There’s likely no subject photographed more often than children. Yet, they can also be the most challenging subjects for any photographer. Countless “cute” images are made every day, but they don’t always have the benefit of having been photographed under the best light. Photographers Paul Gero and Vik Orenstein have both carved out successful careers as family photographers and each has developed a unique style for photographing families, especially children. We brought them together to discuss how they see and use light for this popular genre of photography.
In this post, we meet:
PAUL GERO, Family Photographer
VIK ORENSTEIN, Family Photographer
When it comes to photographing children, people are often just concerned with getting an in-focus picture. What considerations should a photographer make with respect to the quality of the light?
Orenstein: With available light, I really want to encourage people to limit their shooting to the times of day when the light is nice. If I have a client in the summer who asks me to shoot a portrait at noon, I say no, and instead schedule it for early morning or late afternoon when the light’s going to be much better.
Gero: That’s the same for me. If someone asks me to do a beach portrait, I’ll schedule it before sunset. There’s just no sense in fighting the light if it’s not good. All the work in Photoshop isn’t going to make it that much better. If it’s not optimal light, I’ll tend to work with backlighting and shoot it with a longer lens, so at least I’ll have softer, more interesting light on my subject.
So, what are the qualities of the lighting that you’re hoping and looking for?
Gero: I’m looking for the quality of the light, the color of the light, and I want it to be interesting. If it’s overcast, sometimes I’ll find that it will work really well with the mood I’m trying to create. I’m really looking for the feeling of the light as much as possible. Later or earlier in the day provides some long shadows, which provides some very dramatic light.
Orenstein: I agree. I think that’s really important. What I look for is when the sun is low in the sky or when it’s overcast. Overcast is fantastic and if you’re lucky, you can get what I call “God beams,” where the light breaks through the clouds, and that can result in the most amazing light.
Sometimes, photographers don’t have control over the time of day they’re shooting. So, what kind of choices can they make when they’re shooting during midday?
Orenstein: I think it’s really important to consider the light both on the background and the subject. Obviously, you want the most beautiful light on your subject. But, say you can’t avoid photographing at high noon, then what I’d do is put my subject in open shade. But then you have to be careful to pay attention to your background. If your subject is in open shade and nicely lit, the background can be blown out and that’s a bad deal, too. So you want to look for a place where you can get both your subject and the background under a nice, soft light.
Gero: I’d agree with that. Sometimes, I like that blown-out look in the background. Though it can really depend on what you’re going for.
Orenstein: Yes, it can really depend on the setting.
Gero: Right. When I used to work for newspapers, I worked in Phoenix for a long time and we’d often get assignments to do portraits during times with the most God-awful light. So, if you were to create an interesting environmental portrait of someone in that kind of light, it was really tough to do, especially just using handheld flash units—they’re not powerful enough. So, you had to either cut the light with reflectors or scrims or create a little bit of shade around your subject. Or you had to go in and overpower the ambient light with a powerful strobe.
Overcast or open shade definitely has its advantage, but you’re dealing with a reduced quantity of light. What considerations do you have to make for that, especially with respect to shutter speed, when you’re photographing an energetic and fast-moving subject?
Gero: I think shutter speed is a critical component, along with aperture and ISO. You really have to know your camera and know what it does. If you know that you must have at least a 1/250 or even 1/500 shutter speed to stop the action, that affects everything else that you have to set on your camera with respect to ISO and aperture. If you have a fast aperture lens, you could lock it down to say an aperture of f/2.8 or f/4, and then you have to think about what the ISO needs to be to give you the shutter speed needed to freeze the action. If you want it to be sharp and stop the action, that’s going to be a component of shutter speed.
Orenstein: Exactly, that’s really important. That’s where artistic modes on the camera help out so much, because if you use aperture priority, you can set your lens wide open which will give you a faster shutter speed. I notice that a lot of my students are afraid to increase their ISO, so they end up with blurry images. Their sharpness suffers in order to avoid a little noise. So I really encourage them to up the ISO.
Let’s say we have those technical things down; the bigger challenge can be working with the kids themselves, especially when they have a brief attention span. How do you contend with that and still achieve natural and spontaneous images?
