Essential Rule Number One: when on a mission for a great image, always have your camera handy with a clean memory card and fresh batteries in it. This may seem obvious but its easy to get rushed and forget. While fiddling with loading a memory card or changing batteries, you may watch a great photo opportunity evaporate.
The easiest environment to get good outdoor kid photos is somewhere they feel relaxed -- a sandbox or another environment where their focus is not on you. It will be most relaxed without a lot of other people around.
To separate your child from the background of your image and bring her close to you, choose a telephoto lens. This blurs the background, leaving no question as to what the image is about. It also keeps your child’s focus on whatever they are doing, not on you and your camera.
Watch for distractions in your background. Take the time to check your background and make sure it will not detract from your image. The classic is the lovely shot of a kid with a basketball backboard sticking out the top of his or her head. Memorable, but probably not in the way you hoped. Bright lights in the background, particularly when your child is standing in subdued light or shade, can also be distracting.
It’s tempting to take posed photos – to ask someone to hold still and smile while you fiddle with getting everything just right. Their smile disappears just as you snap the shutter. Put kids on the spot by making them stand still for you, struggling to hold a smile, and they may grow up hating to have their picture taken (take it from me – fifty years plus and I still hate having mine taken).
Kids often “ham it up” and imitate famous looks that they have seen. Sometimes its fun to shoot those pictures, just remember that you might get a more revealing image if you don’t settle for a pasted on grin. Your best tool for a great image is your patience, not posing -- theirs or yours. So, just sit quietly and wait. If you have another person with you, have them do something interactive with your child and capture that action.
Catch your child in different moods, at different times of the day -- a lazy afternoon and a crazy-excited play date with other kids. You don’t have to direct what unfolds -- spontaneity makes great photos. Watch for the right moment, and the next right moment. Experiment with camera angles and perspectives – take a shot from above, or one on your belly shooting up. Practice and play. Get close to your child, fill the frame, and then back up. All the while, your central focus needs to be on his/her eyes.
Learn to anticipate the moment you want to capture. You’ll get some of your best outdoor shots during “the golden hours,” the two hours after sunrise and the two before sunset. Photos taken when the midday sun glares look harsh. Direct, bright overhead light burns out texture in highlights and blocks up the areas of interest in its dark shadows. Go out and shoot on overcast days, or days of snow or rain and wind. Look at adverse weather conditions as opportunities to take unusual photographs – leaves swirl at your subject’s feet, their hair blows, snow frosts their eye lashes. These details don’t detract from your photo – they enhance it.
If you must photograph during “high noon” sunlight, working in the shade can keep “bright spots” out of the background.
Avoid using flash. The most endearing portraits are those that don’t look like a camera was present, images that catch a child enjoying being who they are. Once they get caught up in a project, relaxed or sleepy, you disappear. Don’t startle them with a harsh, bright flash.
Remember, the core essential trick to taking great pictures is to take lots of them. Click away. Mathematically, you’re bound to get a good shot. The rest of us see the photographs that worked well, not all the ones that didn’t.