Photo Tips– Documenting Life’s Events

There are really only 2 kinds of events: recurring annual events and milestones.

A University of Redlands graduate leaves the commencement with flowers and balloons. I had a wideangle lens on my camera when I saw this and there wasn’t time to change to something longer to isolate her.
I hurriedly jumped the seats and got to the end of the row where I anticipated she would pass and I waited for her to come into the frame.



Sorry for stating the obvious here, but these are the so-called once-a-life time biggies. Ones so important that you sometimes associate with a song or piece of music.

A partial list of milestones may be the following:

  • Graduations–happy, fun event but rife with access problems.
  • Weddings–can be easy or tough depending on your level of experience. Just don’t get in the way of the professional whose job is to officially document the day.
  • Births–believe it or not, I had some friends who wanted this documented. I wouldn’t want a stranger to do this though. I do wonder when and with whom you can share these pictures even if they’re PG-rated.

  • First Communions–formal or posed portraits are the norm. Live coverage offers spontaneous moments which are often priceless.
  • First haircuts–the “firsts” are not necessarily very meaningful but they can be a lot of fun to look back at these pictures. The first fish your child catches can be fun too.

Recurring Events


The list below is fairly obvious. Your subjects may not change over the years but that doesn’t mean your photography can’t improve if you do a lot of these.

The key is to come up with a different way of looking at the same subject. No, don’t stop taking the same  pictures you took the year before, be bold and experiment.

  • Birthdays–hardest to find a fresh approach
  • Halloween–mostly for the costumes young children but priceless to parents
  • Vacation Trips–best prospects for great pictures simply because of different locales
  • Special Christmas programs–difficult due to poor lighting, accessibility

Better Milestone Pictures

The picture on the right shows how mums respond so differently from dads. The picture was taken during a First Communion with my Canon Powershot G3.
I was told no photography allowed during the ceremony. I sneaked in my point-and-shoot camera. Of course I disabled the flash and shot available light. ISO 400 1/40sec @ f2.

Based on subject and setting of each event, your approaches will vary.

In the first group of events which I call Milestones, they are very important, just ask my wife. So don’t blow it, there’s no pressure.

When I worked at the paper and was very new, this sort of anxiety was normal. But a technic I learned in flying school called “bunk flying” helps. It’s nothing more than pre-visualizing everything you think you’ll encounter in your head at the event.

Everything right down to the equipment you’ll bring and where you’ll pose your subjects. It ,of course, helps if you’ve been to the venue of the event preferably at the designated time. You want to get an idea of not only what the place looks like but also the lighting, hence the “time” element.

The picture I captured of my son winning his first medal (3rd from left) in a 50 m relay required some luck and anticipation. I didn’t have access to a very long telephoto lens which I grew accustomed to while working for the newspaper.
So I had to anticipate and get into position early. Taken with a 80-200 mm zoom, wide open aperture f2.8 @ 1/2000 sec ISO 100.
I should have done better. How say you? See the kids on the right looking skywards and praying? I cropped him off! Wasn’t watching the entire frame. I was too caught up with my own son’s team.

Mind you, when I worked for the newspaper, there are few instances when I can ask for something to be repeated or as they say in golf, ask for a “mulligan” or a “do-over.”

Imagine asking for a repeat of the action when a baseball play occurs at home plate and you weren’t paying attention.

So what’s your best chance of capturing those once-in-a-lifetime moments?

Be prepared

Have all your gear in one bag. Keep your camera, flash, lenses and other accessories like extra memory cards in one bag. That way all you need to do is to grab it and you’re ready.Remember, digital cameras without charged batteries are a paperweight. A camera with a full memory card is also a paperweight–both are good only for war stories.

Scout the location beforehand

Figure out where the light is for a particular venue or scene. In a church where there are stain glass windows and big doors, there will be spots where it is brighter than others. Be ready to shoot your subject at those spots.

Set Realistic Goals


If all you have is a short telephoto, realize you’re limited by your equipment.

Either wait till your subject is closer, or try and get closer.

If you’re shooting with a digital camera that has RAW capability, you could try taking your picture in that mode.

Shooting in RAW is like  using a telephoto lens because you are capturing at the highest resolution you camera is capable of.

It will allow you to crop in, make your tiny subject bigger and just maybe allow you to get a decent image.

Because you don’t have access to be front-and-center to most events, be realistic as to the kinds of pictures you can get. If all you have is a short telephoto, don’t expect to get tight closeup shots. Instead wait for pictures with wide angles or pictures that you can take after an event is winding down.

As an example, graduations are great happy events to photograph, but you will be most hampered by lack of equipment and limited access.

Better Recurring/Annual Pictures

Just because you’ve shot some of these annual events over and over doesn’t mean they need to be boring. Sure, shoot the same picture you did last year but push yourself to come up with something different.

Assess the lighting

candles2Have you stopped to think how those birthday cake scenes look with the room lights turned off?

Well, it actually looks very warm, inviting and nostalgic.

So next time you’re ready to shoot this scene and it’s indoors, turn off the lights.

If you have time, consider also changing the White Balance.

Don’t forget there is no hurry. You can tell them to re-light the candles or wait while you check your camera’s LCD as you make some tests.

Try a different viewpoint

If you’ve shot the quintessential blowing out the candles every year, try shooting from a different position or use a different lens.

A wide angle from close up from right up next to the cake by the candles can be a different view. This has the added benefit of allowing you to brace your camera in a low light situation.

abbyLet the kids take their own picture

Set up a makeshift photo studio. All you need is backdrop and camera on a tripod. Most cameras have a self-timer. You can try that or you can let them trip the shutter themselves if you can spare one camera on a tripod.

Do at least one group shot at the same location.

A group shot at the same location will show how everyone has changed year after year. If the same guests attend, this can be a great record to show how children have grown or changed. These need not be prize-winning pictures. They are mainly for the record type pictures.

Look for details and closeups.

An adult’s hand holding a newborn’s always makes for a nice intimate detail shot.

Finally while these are all events in your life, don’t forget to gather important details like brochures of the places you camped. Years later, that information will add more meaning to your memories.

While you’re doing that, you might want to consider “ripping” or digitizing the songs or music of the event to use for multimedia or slideshows.

Remember, with digital images and computers, it doesn’t take any effort to create such presentations.

If you’re planning to add music to your slideshow to share on youTube, you should stick with music that you have paid to use. youTube sometimes doesn’t accept videos with copyrighted music and all that work would be for nothing.

2 thoughts on “Photo Tips– Documenting Life’s Events”

  1. Even though professional photographers have better equipment and access to “exotic” lenses, that doesn’t guarantee great images.
    Being observant and having a good sense of anticipation when something special will happen is just as important.
    The picture of the teary -eyed mum in the church and the graduate with balloons and flowers were taken with a wide angle. All within the capabilities of most point-and-shoot cameras.
    Thanks for sharing DeeAnn.
    Hope you like the collage I added to the blog. It actually has music as well. Try it.

  2. Peter, I agree with planning what you want to shoot and having an idea where you can get it before event happens is very important. That doesn’t mean staking out a spot so much and knowing how & when you’ll get there.
    Limiting gear to just what you need equals mobility and getting close to what you visualized at an event. I hated being overwhelmed with too much gear. Not only did it limit getting in and out of tight places (crowded with people watching event) but sometimes would make photographer stand out and influence participants, changing a photojournalist event into a ‘ribbon-cutting’ event.

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