One of the most challenging hurdles to overcome when photographing children is to make sure their portraits are actually in focus. Children tend to move around a lot, don’t sit still, and are lightening-quick. And when you’re a professional photographer, you can’t rely on luck, cajoling, or bribing the little person you’re supposed to be photographing into perfect behavior. In fact, some of the best portraits happen when children are allowed to move around! But how can you guarantee that the image you get will be in focus? There are very simple techniques that I use for every single session to make sure the photos I get are sharp and in focus, every time.. and even if you’re using your iPhone, some of these techniques will allow you to better understand how to get everyone in focus next time you’re running after your 5-yr old.
1. Make sure your shutter speed can keep up
Kids tend to move fast. What we don’t realize is that if our shutter speed isn’t fast enough, we will end up with “motion blur” in our photos (shutter speed is how long your lens is “open” to let in light). This goes for both iPhone shots and DSLR images. Your phone has the same settings as the big cameras and if the scene is dark, it will set shutter speed to a lower setting, resulting in blurry pictures. I always set my camera to shutter speed of 1/250, which is 250th of a second. That is the fastest shutter I can have when using a strobe in my Studio (this has to do with sync speeds on lights), and when I’m outside, it’s often set to 1/500 or above. The point is, anything below 250th of a second on a professional 36megapixel+ camera can potentially result in a blurry image! But wait, there are actually other types of blurriness too..
2. Don’t rely on auto-focus
After motion-blur, you run into focus issues that are the result of missing focus with your camera/lens. While mirrorless cameras offer promise of magical focus tracking on objects, current DSLRs are fairly dumb when it comes to figuring out which part of the image should be sharp and which should be blurry. So my suggestion, and what I always use, is to dictate very specifically to your camera what part of the image should be focused on. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use auto-focus (the thing where the lens automatically focuses for you), but rather, it means that you shouldn’t let your camera make the decision of what it’s focusing ON.. because to your camera, a cup that’s in front of your lens looks just as attractive as your toddler striking a pose in the middle of the room and you’ll find yourself fighting with auto-focus more often than not as a result.
3. Use focus tracking
There is a specific focus mode on all cameras just for moving objects! This is well-known to sports photographers, but not as much to people who take pictures of their kids or portraits in general. You don’t need this for adults, because they will rarely move a full foot within the span of a second.. but for little kids, it’s absolutely essential. Furthermore, there are two ways to go about it.
Method 1: Set your camera into “continuous tracking” focus mode. If you don’t know what this is, google it, along with you camera, and you’ll find all sort of tutorials and videos that will help you find the setting. Now, everything that the little dot inside your viewfinder is on will be in focus. Keep that in mind because when you want to create an off-center composition, you will need to move the little dot around.
Method 2: Set up “back button focus” (once again, google is your friend), which will essentially do the same thing as above, but will automatically go into continuous tracking mode when you press and hold a specific custom-set button on your camera. This method separates the shutter click button from the focusing functionality, so you can focus (and keep focusing) independently of taking the picture. *Many photographers find this life-changing.
Personally, I use the first method. That’s simply what works best for me. Both methods need a bit of setup, testing, and getting used to.. so try them out and see which you prefer!
4. Keep the focus point on the eye
Once you have your shutter speed set and your focusing set up, you still need to know what to focus on! The face? The nose? It’s actually the EYES that you always want sharp in portraits. Everything else can be blurry. So make sure your little focusing dot in the view finder is on one of the eyes (typically you’ll want the eye that’s closest to the camera).
5. Make sure everyone is on the same focal plane
Now, if you’re photographing more than one person, but still want to keep your f-stop at an open wide setting (either for effect or to let in more light), keeping everyone in focus has nothing to do with your camera equipment.. and everything to do with how the children are arranged!
Imagine a staircase. Now, put two kids on the first step, one on the second step, and two more on the third step. The distance between the first two kids and the last two is about 3 feet.. and it would be mathematically impossible to have them all be in focus in a darker environment when your camera wants more light and an open lens. Instead, put three kids on the first step, and two on the second.. and then have the further away children lean forward so that their noses line up with the noses of the children who are closer to the camera!
This is a trick I use in every single session, with families, kids, moms and dads.. basically any time there is more than 1 person in front of my camera! Just line everyone up on the same focal plane (another way to see it is to picture a large piece of glass and then ask everyone to press their face to it at the same time) and they are guaranteed to be in focus.
This works for iPhone photography too, btw.. just make sure you’re not lining people up in one continuous line, because that can definitely look a bit staged and unnatural (there’s a reason why posing is a whole field of study in itself).
It’s a little crazy to think how much technology, technique, and knowledge goes into this one tiny part of taking a portrait. But more than once I’ve heard from people that even the best professional photography Studios will end up with blurry pictures of children. And I certainly don’t blame them! It’s incredibly difficult to get a sharp in-focus image of a toddler who’s running around, but that also doesn’t mean that it’s impossible!