As soon as I became a mother I discovered a profound and deep respect for photography. The time was fantastically whizzing by and I desperately wanted to remember each face, each stage, each intoxicating milestone and moment. When my first born son Greyson was 6-months old I felt so guilty because I barely had any pictures of him- and although I swore I would never forget that face or moment or day- he was growing so fast that memories were quickly being replaced with new ones. I was sick of feeling guilty but doing nothing about it. I did a little bit of homework and finally invested in a camera that would help me document life.
I started with a camera similar to this Canon Rebel and this $125 50mm lens. I went with Canon versus a Nikon because the lenses are less expensive. I also bought a Dummies Guide for my particular model (forget about getting anything useful from the instruction manual that comes with the camera.)
Around the time Greyson was almost two it became harder and harder to capture his personality with a click of the shutter. Like eleventy-million times harder than any other two year old- which is already hard. I often ended up with a shot of the back of his head or a blurry swirl. He wouldn't make eye contact with me and it was often impossible to get his attention. And the few times he did- I no longer recognized the boy looking back at me.
"Does this look like Greyson to you?" I asked my husband Michael, showing him a picture of a boy I didn't recognize with a haunting empty look in his eyes. "Yes, it looks like him...I guess." I wanted Michael to put to rest my growing unease. "Doesn't it look like something is wrong with him though? Like he's no longer totally there?"
"Yes, a little" he replied. And the more pictures I took the greater that canyon between Greyson and I grew. It scared me.
Greyson! Greyson! Greyson! Look at mommy. Over here! Look at me. Eyes on me Grey! Nothing worked. More blurry back of his head swirls.
I hungrily read all I could about photography every night after Greyson went to bed. During daylight hours I would practice on him. I desperately needed the image I saw on screen to line up with the image my heart's eyes were able to catch. I realized I needed to learn how to shoot in manual mode and I learned how to quickly create a snap of the shutter to see his striking blue eyes that I was starting to forget.
Since then Greyson has been diagnosed with autism and now I understand why he looked so far away inside his own head at times. Photography has become my passion and I want to share some tips that have helped me capture both of my beautiful sons. I know it can be ESPECIALLY hard to capture children with autism, but these tips work when photographing all children.
1. Unlearn everything you think you like about pictures.
Gone are my dreams of picture perfect family picture portraits. Where everyone is sitting perfectly, looking the right way and no one is screaming and kicking. These are 95% of all canvas in people's home. It 95% of the holiday cards we receive. It's what people like. I wanted that shot. I ached and cried over that shot. And the more I held on-- the more it hurt. I realized I wanted what I thought that shot represented- a perfect and easy family and life.
After year we tried for that perfect shot.
Which often left us all crying. Until I finally gave up. I had to let it go.
I used to ache to have that picture perfect family portrait but I don't any longer. That really isn't us and I no longer need a representation of something we are not. I learned that in order to be happy, I needed to learn to love my real life--my messy, chaotic imperfect and beautiful real life. And with that time and acceptance came an unwavering love for real life photography.
Here are some tips to help you get beautiful pictures of your children, whether they have Super Powers or not.
1. Photograph your child doing something they love. Their face shows genuine emotion when they are happy. Bath time. Playing. Running around outside. Playing with bubbles. Laughing. These images line my walls and my mind and my heart. These are the regular every day things I will ache for most when they are all over and gone.
Bath time is for magic- not just for getting clean.
Lunch time in Daddy's shoes.
We are loud and messy and we don't ever sit still. We are a real and imperfect family- and I love that our pictures tell that story. Our truth.
Cameras aren't only for special occasions. Keep your camera handy and charged and ready to go on the counter or in your purse. You can't tell kids- "Hold on. Keep that pose- I'll be right back with my camera" because the moment will be gone. Yes, it's heavy. Yes, sometimes it gets in the way. But more importantly- yes, you will also get some of your very favorite pictures ever.
2. Shoot in wide open (and if you need- fenced in!) spaces and let your child roam. Let them guide the photo shoot. When you constrict them to specific areas and poses their face will express their discontent- most likely not the face you want to commemorate. Now this is exhausting business because their energy knows no boundaries. Wear tennis shoes, be prepared to run, jump, and get dirty and act ridiculous in order to get that perfect shot. When you have more than one child give them all something to focus on and give an area to stay within so they all still fit in the same frame.
3. Use a helper. This can be extremely important especially if you have a wanderer, more than one toddler or you are trying for more of a family portrait look. For me a helper is a requirement when taking pictures of other children with autism. The helper can jump, sing, blow bubbles and distract. If you want the shot to be posed they can set the child down over and over again while you focus on getting a specific shot. Make sure they stand behind you and get on the same eye line as the lens .Use bubbles, songs, noisemakers or an ipad to try and get the child's attention. I tell the parents- LOOK AT ME THE ENTIRE TIME. I don't care if Bobby is stabbing Susie in the leg with a pencil. Do not turn to yell at him because the second you do- everyone else will finally be looking at the camera. Also- do not yell at your children at the photo shoot- no matter how non-compliant they are being because then they will cry and become red-eyed grump dogs for the rest of the shoot. Wait until you get into the car to tell them they are no longer getting a puppy for Christmas because of their photo shoot behavior.
4. Use secret weapons. If you are the photographer- find out specifics about the child. Their favorite show, characters or food. Ask mom or dad if they ok with being touched. Is there anything specific that makes them laugh? (Fart noises are my favorite). Is there a small toy they can hold to give them comfort? Or can you use something to keep their attention- like the shot above of my son Greyson and his FAVORITE- Disney Cars. Use your secret weapon wisely. Put their favorite show on an iPad above your camera lens. Repeat words from their favorite show or movie. Singing the theme song to Yo Gabba Gabba used to work for my oldest every single time I wanted eye contact. Now I say, Do you want gum? (Or chocolate?) As soon as their eye gaze meets my camera I must be ready to snap. I also make good on my bribes- "First more pictures, then chocolate!" Their key favorite phrases and snacks change every so often and what worked last time may not work this time. Keep trying new things. Be willing to take a million bad pictures. TAKING PICTURES IS FREE - so snap away.
Swings are a GREAT place to take photos and one of my best secret weapons. They make my boys happy and that comes across in the pictures. If you have children that hate taking pictures- then just let them focus on playing while you take the pictures.
5. Be flexible and have a willingness to change your expectations of what makes a beautiful photograph. Let the beauty of the setting and your subject be your guide. Instead of asking the child to move- use your legs and take shots until the camera shows you an image you like. Look for beautiful background colors. Try different angles. Lay on the ground and shoot up (as I did for the ferris wheel shot below). Climb on a bench and shoot down. Shoot when the sun is setting with the subject blocking the sun. Shoot against a plain brick wall. Have fun experimenting. This is MY version of playing.
Beautiful pictures aren't only about perfect poses and eye contact. They are about real, imperfect gorgeous life. Real moments you may want to remember forever. The everyday experiences of parenthood that are dripping with beauty. Sometimes the only thing standing between you and happiness is your expectations. Go grab your camera and ready, set, click.