Photo credit: Helen Bartlett Photography

The good family photography guide

It’s all part of the magic: the excitement in Helen’s voice as she talks enthusiastically about what she does for a living is infectious. She’s as passionate about kids’ photography, as she is about the kit that goes with it.

Growing up, Helen’s dad was a keen photographer (with his own darkroom), and her Mum ran a nursery from home. These two worlds merged: by 8 years old she was mastering her first camera, and as a teenager, was taking photographs of the nursery children and selling them to their parents.

As a professional family photographer, Helen spends her days documenting childhood for the kids she photographs in the same way that her dad did so well for her. We find out how she does it.

But before we get started, here are a few terms you might not know:
Kit lens: standard zoom lenses that are sold with DSLR bodies as part of a ‘camera kit’.
Aperture: your camera’s aperture setting controls the size of the lens opening that allows light into your camera. It can help you control the amount of blur or sharpness around your subject.
ISO: with the ISO setting a camera’s image sensor can be adjusted to detect more, or less light as needed for a good exposure.
Glass: lenses.

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What is it about children’s photography that you particularly love?

Children’s photography is just really good fun. You’re going out, spending a morning with people who are in the company of the people they love most in the world – kids and their parents – and they’re doing the things they love most in the world, which is hanging out together and playing. So from a photography point of view, it’s just absolutely wild!

And from a business point of view, you’re photographing people year on year. So you get these incredible relationships with the people you’re photographing because you’re documenting their childhood! And you know they’re going to take these pictures off into adulthood, look back on them in their 30’s and 40’s and think, “weren’t my parents awesome”, and “ah, I should really go for a beer with my brother!”.

But you know, it’s just a really fun way to spend time. Whatever level you’re doing it at you get results that are going to be meaningful and important!

And what do you think makes a great photo of a child?

I think it’s something that tells you a bit about them: pictures that tell stories; that have interactions in them. You know – if it’s a picture of a child looking at a camera that really captures their personality! I’m not too keen on the cheesy grin, massive smile with 8 million teeth. I’d much rather see a child playing with a parent, or doing something. When you look back on those pictures – those are the pictures that grab you.

I’ve got a picture of my brother and I, canoeing on this lake, and I’m really laughing as I paddle with my fingers, and he’s really laughing as well; he’s got both the oars. I don’t know how he managed to get both the oars, but I look back at that on my wall, and it cracks me up. It just sums up our relationship. So I just love capturing that level of interaction with kids.

Also, pictures that show children in their own environment – at the places they like to go. Personally, while I think studio photography is amazing, I want the kid to look back at that picture and think, “There I am cycling in Greenwich Park! I remember how Dad taught me to cycle in Greenwich Park…I crashed into that lady, she shouted at me…and then we went for ice-cream!”. And the pictures just take you off, on this chain of memories. So I like pictures that are a bit more in-depth and have more to say, rather than just a nice portrait.

The ones that have sticking power are the ones that tell a story!

Photo credit: Helen Bartlett Photography

I didn’t realise how lucky I was as a kid. It’s only now as an adult that I realise that. So when I’m taking pictures of children, that’s what I always have in mind. Really, my main client is the kid, because the pictures are for them in 20 years time, just as much as they are for the parents now (probably more so really).

So when you’re taking photos of children and you’re looking through the lens, how do you try to frame and compose your pictures?

I’m looking for elements that interact. If I’ve got two people in a frame, I’m looking for a moment when there’s contact: whether that’s eye contact, or physical contact, or a flow going through an image.

I’m looking to keep things fairly clean. So, not in terms of a clean white background, but I don’t want to have other kids in the picture if I’m at the park for example. And I often use low angles so I can be down at the eye level of the children. You don’t want to always be looking down on them! If you’re down at their level, partly you get more communication, which is great, but you’re also seeing things from their point of view.

Composition wise I tend not to compose very statically in the centre. I’m looking for lines: ways of getting the viewers eyes to move through an image. Sometimes that will be due to the action happening in the image, and sometimes it will be elements like a path or something that will lead a viewer through the picture.

What do you do with children who just don’t want to have their picture taken?

I think the secret is to make it fun. Anyone, children or adults, if you tell people to sit on the sofa and smile for 4 hours, everyone’s going to get completely bored! When you’re taking group shots, if you keep that snappy, and then make it all about play, then kids tend to really enjoy themselves, because what they’re doing for 99% of the morning is playing with their parents.

Parents will always know what their kids’ favourite things are. Do they really like jumping on the sofa on Daddy, or a particular book? You can incorporate these things into a shoot. Half of it is working out the mood of the children. Be led by the kids.

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I’m trying to reveal your secret recipe. What other tips and tricks have you learnt over the past 14 years that our parents should know?

