Ever wonder why world-famous photographer Ansel Adams took pictures mostly of mountains, deserts and lakes? It's because trees, sand and water don't fidget, pout, drool, grimace, whine or have milk-mustaches that only show up in pictures.
Still, almost any child can be clean and well-behaved for the 60th of a second that it takes to be photographed. Real children may be unpredictable, loud and growing away from you every minute. But children in pictures are reliable, harmless, and, like Peter Pan, they won't grow up. In other words, they are a joy forever.
Here are some tips for preserving your children for posterity:
1: When in doubt, press the button. Whether you are shooting candid or posed, don't wait for a certified prize-winner. Lose that stingy, make-every-shot-count mentality. That went out with film. You're photographing children, not defending the Alamo. You already paid for your pixels; use 'em. Remember: Opportunities are limited; and youth is fleeting. Click away. (If you have two similar but not identical photos, one will almost always be better than the other in some way. So the more photos you take, the better picture you will achieve.)
2: Look hard at what you're photographing. You know the careful last-minute inspection you give your child's face just before you get out of the car to visit Grandma? (Just before you find yourself scrubbing Junior's little face with a saliva-moistened hanky.) Give THAT kind of scrutiny before taking a picture.
The camera sees everything, from the table-scraps stuck on a child's puss, to the ugly garbage cans in the background. The camera has no heart; it is not blinded by your child's beauty. It sees highlights and shadows and colors and shapes, and if you want a good picture, you'd better make yourself see that way, too. At least while you're behind the camera.
3: Don't waste space in your picture. Get close to your subject and get your subjects closer together. Usually extra space means a weaker picture.
4: Include your motor vehicles. Besides the memories that a shot of the family SUV will conjure up, the most mundane vessel will eventually look exotic - even our long-gone '98 Nissan Maxima is developing a certain quaintness in the photo album.
5: In family photos, there is no such thing as "corny." Only "classic." Every child has a right to have the following shots in his album: Splashing in a bathtub; sitting in a high-chair with food all over; wearing a cute Halloween costume; blowing out birthday candles; riding a pony; and, if your religion permits, sitting on Santa's knee. Be creative, but don't omit the basics.
6: Get yourself into some of the pictures. Even if you think you don't look so great, the sad truth is that in 10 years, you'll be happy to have photographic proof that you looked as good as you do now. Besides, your kids are entitled to a complete photographic record of their childhood - and that includes you.
7: Be polite. I never understood why our attention-loving secondborn hated to be photographed, until at age 6 she explained: "When you take a picture, you say: 'Stand here, look there, open your eyes, put your arm around your sister, stand up straight,' and you don't even say 'please.' You make me mad and then you tell me to SMILE. I won't; I'M the boss of my face." I hadn't noticed how bossy most of us get when we're in pursuit of a great photo. Some kids don't seem to mind, but some do. When I remember to ask nicely for their cooperation, I get better results.
8: Candid pictures are not inherently better than posed pictures. It is a different method and yields different results, that's all. What you lose in spontaneity by posing, you can often make up in superior composition. Plus, kids have a way of bringing plenty of themselves to a posed shot. Shoot both ways. (But when a posing session with a little kid gets ugly, give it up. You won't want the kind of pictures you're going to get.)
9: Force yourself to photograph your younger kids. When our first child was born, I was the paparazzi and she was Lady Gaga. Productivity at my office took a nose-dive as I compelled co-workers to admire her. Three years later, when No. 2 came along, pictures of her were so scarce that a concerned secretary took me aside and asked in a low voice: "Is there anything WRONG with the baby?"
In a three-child family, the typical picture ratio is about 100 to 10 to 1. Besides that, in what few photos he does appear, No. 3 is always sharing the spotlight with the other two. Give the kid a break.
10: I've saved the most important advice for last. It's at the same time the easiest and the hardest to heed. It is the professionals' secret and its importance cannot be underestimated. Here it is: When you are looking at your pictures, whether they are on paper or on your computer screen, discard about two-thirds of them. Most photos are "out-takes" - no one wants to see them and the pictures themselves want to be in the trash - or sent into oblivion to have their electrons (or whatever) recycled. Most photographs are no more than a by-product of the process - like the shavings a wood-carver leaves on the floor. Pick out the good pictures and lose the rest. Be ruthless.
Take all these tips to heart and your friends will be so amazed at the quality of your work, they'll pay you the ultimate compliment: They'll ask, "What kind of camera do you have?"
Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.