Friday, 13 August 2010

One in a Series: Cameras and Backgrounds

I've been doing project 365 this year, where I take a photo every day. I'm going to share with you a few things that I've learned along the way about photographing babies. I am absolutely not claiming that I know everything there is to know, or that I'm some kind of brilliant professional photographer: that's not what we're here for. If you want professional photography, google 'portrait photographers' in your area and I'm sure someone will be happy to take your money. This is about ordinary you with an ordinary camera, capturing what's in front of you every ordinary day.

Because I'm me, I have far too much to say about this. And my posts have been far too long lately, so I've decided to split this one into a series. Today, you get my top two points.

1: Don't Buy A New Camera. Yet.

I think the most common mistake people make when they want better photos is to buy a new camera. I'm here to tell you - don't do it! Once you've squeezed every drop of juice from your current camera, then you may buy a new one. Once you are absolutely certain that it's holding you back,and you know why it's holding you back, then okay. But until you get to the stage where your photos are limited by the camera (and not by what's behind the camera) it's just not time yet. I dont know you, but I'm 99% certain that you can do better with what you've already got. I'm 100% certain that I can do better with what I've already got.

In fact, if I was running a photography course (which I'm not, but you are welcome to give me $500 if you like) the first thing I would do is take away all the fancy cameras, give everyone something ultra-basic, then say go forth and click! The reason is simple: once you take away the ability to fiddle with the camera, you actually have to think about what you're photographing. A simple camera gives you a great gift - it forces you to think about the composition of your photos, because that's all you can control. So don't buy a new camera, because then you'll be thinking about the camera. Think about what you're photographing instead. It will make a bigger difference, I guarantee it. Also, it's free.

The best way to start doing this is to digress into photographic philosophy for a moment. You need to think about the difference between a beautiful photograph, and just a photograph of a beautiful thing.

Were you listening? I'm going to say it again. You've got a beautiful thing - your baby - but there's a big difference between a photograph of a beautiful thing, and a beautiful photograph. For example, roses are beautiful, right? But this is not a beautiful photograph. And neither is this. This, on the other hand, is beautiful, because the photographer has looked past the pretty thing in front of him and thought: how am I going to arrange that in my viewfinder?

You can do the same.

2. Think About The Background

People, I cannot say this loudly enough. If you do one thing - ONE THING - to make your photos better, do this. For the love of all that is precious, think about the background.

Put it this way. You have a cute baby, yes? The cutest in the world? Well, of course. But if you have a baby, this means that you also have piles of washing strewn around your house. Or maybe lots of plastic toys. And a pram. And while these things are all useful and unavoidable, they do not improve your photos. This comes back to what I said above about beautiful thing vs beautiful photograph- your baby's always going to be cute, but if he's sitting in a typical messy house then it's hard to make the photograph look good.

There are lots of great ways to include a good background, but for babies I think the easiest is to go as plain as possible. Compare this and this. Two equally cute kids, and there are absolutely no fancy photography techniques in either. But the second photograph is a killer, and it's all because of the plain background behind the baby. The key here is that there is nothing to distract the eye. You look at it, and your eye goes straight to the baby. With the first photo, it's nice enough but your eye kind of wanders around, looking at all the different things in the frame. It's a total waste of visual energy*.

Getting a plain background is harder than it sounds at first, especially if you live in a teeny tiny house like me. Grass is your friend. Plain rugs are your friend. Daddy's shirt (while being worn by Daddy) are your friend. Plain painted walls are your friend, but only if (as in the photo I linked) you can get a low angle so you are seeing just wall, not wall and floor and baseboard. And while we're talking angles - if you're thinking about grass, you should think about shooting from above so that it really is grass you're getting, not grass and trees and sky and half of a billboard. Whatever you choose, fill the frame with it. Often, this means getting really close to your subject and cropping out everything else. In the Daddy's shirt example above, you just want baby + the shirt + the supporting arm. If the purpose of the shirt is to be background, you do NOT want Daddy's head.

Carpet is not really your friend - it's always going to look like carpet, but it's better than some of the alternatives. Patterned rugs (unless it's something graphic and simple like stripes or big spots) are absolutely not your friend. Highchairs are your deadly enemy.

