As a father of two, I’ve shot my share of birthdays. My own kids’, sure, but also plenty of others on the never ending “birthday circuit.” You parents know what I’m talking about… My kids have more friends and have been invited to more birthday parties in six years than I’ve ever been to in my entire life. When I’m shooting a birthday, for myself or someone else, 90% of the photos are candid. I’ll do one or two posed group shots but candids are the truest way to capture the excitement and emotion of children at play.
Let the kids get comfortable with you before you start aiming cameras at them. This is so important I can’t stress it enough. If the kids are uncomfortable around you then you will make a lot of shots of unsmiling children and backs of heads. Deer in the headlights or running away. There are going to be a lot of kids at the party who don’t know you. This is true whether you are hosting a party in your own home or you’re at someone else’s. To a child, you’re a giant, and hiding your face behind a lens is intimidating.
The first thing you should do is put the camera away and smile. I sling mine over my shoulder so the kids know I have it but it’s clear I’m not using it. If any of them are curious about your camera, let them see it. Fingerprints on the lens are easily cleaned off. When talking with a child, kneel down so you are at their eye level. Really, if you don’t have a rapport with the kids, you’re going to have an incredibly tough time making nice photos. If the kids trust you, you’re going to get so many great shots you won’t be able to use them all.
Two approaches to candids. There are two approaches to making shots that have worked well for me in the past and I usually employ them both during any shoot. The first approach is to move around the periphery of the action and take photos from a distance. Get on the kids’ eye level and shoot when they’re laughing and playing with their friends and don’t notice you. Don’t miss the opportunity to get a few shots of the parents this way either. Groups of parents watching their children play will form naturally.
The second approach is to inject yourself right into the action. A good way to do this is to sit down on the floor in the middle of a group of youngsters (six and under only—seven year olds are too darn cynical) and start playing with them. Make goofy faces and funny noises. In a few minutes you’ll have several kids running and laughing all around you. This is where fast autofocus and a fast, wide-angle lens come in handy. Practice shooting without looking through the viewfinder so you can maintain eye contact and your goofy antics.
What to shoot. The children will be your main focus, obviously. The birthday boy or girl. But don’t forget the guests and their parents. Get wide shots of groups of kids playing but also get very tight closeups of faces. Not every photo has to have a smiling child in it. Children’s lives are full of drama and there will always be someone unhappy about something or waiting shyly in the corner to be asked to play. And there are a ton of little details that can be shot. The cake, for instance. Lots of action happens in the kitchen where several adults are usually preparing something. Get some shots of the candles going into the cake, hands opening presents, the abstract patterns and colors of a pile of birthday presents, chocolate syrup dripping down a grubby chin.
The group shot. A birthday group shot serves two purposes: it shows everyone who was there and it can be used in thank you cards. One cute way to do this is to have all of the kids sit in a really tight circle and look up as you shoot them from above. You can get everyone in if you can shoot from stairs or by standing on a chair. How do you get them to all sit in a circle? Well, you could pose them, but you can get this shot naturally (and much more easily) by suggesting to the parents or organizer ahead of time that the kids sit that way for an activity such as a party game or opening presents. There are always one or two stragglers who won’t make it into the shot. Don’t worry about it. Kids will only say “cheese” twice before they get bored of it—take your shot when you’ve got it.
Blowing out the candles. You only get one shot at this one so prepare. Find out where the cake will be presented and where the birthday boy or girl will be sitting. Know when the cake is coming and stake out your spot early. Shooting in natural light is best but you don’t want a blurry shot so use a flash if you have to. If you must use a flash, turn it way down so that it doesn’t overpower the lit candles. The goal with this shot is to get it just as the flame is going out. You want to see an expressive face and puffed cheeks, glowing embers, and a little smoke. Use burst mode if you’ve got it. The sequence of blowing out candles can make a cute collage.
Don’t wait for a better shot. Children are the most unpredictable force in nature. Everything happens too quickly in the chaotic environment of a birthday party and the better shot often never comes. Take the shot you’ve got. If you get a better one later, you can go back and delete the first one.