I’d think about timing. If your kids get up a 5 in the morning, then don’t decide you want to do a photo shoot with them at 11am because they’ll be knackered. Do it at 6. So work with the children’s schedules and do the things that they enjoy. Then for them it’s a treat and not a chore. Get them when they’re fresh in the morning and luck is going to be on your side. And be prepared: have some sort of games up your sleeve that you’ll know they’ll enjoy. Just make it fun.

I’d also say, it is important for the parent that’s always behind the camera to get in the pictures. Self-timers are amazing, or take a selfie. It’s better now with selfies; you’re less likely to have that one parent who’s never in a picture! But it’s easily done, particularly as we’re always so self-critical. But your kids are never going to say, “Oh well I didn’t really like mum’s haircut that week”. They’re just going to look back and think “It’s Mum, I love that picture of us”.

Photo credit: Helen Bartlett Photography

I do like to get everyone in the picture. It’s important.

And when parents are choosing a camera, what should they look for?

You’re always going to have a toss up between size and weight of camera and image quality. A heavier camera is going to give you a better picture generally. So my camera, it’s enormous and really heavy, but it’s amazing! And a smaller and lighter camera is not going to give me that quality. However, I’m not going to take the really big heavy camera on all occasions. So you really need to work out what’s going to suit you.

Now there are so many great little cameras that’ll fit in a handbag. So I think you want that Holy Grail, between the phone (which is great because you have it with you all the time, but the quality isn’t great) and the massive DSLR (which is phenomenal, but you’re not going to carry it with you every day). I think that’s where the little compacts come in.

I got my brother a Canon G1X a few years ago. He absolutely loves it, and takes it everywhere! It’s good for video, good for stills, great image quality, and can do nice prints. So I think it’s working out what your priorities are in terms of image quality, versus portability, versus ease of use.

Going into a camera shop has a lot to be said for it: actually speaking to someone and holding a camera, and then finding the one that suits you. I would look for a camera that you’ll take with you, and then get the best quality one you can afford.

You’ve touched on this, but what are the main differences between using your mobile phone camera, a point and shoot, and a DSLR?

I think creative control and image quality are the really big things. With my professional DSLR I can print things metres wide and they’ll look absolutely fantastic. And I can work in a lot of different conditions: I can shoot outdoors on a bright sunny day, but also indoors on a flat and rainy day because I’m using fast lenses and high ISOs, and I’ve got a lot of flexibility. Their auto focus is incredible, as are their low light capabilities. You’ve got the flexibility to switch the lenses and focal length. You can control everything.

Whereas with the phone, you’ve got very limited control, and limited low-light capabilities. Then in the middle, you’ve got point-and-shoot, entry-level DSLR’s, and mirrorless; where you’re beginning to get more creative control, but you don’t tend to have the very fast lenses which give you the best quality. I tend to find with the DSLRs you can get a picture anywhere that will be good, sharp and printable.

I think it’s important to print pictures too, and that’s where the quality of the camera makes a difference. Because we all have a million photos on our phones, but they are impossible to go through. But if you print things, you keep them, and they’re archival.

This leads on quite well to kit, and what you recommend to parents who are new to photography?

The thing I always recommend to my clients who are getting into photography is get a DSLR of some level, because they give you a lot more creative control than a compact. And then what I tend to say is get a fast 50mm lens! Because Canon does a great 50mm 1.8, which is about £100, so it’s cheap; it’s a brilliant length of portrait, it’s really fast, really light and small. And you can put that on any of their DSLRs from their entry-level one, which I think is about £350, and upwards. Then you can take pictures of your kids indoors using window light (without the flash), because you’ve got a fast lens that’s wonderful in low light. Whereas with a kit lens on your camera you just can’t do that. And that 50mm lens – so many of my clients have it, and it just transforms their photography!

It’s also a great way to learn photography with a fixed focal lens length, because you start to concentrate on your aperture, and then you realise what it actually does. It allows you to get to grips with your camera settings.

So the 50mm is my go-to piece of kit. It really is the perfect starter-lens for photographing children. And I recommend that to professionals who are starting out as well.

Perfect. And for those who are more advanced?

The more advanced you get, the more personal the decisions become. Some people really like the flexibility of a zoom, and some people will really hate zoom. I don’t like zooms at all; I really love fast prime lenses. So it is working out your personal preferences. But it is one of those things – the more money you spend, the better the equipment gets.

I just got the new 85 1.4 L and the new 35 1.4L Mark II. I got the 85 on the Thursday, and loved it so much I had to upgrade my old 35 in the same week. Just suddenly the quality jumped from the last lenses, which were about 10 years old. It was just extraordinary; the quality jump is huge! So those two lenses are absolutely phenomenal, but you know, not everyone likes a prime.

