ARTICLE

How the EOS R makes for better family photography

Helen's work captures both the kids and their parents in disarming moments. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600. © Helen Bartlett

London-based family photographer Helen Bartlett is celebrated for her classic black-and-white portraits, but there's nothing dated or formal about her approach.

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"My approach is to take photographs that are for the parents now and for the kids when they're older," she explains. "Some photographers like to shoot posed shots but I prefer real moments because they always provide the best expressions. And actually the shots you come to look back on won't be the ones where they're sitting perfectly, looking angelic – it'll be the one before or after where you have an interaction, or a moment of hilarity."

This summer, she spent several weeks photographing friends with their families using the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R System. She was determined "to take pictures that were relatable," she says. "I didn't hire spaces or build sets, I just went to the usual places we all go. I photographed people around their homes, at the park, in the woods, or on holiday.

"Likewise, I wanted to photograph real families. I didn't want to photograph child models because I wanted it to be like a normal shoot, so I could say to people, 'Look: these photos were taken in a small flat, so there's no reason you can't take pictures like this in your home'."

Two children in a garden. One has a puzzled expression and is looking up at something out of view, a finger to his chin.
Helen works hard to capture her subjects in unguarded moments, making shoots fun wherever they take place. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2.5 and ISO2500. © Helen Bartlett

Family photos with the EOS R

Helen is a long-time Canon user and currently shoots mainly with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. "Its rugged build quality is equal to sandcastle building, bubble bath splashing, sticky fingers, and all the other perils of photographing young children," she says. But she finds the Canon EOS R offers several benefits.


1. Squeeze into every space

Part of Helen's job is working out what she can do with the space she's given – something she says was made considerably easier with the EOS R's vari-angle screen. "Sometimes I'm shooting in these big places where there's loads of space, and at other times I'm in really cramped conditions. To have the articulated screen so I can move the camera into places I wouldn't normally be able to fit is incredible. I can hold the camera to the side of me. Even if it just gives me that extra foot that I couldn't normally get a camera into, it will be very useful."

2. See the shot

"The EVF itself is just incredible for seeing the light and helping you to feel more confident when shooting fast in tricky lighting conditions," says Helen. "When you're working with kids, they are constantly shifting. I can't go into a room and say 'Right, that's where the best light is, so that's where I'm going to shoot.' That's where I usually start, but two minutes later you find you're shooting against the light or they've gone and switched on a 'Stars at Night' light, so being able to move the lighting around very quickly to see what you'll be getting will be huge."

A mother runs, carrying her young child on her shoulders.
Hold on tight! Helen used the Canon EOS R's autofocus to capture the mother and child in motion against a blurred background. "The EOS R's flexibility of [5,655] focus points means you're able to move your area of focus outside the key spaces that cameras have traditionally given us, which is incredible for shooting fast-moving things wide open," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/15 sec, f/13 and ISO100. © Helen Bartlett

3. Silence is golden

Because part of Helen's repertoire is photographing newborns, she was immediately drawn to the EOS R's silent shutter. "There's always that moment when you're trying to capture a newborn asleep and you get this really loud 'ker-clunk'. The baby's eyes shoot open, and then you have to try to get them back to sleep. Then there's another 'ker-clunk', so the whole thing can get really drawn out. But having that silent shutter is incredible, not just for newborns, but if a kid is really tired and you're trying to give them space. It means you can still engage with them, without the camera putting them off."

4. Get better focus

Helen is confident the EOS R's superior autofocus will be a boon for photographers working in complicated light. "Sometimes if you've got a backlight and it's very contrasty, like in the woods, you can find the camera hunts around for focus points," she says. "But the EOS R's flexibility of [5,655] focus points means you're able to move your area of focus outside the key spaces that cameras have traditionally given us, which is incredible for shooting wide-open and fast-moving things. Ordinarily, you'd need to be using the ones with the cross hatches, whereas with this you can just choose anywhere. I think it will introduce some really big changes in composition."

5. Lens quality

When it comes to lens choice, Helen says she uses primes for 99% of her work. "They're a necessity when you're shooting inside and it's dark, and because kids move fast," she says. "I was keen to try the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM and the RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM, which were absolutely incredible. The 50mm is by far the best lens I've ever used; it's just so sharp and so fast. When you're shooting a moving child at f/1.2, there really is no margin for error. The 35mm's quality is just superb too. It has a macro facility that's perfect for me when I'm photographing newborns or younger kids, as I can move in to get all those smaller details such as eyelashes or smiles, without having to get another lens."

