Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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Do I need high FPS to get good pictures of children?

If I have a camera with a relatively slow burst rate, is it still possible to get pictures as good as I could get by holding down the shutter button of a camera which captures many frames per second?

Children not only move quickly, but their best expressions are so fleeting. It seems like it might be important to have many different instants captured in quick succession, so I have options to choose from.

Without a high framerate, is it a matter of getting lucky, or is there a way to guarantee good results? (Or at least to increase their chances?)

I've even heard people say that an experienced photographer can take a better photo with a single shot than one can get with many "pray and spray" frames. Is this hyperbole, or is it really true?

If there is a better way, what's the secret? Can one learn and practice it, or is it an inherent skill? (Or something that just develops through time?)

(Inspired by this comment.)

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Pick up a camera knowing the right shutter speed and exposure, constantly focusing if required and only press the shutter when you hit a 'wow' in your head. –  rockacola Dec 20 '11 at 23:45
    
Nikon's 1 series of cameras has some features like the "Smart Photo Selector" (starts shooting before the shutter press) & "Motion snapshot" that could be useful in this regard - dpreview.com/news/2011/9/21/nikonlaunch –  ab.aditya Dec 21 '11 at 11:13

8 Answers 8

up vote 4 down vote accepted

If you have a viewfinder, I would bring the camera up to your eye, and pre-focus if possible, then just wait it out for that perfect moment. If the subject moves considerably, you have to keep pre-focusing by pressing down the shutter button halfway until you are ready to fully depress it and capture an image.

If you do not have a viewfinder, the LCD screen is an option, but not quite as good in my experience. The feeling of looking through the viewfinder is a benefit to me.

I think if you consistently think about getting a great shot, you are more likely to do it. Pretend you are using film, and each snap is costing you money. This will help you to think about the shots and try to capture the best expression. Sure, not every image will be perfect, but getting out of the "high FPS/unlimited memory/free image" mindset of digital will help anyone to produce higher quality images more consistently.

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+1 for keeping the camera pre-focused and waiting a bit. i've taken quite crisp photos of water droplets with this technique, using only a P&S camera and on camera flash. it takes some trial and error, but it's doable! –  JoséNunoFerreira Oct 11 '11 at 11:11
    
This technique might be even better if you use what Canon call AI SERVO autofocus - this attempts to automatically refocus as the subject moves. –  Maynard Case Oct 11 '11 at 13:06
    
@MaynardCase - I agree, but it sounds like the original poster might have a point and shoot, not a DSLR with the option to select AL SERVO. –  dpollitt Oct 11 '11 at 13:10
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Pre-focusing is useless on my niece: when she sees the camera, she runs towards it. We have many, many blurry shots of random parts of her body, often at odd foreshortened angles. –  Martha Oct 11 '11 at 15:59
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For what it's worth, the original poster was deciding between a point & shoot with high framerate and a DSLR without. –  mattdm Oct 12 '11 at 17:47

Practice, practice, practice. I think spontaneous people photography is one of the harder areas to master. Unlike landscape, still life, studio work etc it's something you have little control over. The only way to get it right in my opinion is to keep at it, and practice lots. That way you get used to how your subjects react, when best to click the shutter for your camera. learning to pre-empt their expressions etc. It's one of those things you wish there was an easy setting for good pics, but only practicing will make sure you get used to capturing the right moment. Flash can be helpful for freezing that moment, but not always appropriate.

Or cheat and video them, and take a screenshot when they have the expression you want. Obviously not as high quality so would depend on what you was wanting to do with the pictures. I could imagine that with a 1080p video you could get some reasonable quality small prints, but if you're wanting to blow up any pictures for your wall it might not be a good option. Given that it's not always going to be light and flash isn't always going to be usable, this might be a more convenient way for those trickier instances

I am wondering however from the other question whether FPS/burst rate and how responsive the shutter is is getting a little confused. A point and shoot camera will often have a lag from pressing the shuter button until the photo is taken, which can more easily miss the 'moment' you saw that you wanted to capture, whereas an SLR is more 'instant' when you press the shutter, making it less likely to miss what you wanted.

