How many of the birthday party pictures you've seen are kept just because they are of someone's birthday, not because it is inherently a terrific photograph?
When was the last time you heard anyone exclaim: "THIS IS REALLY A GREAT BIRTHDAY PHOTO?" Can you say... NEVER?
And yet, birthday parties are happening ALL THE TIME. You would think that "practice makes perfect," wouldn't you; but in this case... uh-uh, it apparently doesn't.
So, here we are, with another important birthday party looming on the horizon and not knowing how to improve on past "how hum" photographs. NOT THIS TIME! Follow the following 11 tips and you will need to start getting used to being asked to photograph OTHER PEOPLE'S birthday parties.
Can't-Miss Birthday Party Photo Tips
1) Prepare For the Party
Abraham Lincoln once remarked that if you're going to cut down a tree, spend 90% of your time sharpening the axe. Preparation makes any activity go better. And for birthday parties, you don't want to have to wait until next year to make up for lack of preparation, do you?
So, what should you prepare for?
KNOW THE LOCATION. Whether the party takes place in a home, party room, or amusement park; realize that each location has its own photographic "blueprint." Based on the location's blueprint, prepare beforehand for the correct digital camera settings for white balance, metering mode, and exposure compensation.
2) Know Your Obstacles
What is going to be in your way at the birthday party (excluding your drunken brother-in-law)? Are there any fixed columns, hanging plants or lights that need to be planned around? For example, if there is a fixed object right where the optimal photos should be taken from, consider setting up the main table someplace else. It's much easier to figure this out before the event than getting to the party and realizing that you need to "move the room a bit to the left."
3) The Main Table
If using rectangular tables, take the birthday party pictures FACING THE WIDE END OF THE RECTANGLE. When doing this, use the wide angle setting on your camera. If you shoot any birthday photos from the narrow end, use as large an F-stop number as possible (optimally F-22 or higher). However, even if you do, some of the guests will probably still be out of focus (hence, the "shoot from the wide end" suggestion).
4) Flash Decisions
Don't automatically assume you should use the camera's flash all the time. If your camera has a "hot shoe" (this and many other useful terms are defined at If it does, consider using a bounce flash or a diffuser.
As a real eye-opener, find out how high your ISO setting can go and see if the resulting photos are not too "noisy" (digital noise = film grain)
5) Better Safe than Sorry
Take multiple shots of the critical photographs. Consider flash/no flash; different metering modes, and different F-stops. Also, regardless of what you say or do, people will blink. And, by the way, don't count on spotting small problems on the tiny camera LCD screen (even on full magnification).
6) The Background
What does the background look like? If it's neutral - use it. If it's ugly, maximize your depth of field (smallest possible F-stop) to blur the background. If you don't write this one down, I can guarantee that you won't remember it for more than 10 seconds once you start taking photos. Also, be aware of shadows that fall prominently on your background (hence the suggestions to consider using bounce flash and no flash with a high ISO setting).
7) The LCD Display
AVOID USING THE DISPLAY TO CHECK ANYTHING OTHER THAN IF YOU CUT OFF ANYONE'S HEAD. LCD displays should NOT be used to confirm contrast, color, exposure, or any other critical factors. This is why the computer is needed to evaluate test shots prior to the party. If you are very experienced, you can tell certain things from the histogram, but to be safe - take test shots and examine the results on a computer (or, ideally a printer) way before the actual date of the party.
Have fully-charged batteries, memory cards, chargers, external flash, lens accessories, and tripod ready.
9) Construct a Birthday Party Pictures List
Jot down MUST HAVE pictures, as well as the ones you would like to capture, if possible. And, what's the good of putting together a list unless you remember to take it to the party AND TO REFER TO IT.
If you're putting together a list, may I suggest including "Candids" on it. Very often the best birthday party photos will be candids. Since most birthday photos are generally posed, candids take on a special uniqueness.
Candid birthday party photos of sleeping children should always be a top priority. Why? On a purely emotional note, they are always cute, will typically produce a smile for the viewer, and sometimes even get a laugh.
11) Surplus Time
If it's your child's birthday party, they will never look better than they do JUST BEFORE THE PARTY STARTS. If possible, locate a spot where natural light is entering a window and POSE them and the cake for some big smiling photos. (The younger the child, the less chance for smiles, so don't go crazy.)
And, by the way, there will be plenty of opportunity later to take some birthday party pictures with cake and ice cream dribbling out of their mouth.