When it comes to photographing children (notice how I didn’t say shooting kids!), your best bet is to shoot with a flattering focal length and you can never go wrong with a 50mm prime (fixed focal length) lens. Now, with that being said there is a quite a bit of reasoning that goes into it and I can get all nerdy here and explain intricate details but there’s no need if you’re just looking for a simple answer. The simple answer is that wide angle lenses tend to make people look, well, wider. More specifically it distorts facial features and widens them when you’re shooting up close an personal, and that’s how most people are photographing their children. People might say to you out loud, “Oh, look at little Timmy. How cute”, but inside they are saying, “Man, that kid has a huge honker!”.
If you’re wondering which brand to go with that is one question I cannot truthfully answer as there is no right or wrong. I have shot with the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5D, both are the flagship bodies for each company and I like them each for different reasons but the latter is what I use professionally every day. I had a conversation about this with the renowned photographer and photoshop guy, Scott Kelby, last year. He is a Nikon shooter but he agreed as we discussed the benefits of each brand; it’s a win-win situation. There’s other great reputable brads out there too, such as Olympus, that also make top notch gear. I like the Canon 40D for a mid range body, as well as some of the Rebel series. For Nikon mid range I suggest the D5100.
As for Nikon and Canon, they both make 50mm f1.4 lenses for the digital SLR bodies that are sturdy and fast; they cost around $450 which make them affordable and impressive. When you’re choosing a lens the lower the f-stop, the faster the lens. It easy terms, this means the lens aperture can open up wider allowing more light in. Faster lenses means better efficiency in lower light situations, and not having to rely on your camera’s pop up flash-which is a guaranteed way to make unflattering, less attractive photos. Faster lenses almost always mean a fatter price tag as well. Another affordable option without dropping a grand is the Canon or Nikon 85mm f1.8- this is an excellent portraiture lens, again with a solid construction and crisp image production. I shoot exclusively with Canon L series lenses, but I do keep the 50mm f1.4 in my gear bag for back up shooter or if I’m allowing one of my own children to use learn on my cameras. My most prized portrait lens is my Canon 85mm f.12L…definitely off limits for my ten year old to practice with since it would take 5 years allowance to replace it!
Another plus is most of the consumer line up for Canon and Nikon consists of cropped sensor frame bodies which will mean that whatever lens you choose it will most likely be magnified by x-amount crop factor, depending on your specs. For instance, once you pop that 50mm lens on the body of your choice chances are you may be shooting upwards of the equivalent of a 85mm lens.
Lastly, you make be asking why not a nice zoom lens? Something telephoto that allows me to get up close from a far distance. Well, for me, I find that for someone just looking to take clear and sharp photos of their kids there is no affordable option for a good zoom lens. Why waster your money on something that will produce poor images when you can save up for the real deal? There is a big debate and will always be about the crispness of a prime lens versus that of the telephoto and again it’s one of those things that I can go both ways with. Again, I won’t go geek on you and give you technical useless information but back to simple facts: cheap zoom lenses that come with kit camera (body plus lens) are just that…cheap. The image quality is inferior and they will never compete with their quality counterparts. I use telephotos quite frequently in my work, but they cost nearly as much as my camera body. The average mom or dad looking to take sharp photos of their family does not want to spend that much. In fact the most affordable, quality zoom lens I may recommend is the Canon 17-40 F4.0L. But, even at around $700 it’s not “inexpensive” and it’s definitely not fast. There is only one notable Canon zoom I can think of that is not an L series lens, but unfortunately even that is not compatible with all Canon bodies.
In my humble opinion, invest in one good body and one good prime lens. Shoot in a way that you are moving closer and farther to your subject(s). You can always crop down in an editing software when you want more of the “zoom” effect, especially with the megapixel dimensions of today’s newest digital SLRs. Learn to use your camera in a way that you can control your own creative vision. Once you master that, then start saving up for that expense telephoto lens. Your photos will thank you for it!