So you’ve talked about lenses a bit already, but how important are they?

The lens is really important! The difference between a cheap kit lens and a really nice lens is extraordinary. I’d say buy the best lenses you can afford. If you’ve got to weigh it up, buy a really expensive lens and a cheap camera. Because camera tech moves on so fast, your camera will have lost its value in a couple of years; but your lens will probably last you the next 10-15 years. So invest in the best quality glass you can, and then get the camera with the money you have left – would be my way of doing it!

And are there any particular settings that work really well for kids photography?

I’d say looking for the light is probably more important than settings on the camera. So, working out where the light source is and getting your kids in the right direction for that is a good tip for parents. If you’re photographing indoors, have your back to your window and the kids looking at you. Then you’ll have nice light.

Outdoors, overhead shade is really good, because then you get that soft light on the children’s faces: you don’t get the harsh shadows but you get light in their eyes. So if it’s a very bright day, go and play in the shade. Also, early in the morning is good for that because the light is much nicer (and that fits in with getting the kids out early!).

These are useful points helping parents identify particular moments and conditions to take photos. ‘Oh look, it’s a bright sunny day, and the kids are playing in the shade, we could get some really great photos here!’

I remember a friend saying when his kids were born, he left a camera in the kitchen for a year (because the kids generally played in the kitchen), so it was always within reach. Or keep your camera in your handbag – then it’s always with you! I think that’s the problem: once it gets into a special camera case, in a special drawer, and locked up, then you just don’t use it. Even though your camera is really nice, keep it in the kitchen, because then you’ll use it. The worse that will happen to it is it will get broken, and that’s better than realising four years later it’s completely out of date, and you didn’t take any pictures anyway!

Photo credit: Helen Bartlett Photography

Good point! What about WiFi enabled cameras?

To me, it’s not so relevant. However, if parents want to share straight to Instagram or send it straight to Granny on Lifecake[1], that’s where WiFi really comes into it’s own.

Do you have any advice for parents who find the technical side of photography difficult or daunting?

If you’re terrified of the technical stuff, ignore it; put your camera on automatic, and enjoy the moment! Because you can always learn the technical stuff, and the more moments you capture, the more interested you’ll become in the technical stuff.

You can be the most technical photographer in the world, but if you can’t see the moment and you can’t capture your child’s personality, then the pictures have nothing. I’d much prefer a slightly out-of-focus badly taken picture that is full of love, than an absolutely technically perfect photo that is very stale.

It’s more about spending time with it and enjoying it, than worrying about whether you’ve got the right aperture.”

[1] This feature is not yet available on Lifecake, but the team’s working on it.

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The Camera Kit

As Helen confesses she’s not familiar with Canon’s full product range, Aurelien Guichard (Lifecake’s resident camera geek, avid photographer, and dad) steps in to assist with the most up to date kit recommendations.

The compact

The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II

“A great lens for all situations, it has the settings flexibility of a DSLR in a super compact package. It’s the camera that’s always in my bag when my DLSR isn’t.”

Another compact camera great for parents is the PowerShot SX730 HS. It comes with a 40x optical zoom in a pocket-size body. Great when you need to capture close-ups of the kids playing at the pool, the park or at the school play.

The beginner’s DSLR

The Canon EOS 200D

An ideal first DSLR with a ‘kids’ shooting mode. “Perfect for parents new to this type of camera.” It’s affordable, easy to use, and delivers great results whatever you’re photographing.

The advanced DSLR

The 6D Mark II is for the enthusiast. Brilliant when combined with the 50mm f/1.8 Lens.

The lens

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens

“The Canon lens everybody starting with a DSLR should own; it will let you capture amazing portraits and giving an artistic feel to whatever you shoot. It was my second lens after the one that came with my first DSLR and it helped me understand and really get into photography.”

The mirrorless

The Canon EOS M100 is the one to get: portable DSLR performance, connectivity, and interchangeable lenses. The 50mm f/1.8 fits this with an adaptor, or try the EF-M 22mm f/2 STM that will deliver similarly pleasing portraits.

But whatever camera you’re using, enjoy capturing childhood, before it’s gone – in a flash.


Helen Bartlett is a Canon Ambassador and will be speaking at the NEC Birmingham Photography Show on ‘Great family photos and how to take them’ on the 17, 19, 20th March 2018. You can follow her on: 

Instagram: @helenbartlettphotography
Twitter: @helen_bartlett

We’ve also featured an article by Emily Walker. Head to our blog if you are interested on the topic ‘Top tips on how to photograph kids together‘.

Effortlessly share your pictures to just those you want to see them with Lifecake’s unique private photo storage and find out more about how our baby milestone app can help you keep your precious memories safe and secure online.