If you'd like a project, here's a project for you: take a picture today. Don't worry about anything else, just think about the background. Use a simple, frame-filling background to make your subject pop. I'd love to see it!

Again, people, if you're going to make one change, make it this: Think about the background.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I have switched photos here. By linking to that first photo it seems I upset the photographer - for which I sincerely apologise. If you're still reading: I wasn't saying you're a bad photographer, just trying to talk about the power of a good background. All of us, without exception, are prone to taking photos with too much stuff going on. I have now specially uploaded an old photo of my niece to flickr as a new example of background clutter. I would apologise on your flickr page, but now that I've replaced the link I can't find you.


  1. Lori · 4 days ago
    These are such great tips, and I can't wait to hear more. I would take your class, btw, if I had the chance. I'm always trying to improve my photos.
    My recent post Wednesdays are for Al Green

    Evelyn · 4 days ago
    Great tips, C! I will have to use them in photos this weekend.

    Karen · 4 days ago
    I'm so excited for your photography series! I will think about the background and give it a shot today. Unfortunately I can't share it until we finalize, but I will try it.

    Julia 1p · 4 days ago
    For the love of all that is that poor shutterbug trying to sell a photo of vinyl siding with the foam insulation bulging out the bottom?

    PS I like the new comments stuff

  2. leigh · 4 days ago
    Ooooooo Claudia, I love this post! I've always loved your photos and I am dying to learn how to take better pictures. I always have the camera in my hand and love, love, love taking pictures. I am eating up all your advice. Thank you!
    My recent post Being The Other

    Robotrogue · 3 days ago
    For the record, the first baby photograph is taken by someone with next to no photography experience.

    cindy · 3 days ago
    Love it! Keep 'em coming.
    My recent post moving through rough waters

    eastiopians 2p · 3 days ago
    Thank you so much. You have given me confidence to do this. I have been admiring your photos and babies and wishing I could to the same, but stressing over my simple simpleton simplistic camera. And now I have no excuse. I can do this. Loved your advice about background. I am going to get this started! How did you start? I need to look at your first blog. My stressor was that I somehow needed to document the day with a photo...but it's not about my's about my kiddo (one or both) on that day. Ahhhh, it seems easier now. Hugs!

  3. amanda · 3 days ago
    Ok I am going to do it. On the condition that you address these other issues next:
    1. How to get the child to sTOP MOVING so much? My pictures tend to get either blurry or if I use the flash her skin ends up too orangey or shiny. Hands seem to be always blurred.
    2. How to make photos big and pretty on the blog? My normal blogger upload seems so blah compared to other bloggers'. What is the secret to the big glossy photos?
    3. How to make background blurry and child in focus.
    Thanks. ;)
    My recent post Puke- Parties- Presents- People

    glutenfreegoose 1p · 3 days ago
    Dang, I got all excited for a minute there and thought you were going to give me an actual solution for all that mess / washing in my house. Great photo tips though, thanks :)

    Btw the link to the 2nd last pic is to a deleted photo (the not so great background one).

    Annie · 1 day ago
    There's artistic photographs, and there are just....recording life photographs. I like both, but really relish the backgrounds in "recording life photographs". I recently spent time going through some old family photographs - old as in a hundred years old. How I cherished every little bit of something in those backgrounds! I got into looking at each photo with a magnifying glass. (I came via Essie and Accidental Mommy, and she will be the first to tell you that my real name is Devils' Advocate)....

    I have just a crummy little camera, and rely on editing after the fact a lot! I keep remembering the words of a famous children's photographer who when interviewed said, "The best way to get good photos of children is to take a LOT of photos."
    My recent post PROJECT 52- THIRTY-ONE

  4. ok, comments finally got through! And i have now deleted intense debate, and I will never install it ever ever again i PROMISE.

  5. I will second your advice about good photos coming from what's behind the camera, not from how "good" your camera is...I'll let everyone in on a little secret...I have started a side business where people PAY ME MONEY for the pictures I take with a point and shoot camera. Every once in a while I think about buying a fancier camera, but I know that I haven't yet gotten all the juice I can out of this one!

    For example, my photos of inanimate objects are way better than my photos of people at the moment, so I'll be reading your advice in this series!

  6. Glad you like my photo of my daughter.


Over to you!