1. Look for great light: Forget your on camera flash.
Either take your kids outside and use the best light source in the universe (you know, the Sun?) or during the day use the lovely soft light of a window, skylight, or open door. Keep in mind that photographs are a 2 dimensional representation of a 3 dimensional object. Using the on camera flash creates flat, straight forward lighting that will make your kids look lifeless and many times, overexposed. If you are using a SLR camera you can adjust your ISO to increase the camera's sensitivity to the light. Keep in mind this also increases noise. Many point and shoots also allow you to increase your ISO or they automatically adjust to lower light. Most of all keep in mind that photography is all about light and that it might not be a good idea to always shoot in low light conditions if you want good images. In the image to the left you can see a slight shadow on the left side of Hannah's face. Here the light source was from my right side, about 45 degrees from me and the camera. This subtle shift in the direction of the light makes her look natural. The flat lighting of an on camera flash would have also created harsh shadows under her chin and along one side of her body; not attractive. Good images have a great balance of light and shadow. In summary; they mimic the way our eyes are used to seeing things in real world.
2. Pay attention to your shadows.
Once you've found a good light source, consider where your shadows are falling. If you are photographing your kids outside, think about the time of day. Early morning and later in the afternoon will give you more dramatic directional shadows. I love to shoot people about an hour before sunset. The light is still enough to get a good exposure but no one is blinded when facing the sun. If you do happen to find yourself shooting at noon day, a good way to avoid harsh shadows is to find shade. ( I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, but just go with me here.) Find the shade of a large tree or the open shade of a building. In these spots the light is dispersed and you'll have less of a chance of unattractive shadows. If no open shade is available, try turning 45 degrees from the direction of the sun on a bright day. Luckily, if you live in the greater Pudget Sound, like me harsh shadows are rarely a problem between the months of November-June. Cloud cover provides a natural diffusion of the light (ie- the direction of the light is broken up as it passes through the clouds creating soft shadows and the same kinds of light you'll find in open shade).
3. Get Closer.
Not every image needs to be a panoramic photograph. Instead try to fill the viewfinder or screen with only information you want and nothing you don't need. Portraits are about people. Feel free to include them specifically. This doesn't mean you never take a full body shot of your kids, but it is good to think a little bit about how the composition will look and if additional "stuff" will be distracting.
4. Play with angles.
It's fun to see things from a new perspective. Try getting high above, or down low. Even tilting the camera a little so your subject isn't perfectly perpendicular to the horizon. Images photographed from eye level (the view you see normally when standing up) is well, boring. Mix it up. Just ask any of my clients. I'm not opposed to laying on the ground for a photo. Some of my favorites come from this angle.
This photo of Hannah is photographed from above which emphasizes her size and face.
5. Don't always worry if they are smiling. My favorite photos are many times the ones where you can see what the kid is thinking. Have fun with them, don't make them hate photo time by always requiring perfection. My kids love to have their pictures taken because I let them do whatever they want. Now at 4 and 3, they have developed their own favorite poses and they even ask "Mommy, can we take pictures?" What I love about this last picture is the "baby pout" on Hannah's face. Those Gerber baby cheeks are accentuate and she's staring right at me. Plus look at how blue those eyes are? Super cute, but no smile. I love it.
Thanks Heidi for the fun afternoon and such a cooperative model.