Arm yourself with the knowledge to take on babies, families, kids & Teens using nothing more than a reflector. King of Portraiture Brett Harkness has become known for his use of natural light mixed with the use of flash in all aspects of his successful social photography business. In this guide he will take you through hints, tips & tricks to use to pose your subjects easily, get the most from your shoot, shoot with intent using only available light.
” I have been a “ people photographer “ in one way shape or form now for over 20 years and I have come to recognize one thing, whether walking down the river bank in India, shooting a family on the beach or a baby at someoneʼs house, the key to successful natural light portraiture is to know beforehand , before you even press the shutter how you want to use the light. Daylight can be hard to use and mastering it is the first task at hand. Posing your subjects is the key to image success but making this process as easy as you can will make the shoot flow with ease and give your subjects an enjoyable experience , which at the end of the day is what itʼs all about. Donʼt make your poses too messy, keep it real and instinctively pick up on what the subject feels comfortable doing.
Sometimes I donʼt pose at all, I allow the subject to do their own thing. Trying to pose kids on the beach say can be a very hard thing to do because the kids just want to play!
Successful lifestyle portraiture is all about having fun! The more exciting you make it the more you will get from the children & adults ,yet be prepared because the more the kids have fun and run around the harder it can be to get the shots you need. There will be moments throughout any shoot that you will have a better chance to get the “ money shot!” It may not seem so but these shots donʼt happen by chance. They are carefully planned at certain moments to get the best out of the subject without them realizing it!
Lifestyle portraiture has evolved over the years form very staid studio portraiture to all day shoots on the beach. There is still a client for every style but I would rather give the client an experience to remember than confine them to a studio and expect them to perform.
We find that our clients come back to use year after year or recommend their friends to us. The need for me as a photographer to adapt and constantly evolve my shooting technique is very strong. This is what makes the world of photography so exciting is that you can try new tricks and ways of shooting whilst on the shoots themselves. Donʼt be afraid to experiment, making sure that you are taking your style to the next level. We try and keep it simple for our clients. This means keeping equipment to a minimum and using natural light as often as we can. We do mix it up with flash at certain times to create more of a funky outdoor lit feel but on the whole I am looking to craft the light to my subject and keep it real.
START OFF IN THE HOUSE:
The moment you step out of your comfort zone and take the shoot on location or outside this opens up a lot of possibilities for things to go wrong. With a little bit of careful planning,foresight and a back up plan outdoor shooting or shooting at the clients house will afford you a host of opportunities that would otherwise not be present. We always plan our shoots depending upon the time of year with maximum light in mind. I use the word “we” as my wife and partner Kristie is a key to our lifestyle success also . More on her role later. If we are planning our shoot in the summer then we may do a little later in the day to use the low, evening sunshine( if we are lucky!) If the shoot is later on in the year it may take place around lunchtime to take advantage of the daylight. Your shoot must also be timed around any feeding patterns ( where babies are concerned) school timings, etc….I would say that 9 shoots out of 10 start off at the clients house. This means that you are starting the shoot on familiar ground and with kids this can be invaluable. Start off the shoot in front of the biggest window in the house, either in the lounge, conservatory or French doors. This soft indoor daylight is a beautiful light and can yield some fantastic results. Usually I would turn off all interior lights to avoid any yellow light casts , sit the kids or family in the 3-ft pool of light that is coming through the door. If shooting a family we will usually start off with the child that is youngest. This way the other kids can see that it is easy and nothing to be sacred of.
If you donʼt have an assistant then use the parents to interact with the children. We also use a Lastolite Trip Grip reflector , sunfire/softsilver to throw as much light as we can back into the room.
Keeping DOF fairly shallow for me is a good thing, especially when you are shooting back into a house where you might not want to show any clutter etc..
INDOOR TIP: When you are shooting young babies with fair skin with a black background make sure you underexpose the shot. This will not only make the skin tones more accurate but darken down the background. Thus getting rid of unwanted or distracting items. People often ask me about posing and how do I make the subject pose. For me it is more about putting the subject in the best light, the best environment and then watching them. I would classify my posing as “ documentary posing with an element of still posing. Patience is a virtue with portraiture of any kind but you have to be quick. I have done the hard work, it is important to let the subject do the work for you. As a photographer look at the subject within the camera frame. Think out of the box, how can I make this look different. By simply standing over the baby I took made the shot look different to the ones that are in front. It is very hard to actually pose children or babies. I can guarantee that if you ask a kid to do something or hold a pose it will do exactly the opposite! So looking to change the pose by you yourself having to change your composition, your lens, your angle or all of the above is the key to getting great images, fast. Using an empty bathtub us a great way to photograph babies, as long as the bath is white. It is a perfect natural reflector. Once the kids realize that is fun, you can then get the other kids involved and take everyone outside and start looking for backgrounds to use.
