Family photographer Kerry Cheah shares her expert tips for capturing those little everyday moments that fall in between the smiling family portraits
I’m a mother of two young boys and I have a confession – I have always found ‘the days are long but the years are short’ to be wholly uncomforting for the moments in which I am most likely to receive this advice. I know the years are short. My 8-year-old has already forgotten to turn around and wave at me as I stand at the school gate, my hand bobbing shyly up and down. When this same 8-year-old is busy peppering the living room with killer LEGO or winding his brother up into a screaming machine, the thought furthest from my mind is – Aww, one day they won’t want to stay at home and torment me anymore!
So I photograph my family. I photograph them because I know that I am personally unable to appreciate the passing moments to their fullest. I photograph them because my children, conversely, are living entirely for the moment, and I want them to have something to look back on to remember these carefree days. Something that can stir a familiar feeling – I am loved, in the smallest of ways, every day.
I fell into my style of photographing my family easily, because I have always been more comfortable observing than directing. No forced smiling for the camera, no victory signs or awkward posing. If you, like me, want your family to have a visual history of what your lives are like – your personalities, little quirks and habits, how you laugh and fight with each other – I hope these tips will fire you up!
I started photographing my children daily on 1 January 2015 and only stopped in mid-2017. This has been my biggest catalyst for improvement and best opportunity for experimentation, and has helped to get my family used to going about their business naturally even with a camera trained on them.
I hear you: for those who work outside the home especially, it can be a struggle to find opportunities to do this. My advice is to rethink what an “opportunity to document” means. Start from the premise of what you want to record and not what would look good in a photograph. And don’t feel shy about taking out your camera in public places, too.
We are constantly bombarded with images of smiling families, particularly on social media where comments usually focus on words associated with external appearances. Beautiful family! Gorgeous home! Lovely smiles!
I get it. I want photos of my kids smiling at the camera too. But what are they really connecting with when you ask them to say cheese? What are you seeing reflected in those smiles?
Just for your family, not necessarily for social media, try to document memories of how your family members connect with each other and with their environments.
Instead of interrupting the moment by asking them to look at you, really zone in on why a particular daily activity or interaction speaks to your heart. Look for connection above all else, through big gestures or small touches. And if you want a genuine smile beaming back into the camera, try having a conversation with your subject instead.
Once I got past the idea that my children needed to be laughing and playing with big happy smiles on their faces in photos, my opportunities to document expanded tremendously. I guess I have my children to thank for forcing me to be more creative!
The tantrums, the clinginess, the mess, the routine activities … these are a large part of your lives and are worth recording. If your children are older, they might ask (through words or actions) that you not photograph them at their worst. Respect this always. And try to engage them collaboratively if you still want photos of these moments.
What will you look back on with fondness a decade from now? What has already disappeared that you are desperate to remember? Think beyond the portrait and what your family members look like. Step back to photograph your home, your kids’ bedrooms (more likely your bedroom), grandparents’ homes, your neighbourhood.
Step in to get little details like tiny toes, favourite toys, wrinkled hands. Use elements of the environment, or even light itself, to frame your subject for visually interesting photos
This applies specifically to small children – the shooting posture that people usually adopt is to stand and aim the camera towards the child, which often results in shooting downwards. However literally stooping to the child’s level will usually result in a much better photo. It is easier to get natural eye contact if that is what you are after, and there is less chance of unflattering distortion.
I think we all know this intuitively, especially when we grumble that we are always the ones taking the family photos! The simplest way around this is to ask a family member directly but unobtrusively to take a few quick photos on whatever camera or device s/he feels most comfortable with. And most importantly, try not to complain about the outcome.
I am not my own best student, so my husband now focuses on taking videos on his iPhone instead. Everybody wins! If you can navigate your camera or phone confidently, set the timer and experiment with selfies from a distance. The trick here is to get your camera or phone to lock focus on where you will be sitting / standing (by using an object or another person), before setting the timer and getting yourself into position.
Pick a family member and have a good think about 3 expressions or gestures that you want to remember. Then pick a family routine and have a good think about three highlights in this routine. Write these down. This weekend, use your phone and photograph what you have written. Come back to these photographs in a week’s time and ask yourself whether they convey what you felt when you wrote down your answer. Hopefully you will find this meaningful enough to keep practising.
If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail through my website www.redbusphotography.com. I teach beginner / intermediate workshops and private classes on documenting your own children, if you’d like to stay informed on upcoming workshops, the information will be posted first on Instagram at @kerrycheah and on Facebook.
And remember to relax – you can’t get every shot!