Unless you’ve been on a January detox retreat in the Himalayas with no access to news or internet, you won’t have missed that Princess Charlotte attended her first day at nursery this week - or that the official photos were taken by her mum, rather than a professional photographer.
The Duchess of Cambridge is known to be a keen photographer and was also the lady behind the lens for the princess’ first official photos as a newborn with her big brother Prince George, as well as Prince George’s first day at school.
They’re absolutely lovely photos that most professionals would be proud of - Princess Charlotte looks very at ease - probably because it’s her mum behind the camera rather than some stranger directing lighting and posing - and I’m not going to lie, they’re a darn sight better than the photos I took of my daughter on her first day at school! Even as a professional family photographer I sometimes don’t have my camera to hand and we were so rushed we barely had time for the ubiquitous photo by the front door - on my phone - and I managed a few snaps - again on my phone - as we all walked through our local park to her new school. Bad photographer mum!
For me, as I specialise in documentary family photography, it’s the unposed, natural and genuine interactions of everyday moments that I feel show your true story as a family and create the most stunning portraits. When those milestone moments come along - first steps, starting school or nursery, a new baby in the family, first birthdays, the first time they ride a bike, a music recital - they all stand out as moments that need capturing for posterity, memories to treasure.
So, while I’d also urge you to capture the everyday moments, as they too will become treasured and woven into your family history, here are my top tips for getting the best out of those milestone photos. If the Duchess of Cambridge can do it, so can you:
1. Look for the light if you’re posing your subject. This doesn’t have to mean fancy lighting equipment. The photos of princess Charlotte are well lit in natural soft light (not bright sunshine!) illuminating her face and separating her nicely from her background. If you’re indoors, look for natural light coming from a window if possible and try to position your subject so that light falls across their face from the front and/or side.
2. Look for a plain, uncluttered, non-distracting background. Princess Charlotte is posed nicely on neutral-coloured steps, which allow her bright red uniform to stand out and for her to be the main focus of the image without background distractions competing for the viewer’s attention. Alternatively, place them against a background that is linked to the milestone - party balloons and birthday cake, outside the school gates and riding a bike in the local park all make good environmental portraits.
3. Stand your subject away slightly from their background unless it’s simply a plain wall - this allows the background to remain slightly out of focus so the viewer’s attention is drawn to the subject.
4. Use a fairly wide aperture. This only applies if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera where you can choose an aperture. Aperture dictates how much of your image is in focus. Most lenses will have at least f4 as their widest aperture and this should be a good choice to make sure your subject is all in focus without the background also being sharp. If you’re fairly accomplished with a camera you could try a little lower such as f2.8. If you’re shooting a group of people and they’re not all standing in a line (more about which below) then you may want to try a higher aperture, say f5.6 or f8 to make sure all the faces are in focus. If you only have your phone camera tap on the face of the person you’re photographing and the phone should do the rest.
5. Keep it simple. Princess Charlotte is posed in two very simple and natural poses on the steps - one sitting, one walking down the steps. Simple poses work best especially with children who will feel uncomfortable and get grouchy if they have to stand or sit in complicated poses for any length of time. If posing a group, I’d recommend a natural and relaxed sitting pose. Steps, such as those in the Royal photos work brilliantly as you can arrange people across different heights, but a sofa can work equally well all cuddled up and hopefully giggling! Nothing makes a photo look more staid than a group of people standing in a straight line. If there is no other option, try arranging them in a slight semi-circle and have them lean towards the camera slightly.
6. Don’t ‘say cheese’! Princess Charlotte’s photos looks so natural because she’s not pasting on a fake grin - she has a lovely, natural, genuine smile. Talk to your subject, make them laugh, get involved and then snap away when they reward you with a true grin.
7. Think about your angle. Neither of the Princess Charlotte photos were taken face on - they’re both slightly from the side, and slightly below emphasising what a ‘big girl’ she is on her first day at nursery. Getting down on a level with child subjects puts the viewer on an equal footing and invites them into the subjects world while shooting from up high emphasises how small they still are. It’s amazing what a difference angle can make to your end image and the reaction the viewer has.
8. Don’t forget to take the candid documentary photos too - true memories are in the everyday real moments when children barely know the camera is there! Look for the action or the quiet moments of contemplation where they’re absorbed in a task or gleefully laughing with their friends. You don’t need a fancy camera or technical knowledge - a smartphone camera will do the trick to record that moment for the future.