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Documenting Childhood – The Ultimate Photography Guide {by Morvern Shaw}

Photographer’s child syndrome… the struggle is real! It’s all fun and games when we first start taking photos of our own kids, but they grow weary of our camera way too quickly!

But there is a way around it… documentary photography.

I love this style for capturing children for a few reasons.

It ensures we record those small, everyday moments that are more easily forgotten in time than the big milestone events. It pushes us to get creative in trying to make an artful image from an unposed moment. And of course, it offers the added benefit of not needing to pose our kids, or beg them to let us take their photos… again.

We can capture them at play, and record every day moments authentically without interrupting them, so the kids are happy. Everybody wins!

Morvern Shaw, who lives in Scotland with her husband and two (seriously delicious) daughters, graduated from our Enthusiast Photography Course and our Advanced Photography Course in 2017.

She has a passionate drive to ensure her daughters have strong memories of their every day childhood through photos, and that drive led her to embrace this style.


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But it does present some challenges:

You want to snap the action where it happens… but you want pretty light.

You want to capture the moments as they happen… but how do you ensure strong compositions without interfering?

You want to photograph your subjects authentically… but they might still need some direction.

And how do you direct subjects who don’t want to be directed?

Morvern does it beautifully, and she has some tips and tricks to combat all of the above and more.


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\Step One… Don’t Waste Your Fancy DSLR

“I got my first camera a short while after my first child was born and played about with it in aperture priority for a few years. I just couldn’t get my head around manual mode no matter how much I tried. I had also started to see shots that I would like to take but they never came out how I had envisaged and I simply didn’t know how to make the camera take what I wanted it to.

When I discovered the Click Love Grow photography courses I knew it was what I needed, so I enrolled in the Enthusiast Photography Course, and later the Advanced Photography Course.

It was one of the best things I have ever done for myself.

I now have the ability to document my girls growing up in a way that I could never have done by myself, and a hobby that gives me an escape from the stress of running my own small business whilst looking after two wee people.


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DIY Photo Opportunities

I shoot for fun and to give the girls something tangible from their childhood to look back on. Growing up, my mum had so many photo albums that we all looked through regularly, and I am certain that is the reason I have such vivid childhood memories cemented in my mind.

I want my girls to have that too, and that’s what drives me to pick up the camera. My preferred approach is lifestyle/documentary, so I can tell the story of their childhoods and our day to day lives.

I regularly plan outings specifically with the intention of photographing it.

This is one of the things that I love most about my photography… it encourages us to explore new places and do things as a family that we might not otherwise think to do.


I often have an idea of what might look nice in photos, and then search for a location or activity that fits with my vision.

This shoot was exactly that… I had seen a lot of apple picking shots from American photographers so I googled to see if there was an apple orchard nearby.

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I discovered our local fruit picking place that we visit regularly for their strawberries, park and farm animals also had an apple orchard and sunflowers!

I had no idea until I went searching for it.

The sunflowers were a bonus as I love a pop of yellow in my photos.


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Working With The Available Light

When you’re photographing in this way, you can’t ensure all the action happens in open shade.
I often wait around for soft light at these sessions, so I recommend allowing yourself a lot of time to do that. You can also control the light somewhat by picking a time of the day when the sun is diffused. I ensured this outing took place in late afternoon when the sun is getting low in the sky. However, the sun was still a little high when we started out, so it was reasonably strong (by UK standards!), and the initial shots were taken as the sun was popping in and out of the clouds.
By the time I took the shots with the sunflowers it was much more overcast and threatening to rain, hence the beautiful rainbow in one. I actually had no idea I had caught it in the frame until I got them into post, a happy little surprise 🙂
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Sneaky Direction!

I think my top tip for this style of photography would have to be patience. If you want to catch genuine moments then you have to be prepared to sit back and wait and watch.
When I try to direct the girls or ask them to do something specific, they will often just say no.
Instead, I will draw them to pretty light or a pretty location, by asking for them help with something, or finding something in that spot that will interest them, then stepping back and capturing it. I’m also not averse to the odd bribe at times 🙂
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In order to get them to stop for portrait shots without obviously posing them, I aim to catch the girls when they have something to focus on.
When they had flowers or apples in their hands I could ask them to show them to me, which is a great way to get them to stop and encourage them to look at the camera.
Also Daddy is often behind me making some sort of silly face or other to catch their attention too… that is his job along with carrying my gear!
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Another tip is to take some test shots to get your settings ready, and decide how you want to compose a shot before you call them over, so that it only takes a few seconds to get what you need.
My girls also love to look at the shots on the back of the camera so I will let them do that, and that often encourages them to let me take another few shots. Sometimes my big girl will suggest shots she’d like to do, and it’s worthwhile doing them because in return she’ll then do the ones Mummy wants!

Create Interesting Compositions

I love to get creative with my compositions, but this is challenging when you can’t control the set up. I’ll often step back and shoot through something to frame the girls. 
I find this is a great way to take a shot that might otherwise just be a snap and turn it into something more spectacular.
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Also vary your angles, perspectives and distances. I shoot only with prime lenses, so this means I need to move around a lot and I swear anyone watching us when we are out must think I’m a crazy person!
I have been known to lie flat on my back in the middle of the park or a museum just to try a different angle.
For variation I also make sure I capture close up details such as the apples in their basket which mixes up the series, and helps tell the whole story. In fact capturing more details and close ups is something I am trying to work on this year.
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The Perfect Documentary Lens

I shot this whole session on my Canon 85mm f/1.8. For this kind of session, 85mm is the perfect balance in that it enables me to step back enough to capture the girls without interfering in what they’re doing, whilst still being close enough to to feel safe, at times when it’s just the three of us.
It is my favourite lens for that reason, and also for its beautiful bokeh.

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I prefer to shoot wide open and most of these shots were taken between f/1.8 and f/2.8.

If I could get away with using that lens inside then it would literally never come off my camera but on my crop sensor that is just a bit too tight. So my 35mm is my go to lens for indoors, and times when I want to catch more of the scene but can’t step back far enough.

I try to keep my shutter speed above 1/160s at the least, but ideally 1/250s and that way I am always ready to catch them even if they are on the move.
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 If this session inspired you, head over to Instagram to see more of Morvern’s gorgeous photos!
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