This post is based on this comment from a reader:

Taking pictures of my young ones is super important to me. Getting the right settings for the lighting is a challenge. I find myself using the meter in my viewfinder, but I feel like I’m cheating…? How [do I] achieve that golden light?

Also, I love the look of bokeh, but struggle to get my lens to focus from one subject to another if I don’t use the automatic focus points. How can I change focus more quickly, but keep the background blurred?

I think it will be super helpful to write a guide specifically for photographing children. I will add it to my upcoming projects!

I totally relate to your challenges. As a wedding photographer, I also have to quickly deal with a variety of lighting situations and also maintain a beautifully blurred background, or bokeh, whenever possible. Getting that golden light is key!

Is Using the Meter Cheating?

No!  Like your camera, it’s a tool.  It’s okay to use the meter to see how the camera will expose the shot for a given lighting situation. It may be a helpful way to have a starting point to adjust up or down from.

Even in manual mode, the camera meter will still tell you what the camera “thinks” of your manual choices: Whether your current settings will result in an overexposed (brighter than normal) or underexposed photo (darker than normal).

In the end, it’s totally up to you to decide how bright or dark you would like any particular shot to be. I tend to like brighter photos, so I may check what the camera meter thinks of the scene first, then adjust for 1 stop of exposure *over* the default meter.  How?  The first step is the Exposure Compensation button.

1: Exposure Compensation: Make the Photo Brighter or Darker

-In any semi-automatic mode (Program, Aperture/Shutter Priority), you can tell the camera to “brighten” or “darken” a given scene by using Exposure Compensation. Find out how to change this setting on your camera (usually a plus or minus sign, and a rotation of a dial), then try adding one stop to your outdoor photos for a nice bright look.  If your subject is backlit, this is especially helpful for helping create a dreamy scene.

Quick Q&A: What’s a “Stop?”
A “Stop” in photography is basically a unit of measurement of light.  OK, before all the photo geeks blast me, technically, a stop is a ratio of doubling or halving light.  But whatever – the way we use it in practice is just like any unit of measurement:

  • Adding one stop” to any given exposure means the current amount of light captured will be doubled: The photo will be brighter.
  • Subtracting one stop” means the current amount of light captured will be halved: The photo will be darker.

2: 3D Autofocus / Continuous AF

Kids tend to move fast if you’re trying to catch them in a candid moment, and it can be a real challenge to get focus right-on. Here are my recommendations:

If using a Nikon camera, see if your camera has 3D autofocus mode, or more likely, continuous autofocus (AF-C). Canon users can use AI Focus or AI Servo autofocus modes, which are also continuous focus.

  • Nikon’s 3D tracking expects that your subject will move, not just side to side in your frame, but also toward or away from the camera. In practice, I will usually put the 3D autofocus point right in the middle of the frame, focus on a face, then recompose the shot while keeping the focus point locked.
  • Similarly, Canon’s Continuous AF system defaults to face tracking in 3D, or colors if no face is visible, and then attempts to focus while subject moves around in frame and toward or away from the camera.

Another advantage of a continuous autofocus mode is that it will override some camera’s default AF setting to prevent a photo from being taken until focus is achieved. Continuous focus is more of a ‘loose’ focus lock that will continually focus until the photo is taken, and continue to focus *between* photos. Very helpful for moving children, and no more missed shots because the camera refuses to shoot!

Finally, don’t be afraid to keep on shooting continuously in this mode.  Nailing focus on a moving object is difficult for any photographer, so when you see a perfectly focused photo of a running child, it is most likely one of tens, if not hundreds, of shots.

3: White Balance: Go for the Gold

“Golden light” photos, aside from shooting in mid-afternoon light, also depend on the white balance setting. Most cameras are set to auto white balance, and the camera will therefore try to set a neutral tone for all your photos.

Instead of Auto, you could try choosing a specific white balance for a warmer look. Outdoors, try setting to “Daylight”(Picture of a Sun – Balanced) “Cloudy”(Picture of a Cloud – Warm) or “Shade”(Picture of a house with lines to the right of it, usually – Warmest)

If you shoot RAW and develop photos in a post processing program, you have the freedom to adjust the white balance to any value, cool or warm in post-process.  JPEGs are not as flexible, but minor white balance corrections may still be made to photos shot in JPEG.

4: Use Semi Automatic Modes

A large aperture is the key to blurring the backgrounds behind your subjects, and will also give you the fastest shutter speed. A fast shutter speed is helpful for freezing moving children better and creating sharper photos. A good way to combine these two principles in the case of photographing kids is using either Shutter Priority mode or Aperture Priority mode:

Shutter Priority Mode: Try 1/160th of a second or faster as a starting point. That’s my go-to shutter speed for moving *adults*. Professional football photographers regularly shoot at 1/1250 or faster – so you might try a similar shutter speed depending on how fast your children are moving. The aperture will be controlled by your camera in this mode, and it will likely choose a fairly wide aperture to allow for such fast speeds, and that will contribute to keeping the backgrounds blurred.

Aperture Priority Mode: If an attractively blurred background is your goal, then using a wide aperture will help with that goal. f/2.8 is a nice spot if you’re using a professional zoom lens or prime lens, or you can use f/3.5 when using the kit lens that comes with most cameras. But be careful zooming using kit lenses, because the maximum aperture size shrinks as you zoom!  This could create unexpected frustration when trying to use the modes mentioned here.

Again, shutter speed will still be key to freezing action, so you might try a higher ISO to get a fast shutter speed in the ranges mentioned above.  In both cases, remember to adjust your exposure compensation for the level of light that you want, and adjust WB for the warmth that you want.

Above all, practice practice practice!  Choose one of the tips here to start with, and go to the park with your kids a couple hours before sunset.  Go!

Questions?  Tips of your own?  Let me know in the comments what you think of this article!