How to make your baby more attractive

10Sep08
My camera can do lots of things I dont understand.

My camera can do lots of things I don't understand.

Very often, the role of family photographer is heaped squarely upon Dad’s shoulders. For the most techie dads, the baby simply represents a new and exciting subject for a photographer’s eye that has been carefully honed over the years, largely from taking photos of vacations, portraits of the dog and snaps of passed-out frat brothers with writing on their faces.

For others, it represents an intimidating new responsibility. There are a million brands and models.  And there are also a million better places than this blog to get recommendations on exactly which one to buy.

But I do think a few special considerations should be kept in mind when you’re about to become a photo-taking dad.  There’s just a bit of a difference between selecting a camera that will best help you take photos of your friends’ beer goggle accidents and choosing and using one to capture cherished memories of your child.

So I asked someone who is both a dad to an infant and a bit of an expert on photography a few questions. Joe Hoetzl joins us for the first ever Dad or Bust interview…

Hi, Joe. Thanks for your help. Let’s get right to the most pressing question of the day. How much do I have to spend to get a camera that will make my child look more attractive?

$200 will get you something that will work nicely. $2000 will get you something where the main limiting factor is the eye behind the viewfinder.

My old camera has 4 megapixels. The new one I’m looking at has 12 of them. Doing the math, does this mean my child will be three times more attractive with my new camera?

No, but even the smallest booger will be really clear in prints! Let’s look at this chart:

Acceptable when printed at:
2 MP –  4×6″
3 MP – 5×7″
4 MP – 6×8″
6 MP – 8×10″
8 MP – 10×14″
12 MP+ 16×24″

Note the “when printed” part. If you are only planning on displaying the photos on the web, just about any megapixel count will do. If you do plan on making poster sized prints, or selling the photos to an agency or something like that, then a minimum of 8MP is recommended. Can a 2MP photo be printed at 8×10? Sure, but it will look a bit fuzzy.

Beyond the megapixel number, there are other factors involved here, such as the size of the sensor where those pixels are captured. In your typical point and shoot camera, the sensor may be the size of your pinky nail, while on a digital SLR (DSLR), it would be closer to Michael Phelps’ big toenail. This becomes a factor in other aspects of the image quality as well. Here’s a good reference.

Enough about Michael Phelps already. For the record, my abs are WAY funnier than his, so I don’t know how he got the gig on SNL over me. Anyway.

My child can never seem to hold his pose long enough for my camera to take his picture. Do I have a stupid baby? How can I make him seem smarter?

Don’t worry about Buster. Heck, most adults won’t hold a pose long enough while you are waiting for a camera to cycle, especially if you are using the built-in flash.

That’s my biggest pet peeve with digital point and shoot cameras – every one of them that I have used. A DSLR will cycle on an order of magnitude faster than any compact or P&S camera. If you want that rapid-fire mode, get a DSLR. Yes, I am aware of point and shoots that claim 60 frames per second in video mode. Will it work to isolate a single image to display on the web? Yes. Will that image make a great print? Probably not.

This is not a Digital SLR.

This is not an DSLR.

Hey, I just got a Digital SLR. I don’t know what that really means but the SLR part sounded sweet, like it could be an 1980s Datsun model that was reviewed in one of my dad’s Penthouse magazines. So far, it makes me look pretty cool, like I could pop out from somewhere and take a bunch of shots of a B-list celebrity getting sick on her car hood. But why else did I buy it again?

SLR stands for single-lens reflex, which simply means that there is one lens, and what you are looking at through the viewfinder is exactly what will be captured. There are other aspects to the design, but for our purposes, the reasons for buying a DSLR are plenty:

  • Speed/Cycle time – like I said, you’ll actually catch that smile as it happens
  • Interchangeable lenses – from fisheye to wide angle to super telephoto and beyond
  • “It’s what the pros use” – well, not all of them, but most
  • Ability to use off-camera flash for portraits and other purposes (Most point and shoots don’t have this, although some more expensive models do)

My motor skills and general physical presence have sometimes been compared to a young wildebeest’s. Are there any cameras specifically made for people who drop things a lot?

