DIY Portrait Photography: 5 Tips to Help You Take Better Pictures of Your Children Right Now!

The camera phone revolution has practically driven serious photographers out of business (including my former employer). Everyone with a phone is now a “professional”. Ok, ok…that’s just the bitter, starving artist in me talking. You wouldn’t be here reading this right now if you didn’t want to take better pictures, right?

One thing many phonetographers fail to realize is that megapixels don’t make up for a lack of basic photography knowledge and skill. A certain attention to detail is necessary to give your pictures that extra something. (But seriously, the new iPhone takes better quality pictures than my DSLR.)

During my first photography class, I was in despair because all I had was an ancient point and shoot digital camera. My professor told me something that has always stuck…”An expensive camera may be nice, but you can’t buy good composition and lighting.”

Hopefully these tips will help improve YOUR skills, no matter what tool you are using to get the job done.

Why should I do it myself?

Being able to take your own quality pictures of your children has many benefits. Photography studios can be an intimidating place, especially for smaller kids. We can’t predict how they will react, and if they throw a tantrum, you may have just wasted your time and money on crappy pictures.

Shooting at home lets you choose the best time in a setting that is comfortable and natural for your child…which means better pictures! You can also take as long as you need for the “session” and choose as many poses as you want when it’s over.

1. Shoot outside or near a window. Photographers spend thousands of dollars in equipment to recreate this very effect. Yep. Studio lighting is designed to imitate the way sunlight falls naturally on the face. Not all sunlight is created equal, however. Avoid shooting outside during the middle of the day (unless it is overcast) because it causes harsh contrast, shadows, and hot spots on the skin.

The best times to shoot are early morning and late afternoon, when the sun will cause your subject to “glow”. Here are two photos I took of my son…one in the morning on a sunny day, and the other on an overcast day. Different natural light can create different moods for your portrait.



And here he is as a newborn, shot using window light from a sliding glass patio door.


2. Crop with care. Please don’t cut off people at the joints. I see so many photographs that make me cringe a little because they would have been perfect…if only they hadn’t made poor little Johnny look like an accidental amputee. I see it happen with arms (elbow/wrist crop), legs (knee/ankle crop), and don’t get me started on the often overlooked little hands and feet.

Oh, don’t worry. I am guilty of this myself. Notice anything “off” about the picture below? Although his face is the focus of this portrait, if you turn your attention to the bottom, you will notice some pretty weird things happening. Not enough fingers, and a weird hand nub…Our brains don’t process awkward crops like this very well, and it can make you feel uncomfortable looking at it even if you don’t realize why. Science for the win!


3. Zoom with your feet & change your perspective. Being a good photographer means moving around A LOT. Don’t even think about using the zoom feature of your phone or camera. First of all, it can lower your image quality and cause distortion. Second, it inhibits personal interaction with the subject, and you won’t get natural reactions and expressions.

Get used to working up a sweat, because great pictures also require you to change your perspective. It’s natural for us to just stand up normally taking a photograph, right? Nope, don’t do it. You need to MOVE..I mean down on the ground, crawling on your belly, standing on tables and chairs…whatever it takes to get a different point of view. This is especially important when you are taking pictures of a little person. Make sure you get down on their level.

Here is an example. Nothing changed between these two photographs except MY position (and I moved the blanket). The first shot was standing directly above him, and the second shot was on my belly.



4. Check your background. Nothing ruins a photograph faster than a light pole sticking out of someone’s head or a car coming out of their butt. For the love of Christmas, before you snap that picture, do a quick background check. If you are shooting at home, tidy up the area you are taking pictures in, or better yet, find a blank wall. Just make sure you have a crisp looking environment. This was taken against a wall in my home. You’d never know there is a trash can on one side, and a television on the other.


***helpful hint: If it’s holiday time, fire up those Christmas tree lights and get creative!


See? Unsuccessful shoot, and it didn’t cost me a penny.

5. Don’t use flash! Please? You don’t need it. Cell phone and built-in camera flashes create harsh light that tends to flatten out faces and cause weird shadows. Unless you have a professional style external flash, or a way to diffuse your camera’s built-in (it can be done), it’s best to avoid it. Or else you end up with pictures that look like this.


See? Flash is evil. You have been warned.

Photography literally means to paint with light, so get to work, artists! Now you are aware of some strategies to capture a great portrait, you will be able to create much better images…even in every day cell phone snaps. Make every shot count!


Are you interested in taking your photography a step further? Read on for my recommendation of a solid starter kit under $500 to invest in (keep in mind many professional cameras cost well over $5,000..just the camera).

Disclosure: This section will contain some affiliate links from Amazon that I may earn a small commission for if you decide to make a purchase based on my recommendation. There is no additional cost to you for using these links, and in fact,  I am sometimes able to provide discounts and special offers as a part of the affiliate program. I only recommend products that are actually useful and I have personally tried, and all contents of this post are my personal opinion.

These are the only three pieces of equipment I have purchased over the past 12 years. I have had the Canon Digital Rebel XT since 2006, and it is the only DSLR I have ever owned. You can find the older ones like I have refurbished under $200, but I highly recommend this newer Canon Rebel T6 because it has 18MP…I paid $350 for my camera back in the day, and it only has 8MP. This is a great deal on an excellent camera.

A couple of years later when I discovered I really loved taking portraits, I purchased this Canon 50mm, 1.8f prime lens. There is an off brand version available on Amazon for about $50, however, if it’s not Canon, I don’t want to risk putting it on my camera.

The 50mm prime lens, or “nifty fifty” is an essential item if you are serious about portraits, and very inexpensive as far as camera lenses go. The 1.8f aperture setting allows you to capture those beautiful, blurred backgrounds aka bokeh. The only drawback is that you can not zoom in camera with a prime lens…I think it’s a good thing for a beginning photographer, however, because it forces you to zoom with your feet.

Around the same time that I purchased the prime lens, I also decided to buy these cheapo studio umbrella lights…and I STILL have them. I have gone through a few sets of bulbs over the years, and one of the stands is duck taped together, but you better bet I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
The set comes with two regular stands, and one smaller one that I love because I can use it for back lighting.

And there you have it…the three items that took my photography level from mediocre to hard core amateur for less than most professionals pay for one stinking lens.

Having a new baby? Check out my post on how to stay thrifty on your newborn essentials. Everything you need, nothing you don’t.

If you found this information helpful, please share it, pin it and subscribe to my blog! I will be adding more soon.

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