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So, just to be clear, you are saying that with practice, one can get consistently good results with one click, and it's not justa matter of luck? Is there anything in particular one should practice? Do you really recommend the video frame-grab approach? Is that better than "practice" even despite the lower quality? –  mattdm Oct 7 '11 at 16:24
    
Fine, make me add some clarification to my lazy answer :p I think spontaneous people photography is one of the harder areas to master. Unlike landscape, still life, studio work etc it's something you have little control over. The only way to get it right in my opinion is to keep at it, and practice lots. That way you get used to how your subjects react, when best to click the shutter for your camera. learning to pre-empt their expressions etc. It's one of those things you wish there was an easy setting for good pics, but only practicing will make sure you get used to capturing the right moment –  Dreamager Oct 8 '11 at 10:20
    
The screengrabbing would depend on what you was wanting to do with the pictures. I could imagine that with a 1080p video you could get some reasonable quality small prints, but if you're wanting to blow up any pictures for your wall it might not be a good option. Given that it's not always going to be light and flash isn't always going to be usable, this might be a more convenient way for those trickier instances –  Dreamager Oct 8 '11 at 10:23
    
Thanks! Can you edit some of that into your answer? –  mattdm Oct 8 '11 at 13:57

Getting a good shot of a toddler always has an element of luck involved. Faster cameras and high burst frame rates just make it more likely, they don't guarantee it. There are some tricks you can use like getting someone to do something to distract the child while you take the shot. Very often if the distraction is good enough you can get classic shots of bemusement while they try and figure out what's going on.

Best advice I can give is to just take lots and lots of shots, you will get some good ones it just takes a lot of shots, delete obvious bad shots as you go along so your memory card does not get full too quickly. Set your camera up with the highest frame rate you can get away with to give you the best chance and look for favourable situations like when the toddler is interacting with someone or something so is moving about less. Props like toys especially puppets are also good to get them to stay in one place for a few seconds.

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You can definitely take better pictures of small children with a single shot and you don't even have to be an experienced photographer (but you do need a good camera, see last paragraph).

I'm not an experienced photographer, I mostly take pictures of my two (very fast) children and I used to think continuous drive is a great advantage in photographing children.

I discovered that I got lots and lots of pictures of random moments but never a picture of "the moment" - when I photographed my son on a trampoline I never got the picture where he is on the highest part of the jump, when I photographed my baby daughter I always got the moment right before and right after the smile and when I photographed kids playing an xbox kinnect game at a party it looks like they barely moved.

On the other hand, it's very easy to hold the camera, pre-focus and wait for the moment to get that one great picture.

But all of this only relevant if you have a camera with practically no shutter lag, capturing the moment is easy on my DSLR but impossible on my old P&S (that also has low FPS and low quality video - resulting in many many pictures of the moment right after something really interesting happened).

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In sports, the play starts and ends in instants. A high frame rate increases your chances of getting at least some record of that. With children, it's a matter of coaxing and getting the right expression. They aren't really going to escape as a fleeting sporting play might. They will remain there so long as the parent works with them.

Imagine this: You have a nice set and some lights set up. The lights don't recycle immediately, so you can't just machine-gun. This is one of the most effective ways to get portraits of children, but you have to be extremely judicious about when you press the shutter release. I am a big fan of waiting for a good sequence of movements and/or expressions, and then shooting.

Further, I am a fan of extending the shoot beyond where I would with an adult to nearly the limit of the child's attention span to give me more material among which to choose. Everyone is right -- these are more like grab shots than designed shots, so to some extent, you need as many as possible. Are 10/sec better than 1 or 3? I have not experience that demonstrates that is true.

One thing you may do is set your camera to continuous focus -- AI Servo on Canon. That way, it you keep the shutter release half way down, you have a chance of a sharp image even if the child is ducking and diving. Lighting... not so much.

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Rule #1 is to get out of their way and just wait for their expressions. It is more or less like nature photography, where you wait for hours to get the right shot (easier for you because babies are slower than birds :) ). You should be able to anticipate the emotions and have your subject in focus before the onset of the emotion.

I have shot a couple of birthday parties and it is fairly easy to do. Every kid in the world will smile and their eyes will light up when they see a candy/cake/balloon/sweets/gift etc. If a kid notices you, he/she may be very curious about your gear... use it to your advantage.

Use follow focus and rear curtain flash sync. That will give a nice sense of motion to your pictures.

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Rear curtain flash sync could result in closed eyes if using the TTL mode of the camera, due to the pre-flash. Otherwise, all excellent suggestions. –  ab.aditya Dec 21 '11 at 11:03

Even if you do not have a high frame rate you can always set a high shutter speed to capture fast movements. But you need to decide the best shutter speed. Trial and error! Because some movements look good when they are blurred. They give the image a sense of action and some dynamism.

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It also helps to raise your ISO so you can accomodate that high shutter speed. High shutter speed = less time/less overall light but high ISO = greater sensitivity so it balances out. Pre focusing as others have said before also helps but perhaps changing to manual focus mode might be an even better option depending on the plane of focus - i.e. if the kids are running from left to right, there's more likely to remain within a constant distance from your camera as opposed to running towards and away. It's worth noting also that telephoto lenses will make it more difficult to focus given their typically shallow depth of field.

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Apologies, my original post was cut off. I just updated. Let me know if you have any further questions. –  Jim Dec 22 '11 at 16:28

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