A mother picks her son up to hug, both of them wearing sunglasses. Photo by Christian Anderl.


Christian Anderl's tips for capturing natural family portraits

For Austrian pro photographer Christian Anderl, documenting the precious moments of family life has become as important at home as in his work. The former Canon Ambassador is known for his candid and intimate portraits in his professional photography. Plus, he also shares tender moments of his family life on his Instagram account, showing the world as explored by his young son.

By his own admission, fatherhood changed his life. Becoming a father also inspired his Fatherhood project, a portrait series where fathers talk about their experiences, share their ups and downs, and offer advice to others. People have long formed the core of Christian's work, but capturing family moments is of particular importance to him.

"When I'm old and my son has left home, I'm going to be sad because he's not here any more," he says. "I can sit down on my couch and look at all these pictures of when he was a baby. He's going to be six this summer and I found some pictures that I took when he was one year old, and he's already making me feel old by growing so fast. Time's running pretty fast... I think we should remind ourselves, by taking pictures, how fast they leave. It makes us a little bit more patient with our children, when you're looking at these pictures and remembering that."

Here, Christian shares his top five tips and techniques to help capture genuine family fun. Follow his advice to take natural, candid family portraits.

1. Leave your phone in your pocket

"When you pick up your camera, you are more aware of taking pictures," says Christian, an advocate for putting your phone down in order to take more considered images with a camera. "You don't just snap whatever happens with one hand, as you do with a smartphone; you try more, and I think you take better pictures."

In addition, switching to a camera reduces your screen time, something Christian has been focusing on recently with a digital detox. "I don't want to watch a screen all day, and if I take pictures only with smartphones, that just adds to my screen time. I want to put my eye on a viewfinder and be aware of that moment."

There are also technical benefits to using a camera rather than your phone, Christian believes, such as physical controls to change settings including shutter speed and aperture. He also often prefers a viewfinder for composing a picture. "There is a lot of software that tries to simulate the look of a real lens, but it's not the same... you can't beat a big sensor and lens, in my opinion." While entry-level cameras such as the Canon EOS M50 add these physical controls, currently an average smartphone in an equivalent category lacks these.

2. Be ready for the genuine moment

When you're taking pictures of children, you have to be ready for anything. Having a camera with fast autofocus capability and focus tracking, such as the Canon EOS R, the EOS 80D or the EOS M50, means you can anticipate the moment and capture fast action, without worrying that the critical subject is blurred.

"I want to put my eye on a viewfinder and be aware of that moment."

"You need quick autofocus for taking pictures of kids," says Christian. "This is what you should be looking for in a camera. Everything else depends on your budget. Everybody always asks me which camera they should buy, but I always say that you first need to think of the lenses. Maybe you'll need a new lens and not a new camera, because the speed and optical quality of the lens is even more important than the camera."

Family photography also requires a degree of pragmatism. "Whenever I feel that someone doesn't like to be photographed any more, I just put my cameras to the side," says Christian. "If someone doesn't want you to take their picture, you will never get a good picture of them. Especially with kids, you can't force kids to have their picture taken, so just accept it and try later."

A boy smiles as bubbles float around him. Photo by Christian Anderl.

3. Experiment with different focal lengths

"For family pictures, I think you need at least two different focal lengths," says Christian. "For me, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens is the sweet spot for a portrait. You get a shallow depth of field with the 85mm, so you can separate the face from the background. It's long enough to be 'correct' – if you use a 35mm or a 50mm, you get this distortion and a bigger nose. As a portrait photographer, I need to talk to people while I'm taking pictures of them, so the 85mm is a good mid-range choice – you can't go wrong with it."

While Christian favours the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens for portraiture, he also feels you can shoot great images at 35mm. "I think a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens is good for almost everything. Whenever you don't have the answer, just grab a 35mm and you will be able to do something, even a portrait. You have to keep in mind that it will distort the face a little bit but, on the other hand, you get an intimate look because you're getting closer to the face."

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A man stands in the sea and throws his son in the air. Photo by Christian Anderl.

4. Always think of the background first

While your attention is likely to be on your subjects – especially fast-moving children – it's important to consider what you're shooting against, says Christian: the background is a key component of your composition and one that is often overlooked.

"Background-first is one of the only rules I really try to teach in photography, because this is something that most people underestimate or forget. They're so focused on the foreground, on the subject, on the focus, on the lighting, on the exposure, on all that stuff, that they forget that the background doesn't look so good. With children who are playing, it might be hard, but try to find your background first and then place your subject against this."

There's no right or wrong background for portraits – it depends on how it fits with your subject – but the setting is something you should be thinking of while shooting. "Everything can be a good background and everything can be a bad background. Try to get a feeling for colours that are good for each other and ones that are not. If the background is really ugly, then use a wide open aperture and a long lens to try to make it less sharp, so it's just colours in the background. If there is one spot, like a red car where everything else is blue and moody, then try to avoid it."

A small boy stands on top of a hill, seagulls flying in an arc above him. Photo by Christian Anderl.

Shooting with a camera gives you unparalleled opportunities to make the most of your photos, from greater editing potential through to the chance to print pictures at scale. Christian has a huge print of his favourite photo, of his wife and son playing around while dune surfing in New Zealand, hanging on his wall at home.

"I took some lucky shots when they were running down the dune," he says. "My son was laughing so much, and I love this picture. Every time I see it, I have to smile and I feel like I'm back in New Zealand." Sharing family memories is easier when the images have been taken at a high resolution that allows printing at A2 or poster size – something I have not been able to achieve with a photo taken on a phone.

It's not only printing, there's also the editing process. "You have so many more editing possibilities with a good RAW file from a camera than just grabbing a JPEG out of a phone. You can define the feeling and mood of a picture by just picking the right colours. By not editing, you only use about 50% of photography."

Finally, the connectivity built into modern cameras also means you can transfer images straight from your camera – to your tablet to show around on the spot, or to your phone to post online, bringing higher quality to your social media feed. With the Canon Print app on your mobile device and a compatible Canon printer, you can even create high quality prints, wirelessly.

A mother runs down a sand dune, pulling her son along, both of them laughing. Photo by Christian Anderl.

Christian has challenged family blogger Katja Gaskell to improve her family photography by stepping away from her smartphone and into a new realm using the Canon EOS M50. A travel writer and blogger at Globetotting, Katja has been shooting photos of her three children around the world using her phone. Now she's testing out the many new techniques she can achieve with a camera. See how she got on, and try these family photography challenges yourself.

Written by Lucy Fulford

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