Momma Skills

Capturing Childhood & Beyond: Taking Better Photos

Edited newborn-3-3-10

Photography is all about light: how much you have, where you have it, what kind of light it is, and what the light does to your subject.

If you aren’t paying attention to light, you’re not paying attention to the possibilities for quality. If you don’t know how your camera uses light to capture an image, you don’t know how to manipulate your camera to capture an image in different lighting situations. This leads to blurry, too dark, too light, or wrongly focused images that frustrate and anger us because once the moment is gone, it’s gone. From that weird face your toddler just made to days of special events like birthdays, Christenings, school plays, and actual labor and birth days: these are moments you can’t repeat. So, how do you improve your skills without spending the time or money to take a class? You can start here!

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Top 5 Ways to Improve Your Photography:

  1. If you have an actual camera, use it. (I know it’s a pain to remember to get it out, but trust me, it’s worth it, especially if you’re trying to capture a special event or a milestone. If you don’t know how to use it, read on! If all you have is a phone camera, that’s okay too! There are still ways you can improve your images.)
  2. Understand why and how light plays the most pivotal role in taking a great photograph (the purpose of this post).
  3. Challenge yourself to see things from different angles and heights and perspectives.
  4. Don’t be afraid to take too many photos or bad photos. That’s what the delete button is for.
  5. Practice!

Common Problems and Solutions

(Before I begin, if you start reading this and say to yourself, “ISO? Shutter Speed? Aperture? What?! I use my camera on auto mode…” never fear, at the bottom of this post is a quick lesson on the what, why, and how and to get you OUT of auto mode and get the most out of your camera!)

Problem: Blurry or dark photos

Solution: Better light (more light) or different angle
This does NOT mean you should use your flash all the time. It means, if you intend on taking photos where it’s shady or kind of dark, try turning on a light or opening the curtain/blinds (or several) or take the photo from an angle that provides the most light on your subject without washing it out. I.E. Don’t take a photo with a window full of light behind your kid- they’ll end up a shadow. (Now, sometimes that can be a really cool shot (a silhouette) but if your intent was to capture your kid’s stinker face look, you’ve just lost that opportunity.)

This photo was so dark before editing. It was from my very first shoot done for someone else. Thankfully, now I know how to avoid this while shooting in the first place!
This photo is from my very first photo shoot with my DSLR, and it was so dark before editing. Thankfully, now I know how to light my subjects better just by changing settings!

If there’s not enough light, your shutter can’t take in the clarity of the image within the time it takes to close the shutter to capture the image, which is why your image looks blurred. If you have a DSLR or a film SLR (go you!), you need to not only be mindful of your light metering, but you need to make sure that your ISO is set appropriately for the light setting and your shutter speed is set fast enough (if there’s lots of light) or slow enough (if there’s low light) to get the crispest capture possible. Unfortunately, low light and slow shutter speed are a combination for blurry photos. So, unless your kid is sitting like a statue (HAHAHAHAHA), you need to have more light or a higher ISO (*see below*) to compensate for the lack of light.

I needed a high shutter speed to capture my kid being a goofball.

If you’re using your phone as a camera, you may not have the option to adjust ISO, shutter speed, or aperture (some cameras do and some apps do). If you don’t, your best bet is to do one of two things: try to add more light before you begin taking photos (open curtains, turn on lights, or move to a room with better light) and before you take the photo, focus in on your subject so your phone meters the light appropriately- on most phones this simply means tapping on the screen for which subject you want to focus on (so your kid’s face at his birthday party, not the butt of the person standing next to him). Another option you have with a phone is to shoot with a clear background. Meaning, if your child is being super cute while laying in bed, quickly kick the clothes off to the side. Get rid of any distracting objects that will take away from your kiddo’s adorable face. Not that you’re trying to hide the fact that you have a real life with a messy home, but the photo will be more clean and clear and will bring in more light because objects around the subject won’t be soaking it up or blocking it. This applies to photos taken with a regular camera too. Another phone friendly way to take action photos when you don’t have the option to increase your shutter speed is to take a video first. Then, you can capture stills from the video by taking a screen shot of your favorite images or using an app that does this for you.

