How to Take Great Documentary Photos While Sheltering in Place
Kenney's son Carson logs in with his bear.
Photo by Sharon Kenney
While it can be difficult to focus on the big picture while sheltering in place with our families, or to think long-term when so many questions remain unanswered, we are clearly living through historic times during this coronavirus pandemic and its resulting shelter in place.
Mountain View photographer Sharon Kenney decided to capture her family’s experience in a daily documentary series of their “new normal” to save these moments, days and now months for posterity.
“I wanted to document what our lives were like during this time,” she writes in her blog. “I know that one day my children and grandchildren will be curious about these days, and through this project, we’ll be able to show them, not just tell them.”
The results are timely and endearing photos of her two children, Charlotte, 8, and Carson, 5, doing all the things kids throughout the Bay Area and beyond are now doing at home – learning, playing, cooking, connecting via screens, doing chores and puzzles and reading (sometimes upside down on the couch).
For parents who would like to follow her lead, but aren’t photography pros, she offers the following tips:
1. Always have your camera ready.
It doesn’t matter what camera you’re using – your phone is great! Make sure your camera is easily accessible so that you can quickly capture moments before they pass you by. I keep my camera out in the living room or on the kitchen table. It stays “on” (I charge the battery overnight) with the lens cap off. I can grab it for a quick shot whenever I feel inspired or notice a moment. When using my DSLR, I keep my ISO at around 4000 (for indoor shooting), and I can quickly adjust f-stop and shutter speed depending on my creative vision.
(Pro tip: if you’re shooting with an iPhone, just swipe left from your home screen to directly access the camera. That move will save you a few precious seconds if you need to capture a moment quickly.)
2. Make the best of the light around you.
If you’re shooting in your home, use natural light whenever possible. Open up your blinds and curtains to let the light in. Turn off lamps and overhead lights – they will show up very yellow in photos. Overhead lights can also cause unattractive shadows on faces, especially around the eyes. While you’re spending so much time at home right now, pay attention to the light in different rooms during particular times of day. Does the morning sun filter beautifully into your kids’ bedrooms as they’re waking up in the morning? Maybe lovely light comes through your kitchen window as you’re making dinner in the evening. Keep your eyes open, and I bet you'll notice your home’s light in brand new ways.
3. Think about composition.
One of the easiest composition techniques to master is the Rule of Thirds. In this technique, you divide your image frame with two horizontal and two vertical lines that intersect, dividing your image into nine equal boxes. The points where the lines intersect are the most interesting parts of the frame, where a viewer’s eye is naturally drawn. Using the Rule of Thirds, place your subject and/or the most important elements of your image along one of the lines or at one of the points.
4. Get on their level.
When shooting kids, it’s important to get down to their eye level – squat, kneel or lie down on the floor if you need to. That will ensure that you aren’t shooting down on top of them, and also show the scene from their perspective.
5. Shoot the whole scene.
Use your environment to really tell your story and give a sense of place. Backing up from your subjects will let you capture the setting and give the moment more context.
6. Capture the details.
An environmental photo is great for telling a story, but so are the details. Be sure to grab a few shots where you get in close and fill the frame with details. What do your daughter’s hands look like while she works hard on a puzzle? How does your son grip his teddy bear as he settles in for his nap? These are the sort of unique details you’ll want to remember.
7. Don’t be a director.
Whenever I ask my children to do something specific for a photograph, they immediately do the opposite. I’ve learned to WAIT for the moments to happen, instead of trying to MAKE them happen. As a parent, you know what to expect from your children. I bet you can predict what is about to happen in any given situation or interaction. Does your son always play with a toy in a certain way? How does your daughter like to curl up on the couch while she’s reading? Exercise your prediction muscles, and in no time, you’ll be really good at anticipating moments and being ready to photograph them when they happen.
Sharon Kenney is a Bay Area family and event photographer. Learn more at www.sharonkenney.com.