How to Photograph a Child's Birthday Party

We all know that photographing children is hard enough at the best of times, but throw in a lot of moving subjects, a bit of chaos, clutter everywhere and being so busy that you barely have time to pick your camera, and it's quite reasonable that photographing children's birthday parties can be a little bit challenging!

It was my sons' birthday a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I'd share with you some tips for the day both from what I did right - but mainly from where I went wrong! (Actually I would have had better luck with a post called How NOT to photograph your child's birthday party)

Charge the Battery & Clear the Memory Card! 
You may think this is hardly worthy of inclusion as a tip, but, yes, last year I did forget to charge my camera and couldn't take any photos on the day until the party was almost finished. So, night before charge the battery, get in a clear memory card and put your camera away ready for the next day!

Assign Help! 
The biggest reason for not getting too many shots of Callums' birthday was that I was constantly on the go - fetching drinks, cooking the food, serving it up, getting the candles for the cake, being the toy-share referee.......it was difficult to find time to pick up the camera too often as I was just too busy. So, either assign someone else to be the photographer for the day, or rope in your friends and family by giving them some specific duties (i.e one in charge of food, one drinks, one cake etc) leaving you free to be the party photographer! 

Let in the Light
Before the guests arrive, go around the house and open blinds, curtains etc so that you have a lot of light coming in.  One benefit of photographing in your own home is that you know where the good pockets of light are - position the main events (like present opening, cake eating etc) into these pockets of light if you possibly can - without becoming obsessive! My son decided that he wanted to sit at the head of the table for the main event (candle blowing!)  with his back to the window and in the worst possible light. (Thank you Callum) it's not worth a fight on their birthday. Accept that with children, you sometimes have to work with what you've got!

Capture the Details 
Once the other little kiddos start arriving there will be sticky little fingers in among everything, so take a moment before all the guests arrive to photograph all the details - the food, the party boxes, bundles of balloons, the decorations, the cake etc. This is especially true if you have gone to a lot of work over the decorations (unlike my good self) Try to fill the frame with these details as this will make for a more interesting shot.

Set Your Camera 
If you have a DSLR that allows you to change your settings, again, before the guests arrive, set your camera settings so that you can easily change when need be. My recommended setting would be AV Mode, Custom White Balance, Al Servo Focus Mode, Continuous Shooting.  For my house I had to shoot at around ISO800 but I found that this wasn't actually high enough - with all the motion I should have had a higher shutter speed (A few shots came out with some blur as my shutter speed was too low) Don't be afraid to crank up the ISO - rather have some good shots with some noise/grain, rather than have all your shots ruined by unintentional motion blur.

Which Lens?
Again if you have the ability to change lens on your camera, get the correct lens on before everyone arrives. Although I normally shoot with a 50mm prime lens, on this occasion I used my 24-75mm lens instead. The 50mm on a cropped camera can be a little too long for indoor shots, but the range of this lens means I can be close to the activity (which as the parent I'm going to want to be!) or a little further back.  If you have a longer length lens, you could also put this on to take some candid shots from well back.

Take Shots of the Birthday Boy/Girl
Last thing to do before you open the door to your guests is get some of the star of the day before they get covered in cake or has a meltdown through the lethal combination of excitement and too much sugar. I actually took his birthday shots the day after - it was much less hectic and stress-free, but it all depends on how you want to play it.  (If you are photographing someone's else's birthday party - get there early to scope out the light and get those shots)

Follow the Plan!
Another benefit of shooting your own party is that you know when certain key events are going to occur. Before they happen, get yourself positioned just ahead of them happening and let someone else take out the food, or help unwrap the presents.  If you are photographing someone else's party, get to know the plan - what time they plan to bring the cake out and from what angle for example, so you are not caught out.  Make sure you have exposed correctly and in position before the big moment arrives.

Capture the Guests
With or without the birthday star! It will be lovely to look back on shots of Grandma and other family members, plus the little friends they have coming on the day. If you are taking shots of everyone sitting round the table, use a high an F stop number as possible, otherwise you will only get half of the table in focus.  If you do not have enough light to do this (remember if you are closing up your aperture you are letting less light into the camera) consider investing in a Lightscoop or external flash so you can use flash but still diffuse the light.

Construct a "Must Have" List
If you want to get photos of the birthday star with Grandma, or even shots of YOU with the birthday boy, write down a list of photos that you really, really want to make sure you get of the day.  If you are photographing someone's else party for them, make sure you ask what's the most important aspect of the day to capture for them. Either way make yourself a "shot"list. 

Remember it's Your Day Too! 
Don't get so involved that you are constantly stepping out of the action to take a photograph. Take a few, and then get back into the party - your child will want to remember you as part of the day, not being stuck behind a lens! If you want, you can always hire in a professional, or just ask another camera toting mom to take pictures for you, so that you can just concentrate on enjoying the day.

It's all about the moments....
Probably the biggest one.  It's not about getting perfect pictures, it's about capturing the moments of the day. The way the birthday boy's face lights up at a present, her smile as the cake is brought out, the guests enjoying themselves.  There is a time and a place for portrait shots - I chose to do this the day after (see Callum's three year old pics)  so for the majority of birthday pictures you are looking to tell the story of the day. 


Jan said...

i'm yet to get the photographs that i had envisioned for a birthday party. thankfully, i have A LOT more years to practice!

Audrey said...

I'm actually going to look back on this post next year - some of the mistakes I made this year were exactly the same as last year! I think the main culprit is time - I like to control the party itself which leaves no time for photographing....but I don't want to leave that to someone else either! I guess I'm a control freak! x

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