If you want to rise above simple birthday party snapshots to show really great, professional-looking party pictures, here are some tips to try, and pitfalls to avoid.
Get the light right
Step one is to change how you light and expose your party shots. The goal is to lighten the overall scene so it looks more natural and less like a coal mine. Let’s start with what you can do with point and shoots cameras and work our way up the camera and flash food chain.
First, increase your ISO to about 400 (any higher and you’ll have unacceptable digital noise (depending on the camera you use) , even if you are only making a smallprint). Then, change your flash mode to night portrait mode. The camera will choose a longer exposure so the ambient light in the room will look brighter and more natural, while the flash will fill in the shadows. Be sure to hold your camera steady (turn on shake reduction).
If you are using a DSLR and have a flash with a swivel head, you don’t have to boost your ISO or use night portrait: point the flash towards a wall or ceiling (assuming that wall or ceiling is white) and bounce it to create an open, ambient light. If you don’t have a white wall or ceiling to bounce the light off of, consider creating the bare-bulb look with a Gary Fong Lightsphere or Flashpoint Q system Diffuser Dome.
Even better: If you have a wireless flash with more than one flash unit, set up a second flash on a stand to fill in the background while the on-camera flash is more direct. Both flashes should be diffused, of course.
That’s a mighty lonely-looking birthday celebration, isn’t it? Let’s fix it.
Before the cake comes out, you, as the photographer, are tasked with gathering guests around the birthday boy or girl. Have them stand behind and next to him or her, squished tightly together (which in itself can lead to some interesting expressions and moments). Now, have the cake brought out, and start shooting. Don’t be shy about directing people to move so they’re in the shot!
Photograph the approach, the singing, the blow-out, and the cake cutting, all with people still gathered around. This is your prime time!
Let’s look at five successful birthday party pix, and what made them work:
Be sure you’ve locked focus and exposure on the birthday boy before he blows out the candle. That way you can avoid missing the moment due to lag time.
Once the ceremonial part of the party is over, go around the table, and take a quick portrait of each of the guests. You can zoom in or not as you wish. Shooting at a “normal” focal length will produce flattering portraits while still including others and the ambience of the party in the background.
Finally, there’s the unwrapping of gifts…this is not only a fun photo opportunity (the expressions upon reading gag cards or seeing the gifts can be fun) but it’s also a good way to document who gave what. Photograph the card with the gift. Easy.
Not just child’s play: Birthday parties aren’t just for kids, and don’t necessarily have to be indoors. It’s definitely OK to pose friends and family together with the smiling birthday girl. Just make sure the exposure is open and there aren’t any bothersome shadows. Use a fill-in flash or a reflector to kick light into the happy faces.
Key words: How to photograph a child’s birthday party, birthday party, photographing children, using light correctly at parties, using lighting in low light situations.