A photograph of two children sitting in a field. One child is tapping the other, who is looking to the camera.
"Tag, you're it!" Children are the central focus for many of British Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett's family portraits. Taken on a full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/6400 sec, f/1.2 and ISO500. © Helen Bartlett

Years of experience

Helen speaks from experience; she has been photographing children since she was a child herself. "My dad was a keen amateur photographer, so we had a darkroom at home and I was printing my own pictures from the age of eight," the Canon Ambassador says. "My mum had a nursery school at our house, so there were always around 30 kids of about two to four years old playing in our basement. When I was a teenager, I'd photograph them, then print the pictures and sell them to the parents. It made me enough money that I didn't have to get a job during the summers, and it was fun because kids are really entertaining – they're so full of wonder and excitement."

A young girl sits on her father's shoulders. She wears a party dress and he wears a suit.

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When she left school, Helen wasn't sure she'd be able to turn her hobby into a career, so instead she read medieval history at university. But after a foray into TV research, she found herself drawn back to her first love. "I'd always assumed it was a pipe dream, but digital photography was becoming affordable and it all fell into place," she says.

Why black-and-white? "My dad photographed my brothers and me when we were kids and he did that in black-and-white – they looked good then, and they still do now," she explains.

So what's the secret to success when it comes to photographing children? "Just have fun," Helen says. "Kids like to have fun. If they're having fun you'll get genuine expressions. So just make a game of it – Tag and What's the Time, Mr Wolf, just anything that gets them in the same space, having fun, and not thinking about being photographed. You can even get in the picture yourself – set the camera up on a self-timer. If the kids think you're having fun, they'll have fun.”

A portrait of a baby girl with dark hair and wide eyes looking up and smiling at the camera.
Of course, Helen also takes plenty of more traditional portrait shots. "The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM is by far the best lens I've ever used; it's just so sharp and so fast," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/4.5 and ISO500. © Helen Bartlett

And what about the challenges? Anyone who has worked with children knows you sometimes need a few tricks up your sleeve. "If you work with toddlers, you'll get a tantrum now and then, but that can easily be solved with a chocolate biscuit," she laughs. "Juggling children of different ages who want to do different things can be tricky. But that's where a little bit of psychology comes in, because to a certain extent you can walk into a room and within five minutes you will have worked out who needs to be dealt with first, and in what way. Is someone looking more tired? Do you need to get out of the house as quickly as possible or is it better to stay within the house, in an environment the kids are used to?

"If I had to offer one piece of advice to other family photographers it would be: don't panic. Often the best pictures appear when you least expect them, and many of my favourite images have come out of an activity that I initially thought wouldn't work."

A mother and child sit together reading a picture book. The child is looking at the camera.
Intimacy is key to the success of Helen's photography, so the Canon EOS R's totally silent shutter impressed her immediately. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/2.2 and ISO1000. © Helen Bartlett

Helen believes that the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R system could have far-reaching implications not just for professionals, but for amateur photographers too.

"First we had a jump from film to digital, where you'd print your pictures and later have to try to remember what you did wrong," she says. "Then we had digital, where you'd take the photo then look at it on the computer and work out what you did wrong. Now you'll be able to look at the viewfinder as you're shooting and immediately see what you're doing wrong, and be able to make the changes in-camera in real-time.

"I think it will mean people will take fewer pictures, but they'll be better, and they'll learn faster, so the quality of photography we see will take a dramatic leap forward. This is particularly true for keen amateurs who are taking pictures of their own kids. They'll be able to improve so quickly, which will make them more enthusiastic, so they'll take more pictures and get even better still. It's incredibly exciting."

Skrivet av Natalie Denton and Gary Evans


Helen Bartlett's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II camera bodies, a Canon EOS R body, and various lenses, batteries and memory cards, plus a child’s toy train and gingerbread man.

Cameras

Canon EOS R

A pioneering full-frame mirrorless camera that sets new standards. Helen says: "Now you can look at the viewfinder as you're shooting and immediately see what you're doing wrong, and make the changes in-camera in real-time."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

High-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture. "Its rugged build quality is equal to sandcastle-building, bubble-bath splashing, sticky fingers, and all the other perils of photographing young children," says Helen.

Lenses

Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM

The RF lens that sets new standards in photographic performance, delivering supreme sharpness, extra creative control and a low-light performance that’s simply remarkable. "The 50mm is by far the best lens I've ever used; it's just so sharp and so fast," says Helen.

Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM

A wide-angle prime lens with a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and macro capabilities. Helen says: "The 35mm's quality is just superb. It has a macro facility that's perfect for me when I'm photographing newborns or younger kids"

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