Ready, Set, Go: A Child’s First Year

The following book excerpt has been republished from Photographing Childhood: The Image and the Memory by LaNola Stone with the permission of Focal Press. The complete book is available for purchase by users for 20% off the cover price for a limited time (use promo code “PHOTONET”).

After all the waiting, at last arrives the precious little bundle. This is indeed a momentous occasion and an obvious moment to get out the camera. The first day is the first benchmark of documenting the growth of a child and begins a tradition of capturing special moments. With newborns nothing has to be clever or produced, mom is glowing (although exhausted) and baby is adjusting, nuzzling, and settling in. Often, however, because it has been an exhausting day for both mother and baby, photography can be relegated to chance pictures on camera phones and other snapshots. One way to assure that this day gets captured with intent is to make photography part of the birthing plan. We are long past the days of babies exclusively behind glass; now father, mother, and family can enjoy this experience together.

Although the camera may or may not be a part of capturing the memory of the actual delivery, there is something beautiful about photographing the first 24 hours. The baby will do two predictable, photo-worthy actions: sleep and eat. This is a time of bonding, cuddling, and acquaintance. Exhaustion is overshadowed by the joy of arrival. It’s a magical time for candid and sincere emotions – and a magical opportunity for the artist-photographer.

Then comes day two, three, four… and the realities of parenthood settle in. Welcome to the first year, the year to hone our skills and make photography a priority. The tradition of recording an image is a beautiful thing, especially with respect to the child and family. Because the child spends a lot of time sleeping at first, this is a great place to start. Try experimenting with lighting. Photographing
the sleeping child with a backlight, sidelight, and even frontal light can offer variety to the shots. It helps us know which lighting we feel is successful, and which lighting scenarios we like less. Remember that light doesn’t have to be coming directly through a window to light the baby; indirect light (as used on the three images above), though less intense and requiring slower shutter speeds, spills beautifully. After all, quick shutter speeds are not necessary for sleeping children. As we utilize this quiet-time to improve our light comprehension and build our photographic muscle, we can both capture fleeting experiences and, at the same time, become better photographers.

Don’t forget to focus on details in some of your shots: face, belly, feet, and the hands of parent and child. These close-up photographs not only capture fleeting traits, they will teach us about lenses and depth of field. While wide lenses have their place, when photographing close to our subject the distortion created is often too severe.

Try it. Is the distortion of near and far a creative tool or an annoyance? Likewise, when experimenting with a shallow depth of field, notice how it can isolate nuances with focus. You will decide whether these lens attributes work visually toward your visual objectives or not. With infants we often spend most of our time waiting for them to do something! In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, this time is considered the sensorimotor stage. Infants receive information about their environment through their senses and best react to isolated stimulation because they can only really focus on one thing, to the exclusion of everything else. So choose touch or soft words to help focus their attention in a photograph. In the meantime, get in close, pull back, experiment with various types of light, and enjoy the ability to observe. This is a great time to slow down, hone our craft, and bond with our child. Since a child’s daily routine is fairly predictable, we have the advantage of anticipating photographic moments and even placing the child where
we’d like to photograph them. At this age we know that they’ll stay put. There are always a variety of options for settings and locations for photographing. Although the child contributes expressions and moments, the photographer controls everything else – lighting, angle, composition, lens, and other factors. As a baby grows, we learn that we can’t give direction to a six-month-old’s crawling or a one-year-old taking its first steps, but we can provide the structure for their movement. Always remember “safety first” and then have fun. The fun doesn’t have to come from an overly produced shoot.

Through the use of a variety of angles, which add interest, and the successful use of that all-important element of light, we add energy and style to our images. These photo shoots will increase our repertoire of skills. As you become more comfortable, include and incorporate the reactions of other children, especially cousins, siblings, and lifetime acquaintances. Don’t neglect the pets in the photographs as well, but only those that are friendly to the new child. As the baby grows, so will the requirements for quick decision making with regard to lighting, exposure, and composition. Take advantage of the quiet-time of babyhood to improve your skills, because before you know it, baby will be showing expressions, rolling over, lifting itself up, crawling, and then standing and walking. This will all happen in the first year. Once they get their feet underneath them, watch out!

Think of the first year like the steady climb of a rollercoaster. Click, click, click; the anticipation is growing and the drop is looming. Unfortunately, we are often too tired and overwhelmed to recognize the opportunities in the calm of the first year. Throughout the ride there will never be a moment that methodically and steadily grow during this time and then, they are off to the races and we’d better be ready.

One last parental note concerning the first year. The experience of photographing one’s child can reinforce our participation in the child’s continual development. Photography can be a great bonding experience because it forces us to slow down and observe. As we are looking for “the ideal shot,” we’ll notice details in the moments – teething children with objects in their mouth, or the concerned confidence on a child’s face as they stand on wobbly legs to take their first steps. We might not always “get the shot,” but we’ll be able to capture the memory of the images, and perhaps be better prepared when the opportunity to photograph a similar moment presents itself again.

Children are one of the most intriguing yet difficult subjects to photograph. Whether you are a proud parent or a professional photographer working, Photographing Childhood: The Image and the Memory will give you the know-how and the inspiration that you are looking for to create the perfect image. Rich with emotion and creativity, this guide delivers tips from a master photographer who has contributed to Child Magazine, Pottery Barn, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and many others. Learn how to take photos that are technically and compositionally sound; pictures that are so gorgeous they’ll fill up your walls, refrigerator, and your family’s (or clients’) email in-boxes for years to come.

Text ©2011 Lanola Kathleen Stone. Book excerpt courtesy of Focal Press.

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