I don’t normally like to name brands in these sorts of things, but I will make one exception. I have a first hand account of the durability of the Olympus Stylus SW series. My dad, an avid fly fisherman who practices catch and release, released the wrong hand after capturing a photo of the trout, and down went the camera, into the stream and off a few rocks. He waded down, grabbed the camera, and much to his amazement, was able to use it for the rest of the trip with no problems. It is still in working order today, 4 months or so later. (This was a 770SW)

There are other brands out that claim this sort of durability, but most DSLRs or “Prosumer” level cameras will not be very durable when bounced off the sidewalk. Expect a $200 repair bill at minimum, which may mean you’re better off getting a new camera. So get a good case for it and use the strap every time you use your camera.

Joe was right.  Google Images has lots of showering women.

Joe was right. Google Images worked like a charm.

Do I want a camera that is small enough to swallow or one that can zoom well enough to see the neighbor lady before her nightly shower?

You want a camera that you are comfortable holding and one where your fingers can easily hit the on/off switch without making the battery eject. The major benefit of the compact point and shoots is that you are much more likely to have it with you when something magical happens. If you go all out and get that $2000 DSLR setup, chances are you won’t want to drag it to the park with you, and unless you have large pockets, it won’t go there either.

That said, if you are looking to take a photo for the cover of a magazine, it probably won’t be with the compact point and shoot. At some point you have to decide what it is you are after – snapshots or supershots. Consider that you may want one camera for each.

The other thing that comes to mind is the batteries. If you forget your charger (and you will), it’s nice when you can just go to the store and get some AA’s and be back in business. Many, many cameras use proprietary batteries. If you want something as usable as possible, get one that uses standard AA’s, but this is becoming harder and harder to find as the manufacturers look to cash in on the proprietary batteries. Oh, and if you really want amateur shower photos, search Google images.

What kinds of tiny indecipherable icons should appear on the dials and buttons of my new digital camera?

As many as possible. My favorite icon is “M”, put most people will be happy enough with “P” or “AUTO”. Sure, there are other “modes” that your camera may have, and every different brand has a different icon for the same meaning, but what those modes are really doing is setting Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO settings, and sometimes white balance and exposure compensation. Unless you are using a camera that makes it easy to change these values, you are probably better off using “AUTO”. The key here is how many clicks of the menu/dial it takes to get to these modes. If it’s on a physical dial/button, it takes less time to get to the right mode. You don’t want to be struggling to navigate some hideous menu just as your baby is taking his first steps.

Consider more modern recommendations.

Consider more modern recommendations. And hair.

I have a Sony computer. Does that mean I need a Sony camera? Oh wait, I also have a Canon printer. And an HP calculator. And I like that song by Paul Simon where he mentions his Nikon. Does any of this matter?

There are a few things that come to mind when I talk about brands.

Have you used a brand before? I ask this because you are more likely to be familiar with those icons as they tend to stay the same within brands, and you’ll find it more intuitive.

In general, I like to stick with brands that make cameras as one of their primary businesses, not something that a company just churned out so they don’t lose out on people who think they must buy the same brand as their computer and calculator.

For SLRs, I think brand matters even more. But there are other reasons to choose besides good feelings about a brand. Lenses from non-digital SLRs made in the nineties generally work on the modern models, so if you’ve got your dad’s Canon lenses laying around collecting dust, you’re probably best off getting a Canon. You can’t stick a Canon lens on a Nikon without spending a bunch of money on adapters, or vice versa.

Is digital zoom what you use if you can’t get a date with real zoom?

No, digital zoom is what you use if you don’t know how to use your favorite photo editor’s crop tool. One of the first things I do is disable this, as the exact same result can be achieved using the crop tool. Optical zoom is the ONLY zoom to use.

How big of a memory card do I need on my camera if we never leave our house because we have a newborn baby? What if I do get to go outside someday?

Certainly the number of photos you’re taking matters, but the answer here probably depends more on how many megapixels your camera boasts, and at what resolution you are capturing images.

Two 2GB cards for most point-and-shoots or two 4GB cards for most DSLRs will do for just about any camera in production as of this writing. With ever-expanding camera capabilities and users’ thirst for images, that is subject to change by the time you get to the end of this sentence.

If I hand my Digital SLR to my mother-in-law, can she just press a button or will she be panicked by the complexity and just try to make it seem like she took a picture by saying “CACLICK” loudly?

Again, AUTO isn’t so bad these days. No, you won’t have any Ansel Adams shots coming from it, but as long as your mother-in-law can hold the weight of it, and press the shutter, and you do all the setup, you will be fine. Again, you don’t want to be stumbling around with all sorts of modes and settings – get super-familiar with your camera well before you want to capture some magical moment.