I actually did rapid fire shooting (shooting quickly in succession- so like stills of a movie) when my cousin and her new husband kissed at their wedding. It gave me this gem right here after he dipped her!
I actually did rapid fire shooting (shooting quickly in succession- so like stills of a movie) when my cousin and her new husband kissed at their wedding. It gave me this gem right here after he dipped her!


Problem: Orange or yellow skin tones/off colors

Solution: Most cameras have an automatic white balance function. This sets what your camera believes to be true white, and it adjusts all other colors accordingly. However, true white looks different in sunlight, in the shade, and under the light of incandescent light bulbs. So, in order to compensate for the camera’s mistake for what white is in different lighting settings, most cameras have an option to select “indoors/outdoors/shade”. Select the appropriate option and your relatives will no longer look like Ooma Loompas (the coloring should improve). If your camera doesn’t have this option and you want to take it to the next level, most post-shoot editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom (my fave) have white balance adjustment tools to fix this issue.

Thanks to the incandescent lights in the hospital room, I had quite a bit of post-shoot editing to do for white balance on this little darling.

When using your phone as a camera, you don’t have these options. Instead, try your best to use natural lighting from a window rather than the overhead light in your room when taking a photo to get colors to look truer. Again, be sure to focus on your subject before taking the photo- it also helps with this issue. Some photo editing apps like VSCO or editing options on your iPhone camera roll may have the option to adjust white balance.


Problem: Same boring photos- want to be more artsy

Solution: There are many solutions to this one. Take a photography class. Make a board on Pinterest of photos you love and strive to replicate them- this alone will help you to retrain your eye to look at your kids differently and allow you to create and take new shots you may not have imagined before.

Before I did this labor and delivery shoot, I browsed hundreds (seriously) of other labor and delivery photos to see what kind of photos inspired me. They stuck with me while I was shooting so that I worked from various angles. This is my favorite shot from that very long night.
Before I did this labor and delivery shoot, I browsed hundreds (seriously) of other labor and delivery photos to see what kind of photos inspired me. They stuck with me while I was shooting so that I worked from various angles. This is my favorite shot from that very long night.

Take a photo challenge (you can find tons just by googling) or read this free ebook from my favorite free beginner photography resource Click It Up A Notch. The biggest thing is to practice. I know it is a pain to remember to grab your “real” camera, but it will be worth it. People don’t become better photographers overnight; it takes time and energy and LOTS of practice. Challenge yourself to take at least one photo every day that you feel is “good”. Work up from there.

This is one of the first photos I took after starting a photo challenge from Click It Up A Notch. I was so proud.
This is one of the first photos I took after starting a photo challenge from Click It Up A Notch. I was so proud.

The next big opportunity for creating more artsy photos is to look into the following photo rules/techniques and try to embrace them while shooting or editing: rule of thirds, leading lines, shallow depth of field, wide depth of field, point of view, natural framing, and playing with light. Click It Up A Notch has free articles and tutorials on almost all of the aforementioned techniques.

Learning how to crop a frame closely with intent is tricky but worth it.
Learning how to crop a frame closely with intent is tricky but worth it.
Manual focus selection
Manual focus selection created a blurry foreground and crisp background where baby’s face is.

Upping Your Game:

Fancy Photography Words You May Not Know But Need To

Aperture + Shutter Speed + ISO = Perfectly clear, crisp, well-lit picture. If you don’t know what each one is or how to adjust them among each other to get the right balance, that’s when you end up with blurry, dark, or blown out (all white) photos. Plus, understanding how your camera works is a surefire way to up your understanding of how to improve your photos.

Aperture– How wide or narrow the opening is for allowing in the light and image for your camera to capture. You set the width of this opening to make it either large or small- the larger the opening, the more light that is allowed in at a faster rate; the smaller the opening, the less light allowed in at a slower rate. So if it’s bright outside, you will probably need a smaller aperture opening, and if it’s dark outside (or you’re indoors), you’ll need your aperture wide open.

I had to use my lens that had a wider aperture for this labor and delivery shoot because we were inside a hospital room from 6pm-7:30pm the next day with no windows and only indoor lighting with which to work.

