How to Take Unique Children’s Portraits: An Interview with Photographer Edward Nguyen
Edward Nguyen was a wildlife photographer for around a decade before transitioning to portrait and fashion photography. Instead of starting over from scratch, Nguyen made his old gear adapt to his new subject and created a unique style in the process. Here he shares some of his insights on taking children’s portraits.
BL: I’ve been following you for a few years now on social media and noticed that you’re photographing more and more children’s portraits. How did that start? Is that an official transition or a happy accident?
Nguyen: I would say it was a happy accident. Upon seeing my work with fashion models, my family members asked me to take pictures of their children. So I started photographing my nieces and nephews. I received more exposure as I posted their photos on social media, like Facebook and Instagram. Shooting editorials for online magazines also helped to get my name out there.
BL: Your signature style is what I like to call “bokehlicious” – extreme but artful use of very shallow depth of field backgrounds and foregrounds. Tell me about how you evolved your style and what gear you use to help you achieve that look.
Nguyen: As far as my “bokehlicious” style, it was a combination of my vision and camera gear. When I made the transition from wildlife photography to people photography, I used my existing super-telephoto lenses to take pictures of people. I loved the compressed perspective and shallow depth of field of long lenses so much that I stuck to these lenses for my people photography. Most of my outdoor photos are shot with a Canon 200mm f/2 lens. For action shots, I also shoot with a 400mm f/2.8 lens. I also use an 85mm f/1.2 lens for indoor venues where there is not enough room to move back with long lenses.
BL: Is it hard to direct children when shooting from further away with a telephoto lens? Or is having that space part of what allows children to be themselves? Describe your directing process.
Nguyen: It is not hard to direct children shooting from further away with long lenses. I simply tell them what to do before I move away with a long lens. To get the look of pure joy from children, I tell them to pretend that I am not there and that they are playing in the playground. If I want specific poses, I will do the poses myself so they can copy me. Giving children more space to move around and be themselves will give you more natural facial expressions.
BL: And speaking of natural, do you shoot only in natural light or a mix of artificial and natural? Describe your approach to lighting a little for me.
Nguyen: I shoot mostly with natural light. However, I occasionally use a Profoto B1 strobe to overpower the sun and darken the sky at mid day. Shooting in natural light requires me to look for natural reflectors such as white walls, light-colored pavement, sand at the beach, water, etc. to brighten the shadows. Even with the help of natural reflectors, post processing is a must to tone down the discrepancies in tonality between shadows and highlights.
BL: Do you post-process children’s portraits differently from other portraits? Without giving away any secrets you might have, what are some of your favorite post-processing tools or techniques?
Nguyen: I post-process children’s portraits a little differently from those of adults. I tend to do less dodge and burn and try to keep it as natural as possible. However, I will fix uneven skin tone using gaussian blur and apply image in Photoshop. I find this technique to be nondestructive as it only changes the luminosity and not the texture of the skin. I love freckles, so I will leave freckles intact or even emphasize them in post-processing. I also accentuate dimples by “burning” them in post.
For eyes, I try not to overdo them so much that they look like a vampire’s eyes glowing in the dark. Brightening the eyes will change their natural colors requiring me to bring back their colors using an empty layer in color blending mode. My mantra is get it right in camera as much as you can. It will save you a great deal of time in post.
BL: How involved are parents with the shoots? What words of advice do you have for parents who are having their children photographed?
Nguyen: Parents are very involved with the shoots. They are the wardrobe stylists for the shoots unless there are clothing designers involved. Most parents can do hair and simple makeup for their children. I often shoot with a “natural beauty” theme so makeup is not required. Some parents even send me pictures of the clothes that they plan on bringing. I would recommend parents keep the communication lines open with the photographer before the shoot. Be specific. Let the photographer know beforehand what looks (head shots, full-length shots, etc.) you are most interested in. Last but not least, make the photo shoot feel like a fun event that the children will look forward to.
BL: Would you say, overall, that children are more collaborative in the portrait process or more in search of direction and guidance? Related to this, how do you handle very shy children?
Nguyen: Children will be very collaborative once they are given proper direction and guidance. For shy children, I will spend extra time with them before the actual shoot just talking about their hobbies and who they want to be when they grow up. Playing games like peekaboo also helps shy children relax and be themselves. I even crack jokes to maintain a fun atmosphere at the shoot.
BL: Lastly, any advice for people taking pictures of kids, whether it is pros looking to improve their approach or parents who just want better candids?
Nguyen: My best advice is let children be children. Do not force them into poses that they are not comfortable with. Let them laugh, run, skip, jump in the air, etc. Follow them around if you have to. Stop when they are tired. For smaller children, parents can help by interacting with their children, like running with them while holding their hands. You will get great candid shots when children are happy and carefree.