Orenstein: Well, I use stickers and pennies a lot for younger kids to try and convince them that there’s a special or magic spot just for them where I want them to stand or sit. I’ll take a look at the lighting situation outdoors, put a sticker on the ground, and say that this special sticker is just for Jimmy to stand on and that Susie can’t stand on that sticker. Then I give Suzie her special sticker. I still encourage them to interact and I want them to move around a bit, but obviously I don’t want them to be crazy and uncontrollable. That seems to work really well.
Gero: I think it depends on your style and what you’re trying to achieve. My style of photography is about capturing kids in the moment. For me, if they’re going a little bit crazy, I kind of like that. Those suggestions that Vik made are really good if you’re trying to create a group photo in an area where you want them to stay. For me though, I don’t often do those kinds of kids’ portraits. I want them to be free to do what they want to do and I just try to keep a position where the light is interesting.
Orenstein: I agree with you, Paul, and I love when I see other people shooting that way. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I think I’m a little bit of a formal person at heart, which you’d never guess. I like to have interaction and natural gestures and expressions, but I do a lot more controlling of the situation or the place where the child is when I shoot them. I envy you for being able to shoot that way, but for me, I really want them to be where I want them to be.
What happens differently when you’re shooting with a strobe?
Gero: Well, I did a portrait at Christmas of a little one-year old in an area where I wanted to photograph her. For this particular image, I lit her with a couple of strobes—kind of rare for me, as I usually don’t. It’s like what I used to do with editorial work: I light an area and meter it so that I know where my sweet spot of light is. But if they move away from it, I also know that it’s going to be f/4 or f/2.8. So, I know that I have this little area where the light is optimal. Strobe definitely adds a different look to the experience. It forces you to control the situation a bit more.
Orenstein: I find that I don’t have to exercise that much control in the studio because the kids tend to limit themselves to staying on the drop. It seems like a natural boundary for them. So I like very diffused light in the studio for kids, especially if they’re going to be running around. I have a couple of 4×8 light control screens and then I light the background. There’s a sweet spot that I’m aware of, but even if the kids are moving around, I know the light is still going to be decent, if not really, really good.
Do you work handheld or do you use a tripod?
Orenstein: I don’t work from a fixed position and I don’t use a tripod. I’ll move closer and further from the kids, especially since I’ve fallen in love with my 85mm f/1.8 lens. I have to do that old-fashioned, two-legged zoom, so I physically have to move closer or further away.
Gero: I don’t. I have to be free to go.
I get so frustrated if I’m trying to photograph kids while my camera is on a tripod. If I try it for a minute, I usually take three frames and put it away because it’s so against my nature.
What are you favoring with respect to equipment when you’re shooting?
Orenstein: I love my Nikon D3 and my 85mm. I have zooms, but I almost never use them anymore. For groups, I tend to use my 50mm f/1.8. For me, a full-frame sensor is critical. That and good, fast glass are really significant for me.
Gero: I totally agree. I’m a Canon photographer and I like the look of prime lenses. I tend to work with an 85mm, a 50mm, and sometimes a 135mm. This morning, I had a portrait and used the 135mm because we were at a time of day when the light wasn’t really perfect, so I wanted the compression and the narrow angle of view that the 135mm has. It’s such a beautiful lens. But I agree with Vik, I’m an absolute fanatic for the full-frame sensor. Right now, I have a 5D Mark II and a couple of older 5Ds.
Do you have a suggestion on the one thing that photographers should pay particular attention to the next time they’re out shooting?
Orenstein: Leave your external [flash] at home and if you have a built-in flash, tape it down with duct tape. (Laughter)
Orenstein: I think it comes from shooting with a point-and-shoot camera. But there are so many people who automatically shoot with flash, thinking that more light is better. It’s absolutely not true. It’s the quality of light, not the quantity of light. Camera-mounted flash is never, ever going to be more beautiful than ambient light. The only reason to use that would be if you’re shooting midday and you need to sparkle up the skin tones or fill in shadows, but even then it’s iffy.
Gero: One of the things that I encourage my students to do is to just look at the light without a camera and begin to appreciate front light, backlight, and sidelight. Try to think that if they were shooting in that situation, where would they stand? What would they use for a lens? What would their settings be? I think that when you’re learning photography, you have to think about photography all the time—even when you’re without a camera—and think about things, such as where’s the interesting light?
Orenstein: I agree with you, Paul, so much. You have to encourage people to learn how to see the light.
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to sit down with both of you.
Orenstein: Yes, this was great fun.
Gero: Likewise. I really enjoyed it.