The trickiest part to this is that the larger the hole, the smaller the number associated with it. Aperture is measured in f-stops, and an f/1.4 is way larger than an f/22. It’s backwards. But once you start practicing, you get the hang of it. Also, it’s important to note that each step in f-stop (for example as you move from f/1.4 to f/2) halves the amount of light coming in- so f/2 lets in half the amount of light that f/1.4 does, and f/2.8 lets in half the amount of light that f/2 does, etc. So, small numbers mean a SUPER amount of light, and large numbers mean light is lacking.

Editing programs can help you adjust the exposure as well. So, even if you don’t get the aperture right when you’re shooting, you can still adjust lighting to a certain degree in post-shoot editing.

The other thing aperture affects is depth of field, which means how much of your image is in focus. A shallow depth of field means only the items closest to the camera are in focus, while everything else is blurry. (Remember: small f/stop number = larger aperture opening= more light let in= shallow depth of field.)

Edited newborn-3-2-4
Shallow depth of field- only the feet are in focus here.

A large depth of field means almost everything in the photo is clearly in focus aside from the things reaaaallly far away (like the treeline).(Remember: large f/stop number = smaller aperture opening= less light let in= wide depth of field.)

Edited newborn-4-2-11
Wide depth of field- everything is in focus except for the crib far in the background.

Playing with depth of field is also a great way to create some artistic shots. Take this photo from my cousin’s wedding for example. I could have focused in on the couple dancing, but instead I used a shallow depth of field (wider aperture and small f/stop #) to focus on the flower girl watching them dance instead.


A small aperture will give you a shallow depth of field (so only up close things are in focus)- small AP = shallow DOF. A large aperture will give you a large depth of field (so everything is in focus) large AP = large DOF. It’s the difference between capturing the intimate details of your newborn’s elf-looking ears and a shot that looks like a badly cropped image of the side of his head.

Details matter.
Details matter.

Shutter Speed– Basically, how quickly the photo is taken. So, the faster the movement of the subject you’re trying to capture (like your toddler running pell-mell butt-naked down the hall with a colander on his head), the higher your shutter speed needs to be to capture the image with clarity and sharpness. However, the amount of time the shutter is open before it closes also affects the amount of time allowed for light to enter and illuminate your subject. So with a fast shutter speed for moving children (1/500+) you also need lots of light to be able to illuminate and capture your subjects in that short amount of time. For lower light, you need a slower shutter speed to allow the most time for the greatest amount of light to enter and light up your subject, but if your subject is moving quickly, the image will be blurred. For example, if your kids are running around in the dark playing tag, you’re going to use a fast shutter speed, but you’re going to need to use a flash to illuminate them or a very high ISO or large aperture to try to compensate for the lack of light.

I had my shutter speed set fast here to capture the quick movements of my toddler playing. You can see how crisp the photo is thanks to the fast shutter speed by looking at how his hair blowing in the wind looks frozen in the shot.

ISO– Think of the ISO as the number of “light bees” (or fairies, whatever floats your boat) you are sending out to collect light and take it back to your camera to illuminate the image appropriately. So, the higher the ISO, the more light bees (or fairies) you’re sending out to illuminate your image. If it’s shady or you’re indoors, your ISO should be higher. If you’re outside, a much lower ISO is totally workable. The only problem with setting an ISO high is that the higher the ISO, the less crisp the image and the larger the pixels will appear, which can make your image look grainy. This isn’t such a huge deal if you intend to print your photos in black and white, but with color, it’s definitely more noticeable.

I had to use a high ISO while in the hospital room for this shoot, but since the image is in black and white, the grain is not as noticeable.

When you can, it’s best to use the lowest ISO possible and adjust your shutter speed and aperture to achieve the right balance for lighting, that way your images will be as crisp as possible.


So, get out there and keep taking photos of your kids- just be mindful of the light, and challenge yourself to grab that nice camera you paid so much money for! Feel free to share with us on our Facebook page your favorite photo YOU have ever taken of your child, and let us know what helped you most from this tutorial!

One of my favorite photos of my mom and Lucas.
One of my favorite photos of my mom and Lucas.

Happy capturing, mommas!




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