Interviewer: Last time we spoke, you said you were in Simonstown recently for a family reunion. I imagine you took a few photographs of your grand-children?
Me: Absolutely. Tom has just turned two, and Gabriel turns two in July. Because Gabriel lives in London it’s not often that we get to see him, and it’s even less often that we see the two boys together. So this was a very special and uncommon occasion, and of course I had to take photos.
Interviewer: You said you weren’t going to make this a blog about photographic tips and techniques. Yet you’ve titled this post ‘how to photograph a two-year old.’ Why is that?
Me: Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about preparation, and how you envision – or ‘pre-vision’ the photographs you want to make. At one level, you want to take family photographs that everyone can share and enjoy, but you also want to go deeper – you want to find out something about who these fast-growing little people are. They might only be toddlers, but they are also little personalities.
Interviewer: Say something about ‘pre-visioning.’ What do you mean by this?
Me: In a way, I’ve just touched on it. I wanted to make images of the grandchildren that would show something of their personalities – of their moods and antics, how they engage with the world. In the images here, for instance, there is something bright and puckish about Gabriel – and just look at the mixture of truculence and charm in Tom’s expression!
But I also had a clear sense of the kind of images I wanted to make.
At this age, there is a wonderful brightness and clarity in their eyes – the gaze is completely unfiltered. Their skin is so soft and supple and plump, there is a delicacy of tone, an unblemished quality, that seems to be the voice of creation itself, and I wanted to capture something of that.
The other side of this cherubic innocence of course is the greedy physicality with which they mash their food into their mouths, the stains on their cheeks, the grubbiness and scratches and dirt, of which they are completely unaware. So you want to show some of that too.
Interviewer: So you have an idea, then, of the kind of photographs you want to make. What does that mean in terms of preparation?
Me: Well, first of all, I was flying with my wife to Cape Town, so I had to think carefully about the equipment I would take. Not just in terms of weight and bulk, but also with a view to the kinds of images I had in mind.
Interviewer: So what’s the link here? I mean, between the images you want to make and the equipment you decide to take with you?
The Leica is a smallish, mirrorless camera with a micro four-thirds sensor and a fantastic, fast, built-in zoom lens, roughly equivalent to a 24-70mm. It has fully professional controls which are very easy to use and to access – it’s a photographer’s camera, and my go-to camera in many situations. It’s great when I’m travelling, especially on business, when I don’t want to lug a big DSLR around. I’ve made 11 x 14 prints from it which are of amazingly high quality.
But there are trade-offs – there always are trade-offs. Though the electronic viewfinder is excellent, it cannot compare with the immediacy and brilliance of the big optical viewfinder on the Nikon, and being mirrorless, there is a small but noticeable lag between pressing the shutter and seeing the image in the viewfinder, so you can never be 100% sure of capturing exactly the right moment. Whereas the Nikon, on the other hand,
is practically instantaneous, and you know exactly what you’ve captured, at the moment you’ve captured it. This is hugely important when you’ve trying to a photograph a couple of two-year olds, who wriggle and bounce around like compressed springs, ricocheting from one corner of the room to the other. They have only two settings, these kids: on, and off. There’s nothing in-between.
The other consideration was simply the tonal subtlety that the larger APS-C sensor on the D500 delivers – a creaminess which the smaller Leica sensor can’t quite replicate.
Lastly, there was the question of lens. The zoom on the Leica, as I’ve said, is amazing, but for flexibility, sharpness, colour, tone, brightness, luminosity, it’s hard to beat the Nikon 17-55mm f 2.8 DX lens with its ED glass. It’s a pro-level lens, and the lens that is most usually attached to the front of my camera.
Like the Leica, the 17-55mm on a DX camera translates into a roughly 24-70mm equivalent, which is ideal for keeping track of little subjects who are ducking and weaving and lunging about, and it allows me to get in really close when I need to.
One last thing – and I’ve only recently discovered this – the ability to move the focus point around on the Nikon with a joystick that you control with your thumb means I can quickly focus on the eyes, regardless of the composition of the image – and this has made for a much higher success rate, in terms of really sharp images and bright, perfectly in-focus eyes.
So, to cut a long story short, as I thought through what the subject-matter for my image-making would be, and thought about the contexts and situations we would likely be in, and the kind of images I wanted to make – sharp, of course, but subtle, with good tonal range, as well as the ability – I haven’t mentioned this yet – to use a wide aperture to blur the background somewhat and emphasise the main subject – my choice of tools became clear: I would have to take the Nikon D500 with the 17-55mm lens. And I took a lightweight, carbon-fibre travel tripod, also, so I could shoot a couple of family group pictures with me in them, too.
Interviewer: Did you feel the need to take other lenses with you? What about that ‘just-in-case’ impulse?
Me: I did consider taking other lenses – a 35mm f 1.8 prime, for instance, or my wide-angle zoom, a 10-24mm Nikon DX lens that gives pretty good results – but in the end I decided to keep things simple, and to save the extra bulk and weight. Travelling light, right?
Interviewer: So, to sum up: there’s a lot to think about, before you press the shutter.
Me: It all starts with the pre-visualising, and the pre-planning.