Portraits of Play

When I was little I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. I should probably disclose that at various times I also wanted to be an Olympic gymnast and a princess too. It turns out, I never mastered a cartwheel and I have yet to meet a Royal but I’m happy to report I’m currently living a version of my documentary photography dream. Although there are no exotic animals or far away landscapes in my photos, I spend my days documenting the indigenous little people of my household – my daughters – and, to me, they are both fascinating and beautiful.

While I do love a traditional portrait, my favorite thing to do is to shoot them doing what they do naturally – playing. For anyone who loves some playtime too, here are some tips:

1. Have a camera handy

It can be a phone, a point and shoot or your fancy big girl camera. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. Photographically speaking, there is no worse feeling than regretting a missed opportunity.

photo 1

2. Plan your light

Do what you can to steer them into the light you want – be it golden hour, window, low light or high noon. OK, it’s probably not high noon but even that can work if you prepare for it.

gigi mcgill

gigi mcgill

gigi mcgill

3. Composition and context

Think about what you want captured and what you don’t and prepare your scene as best you can. Toddlers are fast and sometimes it’s all you can do to get them in focus but I do try to keep the background uncluttered and simple – unless of course the opposite is what you are going for in your story. I shoot with a 50mm nearly exclusively and try to include a buffer of space in the frame to avoid chops. You can always crop a little as needed later. For play it’s especially handy to have extra room to be sure you’ve included whatever activity it is that they are doing.

My favorite part of any playtime scene is context – while I may set up some toys or an activity in the best light I can find it’s important that it also seem and be natural for your child.

gigi mcgill

gigi mcgill

gigi mcgill

4. Perspective

Get low, or high. Low is my go to since I like to shoot from their level but high can be really fun too.

gigi mcgill

5. Be patient

Timing is everything.
gigi mcgill

6. Continuous shooting mode

It’s so easy to over shoot and in general I try not to, but when you have everything going for you – most importantly a happy subject – keep clicking. Expression is everything after the technical details fall in place and sometimes even when they don’t. The best way to nail the almighty expression is to cast a wide (and fast shutter speed) net.

gigi mcgill

7. Have fun

If you’re laughing, it’s likely they are laughing too. I’m pretty sure laughing, like yawning, is contagious. Of course I want my kids having fun when they are playing but selfishly I need them having fun so they keep letting me take their pictures – it’s my playtime too, after all.

gigi mcgill


Guest Post – Gigi McGill

gigi mcgillI recently relocated from the Gulf Coast of Florida to Washington, DC where I happily photograph my husband, two daughters and one very well fed pug.
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  1. LOL! Love the shot of your daughter falling in the hole at the beach! Priceless.

  2. Oh my gosh I love all that advice! I am excited to try out more of these on vacation I tend to do #5 and #4 a lot. I’m excited about taking the little man to the beach for the first time. Seeing your daughter in the sand has inspired me! :)
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    • I hope you have a blast photographing your little man at the beach for the first time!

  3. I enjoyed every single photo. I don’t know you or your family but I feel as if I do after looking at these. They are beautiful and real all at the same time!
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  4. These pictures of your daughter are absolutely amazing! I love every image you captured!

  5. This post make me laugh and cry…every picture tells a beautiful, real story. Sometimes with kids we can get so overwhelmed, but if we just take a step back and breathe the results can be breathtaking.
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  6. Love this Gigi!!! You are a master at capturing your girls at play!!!
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  7. I’m so interested to read that you almost exclusively shoot with a 50mm! I spent so long researching and saving for longer lenses even though my favourite remains my ‘nifty fifty’ but I thought to be ‘professional’ I had to have more lenses. Your shots are so clean and light and beautiful and this post has taught me that I can do much more with my 50mm that I thought. Are you full frame?

    • Thank you so much Rebecca! I am full frame (Canon Mark ii) and I am crazy in love with my 50. Whenever I use anything longer, while I do usually end up loving the results I don’t enjoy the actual shooting as much. I prefer to get closer i guess than longer focal lengths allow. Thank you again for your comment. :)

  8. Wow, these pictures are truly amazing! You definitely know how to think two steps ahead to get those action shots! That’s my struggle. The moment is missed once it happens. Thanks for sharing your beautiful family and hard work!

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