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America’s Foremost Portrait Artist On How To Up Your Family Photo Game

If you have a metric gigaton of kid portraits and are pretty sure they all kind of suck a little bit, photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders – whose work hangs in places like The National Portrait Gallery (and MOMA, The Whitney and a gazillion other places) – has some tips to help you step up your photo game.

Make It Short And Keep Them Involved
“Kids have a short attention span, so have everything ready to shoot and don’t be fumbling around with your equipment. Know what position you want them in. With digital cameras, you can show them the picture right away, and that’s tremendously successful in keeping them involved. It makes it more fun for them.”

Frame Them Correctly
“The mistake most amateurs make is they center the head in the frame, so there’s a terrible empty space above and you’ve cut the legs off. In a portrait, you want to keep the head tight to the top of the frame.”

Outside, Pay Attention To Your Surroundings
“Find soft light, not bright sun where they’ll be squinting. Under a tree is better than in a field. And be sensitive to what they’re looking at – turn around and see what the subject is seeing. Involve yourself in what you’re shooting.”

Have Them Look To Their Right (Most Of The Time)
“Look at your child’s face and figure out the best angle to shoot them. Everyone has a ‘better side,’ and here’s an easy formula: 90 percent of the time, it’s their left side. I’ve read a study explaining why and didn’t understand it exactly, but it has to do with the left brain and the right brain. Try it – look at 10 people and see how many of them look better from the left side.”

Maybe Don’t Ignore Their Friends
“I shot Macaulay Caulkin at the peak of his career, when he’d just done Home Alone. It was for the cover of the New York Times Magazine – a great cover shot. I remember there was this other kid there, another young actor who was a client of the same publicist. He started smoking a cigarette in the studio, so I kicked him out. That was Johnny Depp. I never got another chance to photograph him.”

For more of Greenfield-Sanders’ work, catch his latest documentary The Boomer List.