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Portraits of Play
Photography Ideas

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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