Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera, and you can come along if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

As a professional photographer, I find myself not photographing my kids as much as I used to. It’s not necessarily a bad thing since I tend to sit back and enjoy the moment more when I leave my camera in the bag, but when their birthdays came and went earlier this year I realized it had been a long time since I sat them down for an actual portrait session. Annnnnd, I still didn’t do anything about it, until my sister called me up one day lamenting about the crappy school portraits she felt obligated to buy, “Anything would be better than these,” she said, and wondered if I could take a quick portrait of her kids instead. 

So, we put a date on the calendar and made it happen. We decided if it was nice weather we would do it in my backyard. If it was raining we could do it in my living room. We got lucky and it was actually a nice day. I had dyed a cheap canvas painter’s cloth I picked up at Harbor Freight tools for the occasion, and while it didn’t exactly turn out the way I had envisioned, it worked out just fine. In fact, the color actually lends a very “school portrait” feel to the images, but I spent a lot more time with the kids eliciting some genuine expressions, which is a practically impossible feat with toddlers, preschoolers, and silly, silly school aged boys.

The Mobile Portrait Studio SetUp & GEar


For these simple studio style portraits in my backyard, I used a very affordable setup. It’s so quick and easy to make a little mobile studio anywhere I go with this gear. Here’s my list of gear for your convenience:

Manfrotto Backdrop Stand

Pony Clamps

Lightstand & Softbox

Stool or Chair\

Canon Speedlite (I use the 430 EX II)

Radio Trigger for Speedlite (I use these from Cowboy Studio)

Canon 5D Mark III

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens

I set up the backdrop in the shadow of a tree in my backyard, grabbed a stool for the kids to sit on and set up the umbrella soft box with speed light and triggers on a light stand. It took about 5 minutes, and the cleanup is equally quick.

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The Lighting


Golden hour was approaching so I decided to use that light coming up over the trees to highlight the camera-right side of the hair and face and use my flash on the left side to fill in the shadows.

Not sure where to place your subject so the light is hitting them just right? Try the hand trick from Photography 101. Using the flash plus ambient light technique taught in Lighting 101 chapter 2, I was able to get a natural light look using both the flash and golden ambient light available.



The exif data for these images are ISO 100, 70mm, f/4.0, 1/200 sec. My flash was set to 1/8 power, so it was just adding a pop of fill light for a really natural look.

If you don’t have a backdrop


The flash plus ambient lighting technique can come in really handy when you don’t have a backdrop or want to show your natural surroundings in the photo. I gave this a try using the fence as my backdrop, and the golden hour light back-lighting my subjects. Without a flash here, the face would be very dark if you don’t want to blow out the background.


Natural Light Only


For full body shots of the girls twirling in their dresses, I turned off my flash. The Canon 430 EXII just doesn’t sync fast enough for me to shoot rapid shots in a row without high speed sync, so I chose to use ambient light only in this kind of situation, plus, I wanted to see a little motion blur in the dresses. The settings for this image were ISO 100, 70mm, f/3.5, 1/125 sec.

The Expressions


One of the most rewarding things for me about photographing kids is when I persist in working with them and finally get a genuine expression on camera. There are a few tricks I have up my sleeve and they don’t really involve any fancy gadgets or technology.

First of all, I prefer the parents and other siblings leave the area. Sure, they can watch from around the corner or another room, but I tend to get the best engagement when it’s just me and the kiddo. These kids are all familiar with me and love to have their photo taken so the only obstacle really was just removing the other kids from the vicinity because they were causing a distraction. I put my sister in charge of wrangling the others and sending them out to me one at a time.


Aside from one-on-one, free of distraction time, I am just really patient in giving directions to the kids and having a conversation with them. With the really little ones, when they wanted to sit on the stool for a picture we went with it and I had to be quick. When they decided they were done, they were done and I let them go. And guess what? They eventually came back in saying “My turn!” so I grabbed a few more shots. Forcing a toddler to sit and smile when he doesn’t want to is a recipe for disaster.


The older boys just wanted to pull silly faces and make fart noises, so it takes a little patience to get a real smile from them, too. You don’t get that on picture day at school. You remember the drill: Sit down, smile, take the picture. That’s it.

create Your own picture day

So, when was the last time you photographed your own kids? I encourage you to schedule your own picture day and set up a little mobile studio with whatever gear you happen to have, and this doesn’t have to be for school portraits. It will be fun and you’ll get much better results with genuine expressions you can cherish for a lifetime (and send to the Grandma’s right now).

Photographs by Tanya Smith are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.