GETTING OUTSIDE IS HARDER BUT MORE REWARDING:
Taking the family outside is where you get the chance to experiment a little more. Avoid bright sunshine and if you have to shoot at mid-day then try and put the subjects backs to the sun. This way you will get nicely backlit subjects. This can work really well as the sun is setting with a lovely glow around the subject as in this kids party below. When shooting into the sun like this your shutter speed will want to be faster than is required. Try going onto manual setting and shooting a couple of test shots to get it right. With all that is going on outside you will undoubtedly spend the next half an hour running after the kids on the beach, chasing them around a park or up a tree! Donʼt be scared! Use this time to practice your “ documentary posing” This is probably the hardest part of the shoot as it is up to you to make the shot, to compose it. You are creating an image from very little. This take some mastering but once you have it in the bag your dependance upon having to sit the kids down all the time will get less. Try giving the kids things to do instead of having them run around! Pick apples, count flowers, skim stones in the river, throw grass at you! Get the parents involved! Anything that keeps them in one place to give you chance to get some images.
POSING KIDS or ANTI POSING! : ( Keep them still and entertained!)
When the time comes to pose you will then be ready. A secret to getting kids to pose is either to do it when they are tired on allow them to go somewhere where they wouldnʼt be allowed to go or somewhere where they feel like king of the castle and all the attention is on them!!!! By this I mean, standing on a park bench, sitting on top of a tree stump etc.. This way you will be able to get a great shot with them not moving, even if it is only for a few seconds. As in the these shots below. For young kids the posing comes in as far as how you crop it or compose the shot. Itʼs almost posing without them realizing it! Look at your backgrounds, how messy are they? Do you need color? Look at what they are wearing, does it match? You will have to shoot quickly here as all the kids will want to do is run off and get dirty! Donʼt forget the details as well. Pictures of feet, fingers, clothes, tiny shoes, little hats, favorite pet etc.. are all great memories to capture.
LET THE SUBJECT DO THE WORK: Quite often when I am on a shoot I look for a simple way to pose my subject and keep each image looking the same but the content is different each time. I usually use my 50 mm 1.2 lens for this but you can use any lens you feel comfortable with. The key is to keep each frame looking the same but let the subject do the work and hope that the subject does something different each frame! Usually this is a sequence of images I am looking for whether it is a little girl jumping into a puddle or someone sticking there tongue out at me. This is where you might have to play, interact, offer encouragement etc.. These sequences of images often are our best sellers because of their simplicity. This can be a good way to finish a shoot as the children are often more at ease with you.
TEENS: You will come across families of different ages when shooting your lifestyle imagery. Often there will be teenagers involved and trying to get them to run through a field with their younger brothers and sisters is an almost impossible task! The last thing that you want to do is to alienate them and make them feel self conscious. The key here is to take them aside, away from the parents. We will go for a walk with them for 5-10 mins and look to do something more ‘modally’ or posy with them.
I like to keep my posing to a minimum, look at the subject, see how they stand and how they hold themselves. Teenage boys donʼt know what to do with their hands so putting them in pockets or folded is a simple way to make them feel a little more cool! Never get guys to lie down , squatting is a good way also of making them feel a little more comfortable in front of the camera. Get the guys to lean on a wall or in a doorway, again making them feel more at ease.
Every teenage girl wants to be a model so you can look to spend a little more time with the girls. Even a change of clothes might be in order! Look for colors that compliment what she is wearing. Look for contrasting or complimentary colors in your clothing choice or backgrounds. i.e.; she has red hair look for a green background. Again keep the posing relaxed, use walls to lean up against. We often ask the girls if they want to bring any hats or scalves with them, this way they can hold onto things other than just standing there. I always look for angles also, if we have a teen sat at the bottom of the stairs using daylight then I look for how they are sitting, are their any angles that can take the viewer to the face. Again we are always looking to use the best light we can and will use the reflector as often as we need to. It is important when shooting families etc.. to quickly get a gauge of how old the kids are. By this I mean that sometimes we shoot 12/13yr old kids like teens, other times 12/13yr olds we shoot like kids!! There is a big difference and one which you must figure out quickly. By talking to the parents or by talking to the children.
