnakai at 9:29 AM on October 25, 2011

I'll throw this couple of cents in (which I'm presuming you are already doing, based on your question, but why not) - really, technical stuff aside, what I tell every newbie photo person

take a bunch of pictures. Look at them. Do you like them? If the answer is yes, and the answer to that question keeps being "yes" over time as you take more pictures, then, great.

If the answer is "no", ask yourself "why not?" Specifically figure out what you don't like about them, and what you'd like to improve in them. Then! ask somebody more knowledgable how to fix the problems you are having getting the pictures you want.

Naturally if you want them to look more like another photog's pix specifically, you could ask "what could I do to make my pictures look more like this person's?"
posted by bitterkitten at 9:51 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

My best advice right now is to get a giant hard drive and take as many pictures as you can and save them all. If they don't look so great now, in the near future there is going to be all kinds of ways to fix the images. For example, there is a new process that will fix out of focus images. So don't delete, you can't go back in time to take pictures of baby. Shoot in RAW if you can figure out how to do that. But not essential at this point. JPG is fine. If you fool around with an image in Photoshop save it as a new image. Keep the original JPG untouched.
posted by cda at 9:55 AM on October 25, 2011

Shoot RAW. Edit RAW. Better post-processing means better images. A RAW file is like a negative, whereas an in-camera JPG is like a print you get from Walgreens. I'm sure the JPGs look fine, but more flexibility is always better than less flexibility.

This is good for a couple reasons: One is that if you don't you'll eventually have some otherwise great shot that you could save if you could just tweak the exposure up a couple stops or whatever, but doing that to jpeg brings out all kinds of extra ugly. Better switch over before that. The other is that it encourages that part where you take a million pictures but only show people a few of them, because it's harder to just dump your whole memory card onto flickr.
posted by aubilenon at 10:23 AM on October 25, 2011

I took a one-day "Intro to DSLR" class at a local photo gallery, which was great and helped me finally understand my camera (I'm a tactile learner). I also recommend the Pioneer Woman's tutorials.
posted by jrichards at 10:52 AM on October 25, 2011

Best answer: 1) Fast lenses are the most important thing, especially for indoor pics. They also make it easier to get the "professional" look of blurred background. Potential negative: Focusing becomes more difficult until you get the hang of it because the depth of field is shallower.

2) Take a million pictures. Choose the best ones and try to figure out WHY you like those.

3) Take a photography class. You'll learn very basic stuff -- rule of thirds and things like that -- that will VASTLY improve you photography almost immediately. Once those little things are out of the way and you start SEEING pictures instead of just shooting and hoping for the best ("spray and pray" technique), you can really start learning photography and knowing when to break the rules.

4) Shoot RAW, and learn to post-process. RAW shooting can help you cover a number of sins. A lot of people think RAW is for pros and JPEG is for amateurs. I tend to think it's the opposite (although it's really a matter of personal preference): RAW is for people who will make mistakes, and JPEG is for people who can shoot with absolute confidence. I'd shoot a few months with ONLY JPEG, then a few months with RAW and see exactly what RAW can do for you.

5) Don't expect it to come quickly. I have a knack for taking good snapshots, but even after 3 years and tens of thousands of pictures, I'm nowhere near a real photographer.

6) Share with people, but only share your best. I have a friend who is pretty good at taking snapshots -- at least as good as me. But she puts ALL of her images online, and I only put the best ones. As a result, people say to me, "I don't even bother looking at her pics anymore -- there are too many of the same thing, and they get boring. But YOURS are fantastic!" I took 2000 pictures on my recent vacation, and only shared 200, and got great feedback. Had I posted all 2000, no one but me would ever have seen my pictures.

7) Make backups of all your original files before you touch them. Once you ruin the original, it's gone for good. Make a post-processing workflow that works for you and stick with it.

8) Use free tools that are available to you. I look at a lot of pictures on Flickr, and check the EXIF data of ones that I like so that I can improve my own photos. Similarly, there are free add-ons for Firefox that let you view the EXIF data (if any) for any photo you come across. And if you don't want to shell out for Photoshop, Gimp works pretty well, and there are MANY free online tutorials and filters for it.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with shooting on Auto. Doing this for a few months can be really helpful, because when it DOESN'T work and you miss the photo, you can look at the EXIF data and figure out what you might have done to improve it.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:19 AM on October 25, 2011

Best answer: You say you are a newbie to photography; not even a serious amatuer at this point, even though you could become one. You've gotten a lot of answers which would be more correct if you were the latter.

I agree with many of the previous comments, but with notable exceptions.

Learn to use the equipment you have before you start buying faster lenses. Fast prime lenses are great, but shooting them wide open (or close to it) means you'll have really minimal depth of field, whether you want it or not.

Learn to work with your bounceable flash, because it will potentially give you extremely natural looking photographs, and in many cases you'll get results superior to what you'd have if you were shooting a fast lens wide open in available light. Remember that you can bounce it off of walls (or anything else) in addition to ceilings. Just because there is enough available light to shoot, the quality of that light is going to be simply lousy some of the time.

While shooting RAW is the way to go in the long haul, I'd suggest you stick with JPEG images initially. Especially until you become a power user with converting RAW images toi JPEGs, shooting raw will likely mean significantly more time in front of the computer an possibly potential frustration. Also, sticking with JPEGs will force you to learn to shoot better originals right out of the camera.

Don't be afraid to crank that ISO up to 800 or even 1600 when you need to. For its age, the D40 is a pretty good high ISO camera.

I agree with coolguymichael's points (above) 2, 3, 5,6, 7, and 8 for a newbie photographer, and I agree with the rest of them once you have a lot more confidence under your belt.

Especially with the external flash that has bounce capability, you have some really decent tools at your disposal. Learn how to make the best of them, and then move on if necessary.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:48 PM on October 25, 2011

Response by poster: So many great tips that it's hard to pick best answers - thank you! I absolutely love the look of shallow depth of field, so it's nice to know that my lens has a lot to do with achieving that.
posted by CrazyGabby at 7:03 AM on October 26, 2011

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