Never wear a suit here again.

Never wear a suit here again.

The line at the Sears is really long and the people that work there look kind of sad. How can I avoid listening to a man cry even as he smiles and squeaks a toy at my kid?

There are entire books written on taking good portraits. But here are some quick tips:

  • Get help. Mom, Grandpa, Grandma, Aunts, Uncles, friends, etc. Managing a baby, propped up on things, held like a ventriloquist, takes great care and caution. Get enough people out of the view, but keep them close enough to grab, hold, move and position things.
  • Get the lighting right. Natural light is always the easiest, but it’s not always possible. When indoors, you’ll need to make sure you don’t have shadows and unnatural looking hues. Get a piece of foamcore and put it on the floor in front of the shoot. This will bounce some light back up under the nose/chin area and make the photo look a bit more natural. If you are using flash, do not point it directly at the baby. No, they won’t freak out (most of the time), but they will look like a deer baby in headlights. If your only option is on-camera flash, get a ping-pong ball, or some other material like it (piece of a shower curtain, tissue paper, something) and let the light bounce/pass through it. Check out one of my contraptions, which I created more easily than you’d think. The difference that these methods can make will shock you.
A Fabergé egg makes for an interesting prop, if you have one of those.

A Fabergé egg makes for an interesting prop, if you have one of those.

  • Get creative with backgrounds and props. That receiving blanket might be ok to use for a few, but it gets old fast. Plus, it’s nasty when there’s spit up stains in the background. Consider more interesting props than the rattle and other typical baby items. Use over-sized or really undersized items. For some real impact, use that at first glance seems out of visual context, like a bottle of wine with the same vintage year as your child.
  • Get your point and shoot to behave like a “pro” camera. Forget “portrait mode” – zoom your lens to full telephoto, and back up as far as you can without falling off the Grand Canyon or into Buckingham fountain. I call this “sneakerzoom.” Using telephoto and feet fills the frame with your subject and has the effect of compressing space, which to most people is pleasing. By contrast, wide angle can introduce all sorts of distortions, which can be either annoying, or fun if you find ways to use it to your advantage.
  • Use proper posture. The latest trend spurred by point and shoots is to ignore the optical viewfinder and rely solely on the LCD to compose a shot. As a result, people often hold the camera at an arm’s length as they frame it. This creates unintended motion that makes it harder to create a good shot. Look at the way racecar drivers hold a steering wheel. They are usually tucked up, arms bent to the wheel. Why? For strength and stability. If you want steadier shots, tuck your elbows into your sides and make yourself stiff. If the camera has an optical viewfinder, use it, because it tends to make you avoid the added shake that makes photos fuzzier.

So far, I’ve taken 200 photos of Buster in his car seat. My uncle thinks I lost my job and now live inside a Toyota. Got any other ideas for venues?

Try getting down low with your little one. Most boring baby snapshots are taken while hovering over the model. You’ve all seen that in the crib overheard shot they use in 99% of hospital shots. Instead, try shooting through the bars of the crib, or get down on the floor and shoot at eye level.

Do go out to a park, place a baby blanket on the grass and shoot. And do take that wicker basket with baby in photo. But don’t forget that the best photos may not be portraits at all. Focus on capturing the real milestones as they happen, not just the moments you create by making the baby pose perfectly for you.

Any other tips?

Remember, safety first. I meant what I said about not falling off the Grand Canyon.

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7 Responses to “How to make your baby more attractive”

  1. I don’t have a baby, but I have a cat. (Single chick’s version of a baby!) I have taken about 487,463 pictures of him so far (last week) and have been puzzling over a camera upgrade since mine is for poo. (I know you like “Poo” here at Dad or Bust.)

    I am studying every word of this blog in the attempt to further my education in the ins and outs of digital cameras. Especially that part about not falling off the Grand Canyon.

    LOVE this post!

  2. lol – loved this post. Both the humor and tips – and I’m bookmarking it now. =) Thanks for sharing!

  3. 3 Katherine

    haha! this was my first time on your blog and i loved it. i’m a college student, so it will definitely be a long time before i have to worry about making my baby more attractive, but this will be a helpful post to reference when i save up enough money to buy a camera for general (non-baby) purposes.

  4. 4 il

    Thanks for all the love, ladies. My guess is the men out there are pretending they already knew all this.

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