DONT FORGET THE PARENTS:
Often on our shoots we will hear the parents saying, “we donʼt want any pictures, just the kids!” On our shoots no-one gets away with it! We will always use the parents in the background, maybe to hold small children etc.. Then later on in the shoot they will completely forget that they are in it! Again sometimes I may go for a walk with the two of them and do a few shots. Kris can stay with the kids. These images are always used either for our multi frames or purchased by the parents for themselves. Posing parents!
This is pretty easy and can if done correctly be the easiest part of the shoot. We often look
for poses that ordinary people feel comfortable with, holding hands, walking, giving each other a hug, sitting down on steps is a great starting as it gets the couple used to being together in front of the camera. Avoid harsh light as this can shot show up wrinkles. I always try and shoot down also, this allows people to look up at me creating a more flattering jawline etc… Interaction is key also, getting them to laugh and look at each-other is a great way for some lovely interaction. A great one is too tell the couple not to smile! This works every time!! They will laugh the first time!! Use props if you have to, I donʼt mean roman columns or backdrops but park benches, steps, blankets, chairs. Anything that will make them feel more comfortable.
The hardest thing to get right is the family shot, don’t put pressure on yourself thinking you have to get everyone looking a the camera all the time. Posing the family group is a necessary part of a a daylight portrait session but not the only thing. Use the parents to hold the kids down for a few seconds! ( I mean on their knee or round the waist! Not pinned down! ) Get them all to look at the plain on the sky or the horse over there, see you looked! This way all of them will be looking in the same direction. I often get people to look at Kristie as she is the one holding the reflector and playing ‘Peek aboo’ with the kids & adults! Getting families all to hold hands is also a great way to pose them and have them all looking relaxed. Thinking out of the box whilst shooting the family group as in the shot below , making them all silouetted can be a cool way to finish the shoot. Get each of them to stand in a way that they want to. itʼs fun and they will all know who they are! Again look to use steps or gates to stagger the group. When sitting make sure you get down low also for a few shots, this gives a different vantage point to the images. One technical thing to remember here is that you must use a smaller aperture than when just shooting single people or kids. For most families I am looking for f8 if I can get it without putting my shutterspeed too slow. If you are starting to shoot with too slow a shutter speed then find better light or increase the ISO! Again family interaction is key and might be the kind of image you are after. Get everyone to look at each other and laugh! It works!!
TAKE IT TO THE MAX:
Try finishing the shoot with a shot that you have never tried before! I wouldnʼt suggest that every shoot should finish in the local lake but if the couple are game and you stay safe then hey go for it! Try getting on next doors trampoline with the kids and shoot whilst you bounce! Get out in the snow and shoot , shots of the kids throwing snowballs or making their first snowman are invaluable. Get out in the rain with your kids, get them jumping in puddles or inside making a cake with face covered in flower. If you make the moment happen the kids will do the rest!
TOP 10 TIPS
• 1/ If shooting in the sun look for shade or backlight, this will work best with your subjects.
• 2 / Always use a reflector to throw light back into the subjects face. I use a lastolite reflector. You could use a white wall, a white umbrella or even tin foil wrapped around a piece of cardboard.
• 3/ Keep the posing easy. Real people are not models and will look uneasy if asked to do something that they find uncomfortable.
• 4/ Look for brightly colored backgrounds to ad sparkle to your portraits, Try the skip at the end of the road or the bright green recycling bin!!
• 5/ Keep it simple, put a chair in the back garden and let the kids play around it! Seemples!!
• 6/ Have fun!
• 7/ Shoot in the house, turn all the lights off and shoot near an open door or french doors.
• 8/ Use your mind! Play games with the kids. “Whatever you do , do not stick your tongue
out!” Thatʼs if you want them to stick their tongues out!
• 9/ Be patient, when dealing with kids & adults sometimes the best shots will come at the end of the shoot.
• 10/ Get the files printed!! Too many jpgs/pictures never see the light of day so make a book every few months with all your family images in them. A great keepsake and a great way to relive some happy memories. Photobox make some great little ‘ journals’ that are great to show off your family pictures.
To see more images from Brett please visit his website at
you can also catch him on twitter @brettharkness & facebook
Also check out July issue ( OUT JUNE ) of Digital SLR Photography magazine for more tips & tricks & behind the scenes shots from a great recent family shoot on the beaches of North Wales.