Photo Tips For Documenting Life’s Events

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


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

"Easter Sunday, 1978, The Vatican, 200,000 People" captured by Joel Gillespie

“Easter Sunday, 1978, The Vatican, 200,000 People” captured by PictureSocial member Joel Gillespie

A partial list of milestones may be the following:

  • Graduations–happy, fun events 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 on. 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.

"cny reunion dinner" captured by James Chew

“cny reunion dinner” captured by PictureSocial member James Chew

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 wear, but priceless to parents
  • Vacations–best prospects for great pictures simply because of different locales
  • Special Christmas programs–difficult due to poor lighting, accessibility

Better Milestone Pictures

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

The first group of events, which I call Milestones, are very important–just ask my wife. 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 technique 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.

"Olivia & Erik Wedding" captured by Don Campbell

“Olivia & Erik Wedding” captured by PictureSocial member Don Campbell

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, preferably at the designated time of day. You want to get an idea of not only what the place looks like but also the lighting, hence the “time” element.

Mind you, when I worked for the newspaper, there are few instances when I asked for something to be repeated, or as they say in golf, asked for a “mulligan” or a “do-over.” Imagine asking for a repeat of the action when a baseball play occured at home plate and you weren’t paying attention.

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

Scout the location beforehand

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

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 paperweights. A camera with a full memory card is also a paperweight–both are good only for war stories.

"Cradle the Future" captured by jmurphpix

“Cradle the Future” captured by PictureSocial member jmurphpix

Set Realistic Goals

If all you have is a short telephoto lens, realize you’re limited by your equipment. Either wait till your subject is closer or try to get closer.

If you’re shooting with a digital camera that has RAW capability, you could try taking your pictures in that mode. Shooting in RAW is like using a telephoto lens, because you are capturing at the highest resolution your camera is capable of. It allows you to crop in, make your tiny subject bigger, and just maybe allows you to get a decent image.

Because you don’t have access to be front-and-center at 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, too.

Photo captured by David Stephen Kalonick

Photo captured by PictureSocial member David Stephen Kalonick

Assess the lighting

Have 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 using 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.

Photo captured by Robert Nemeti

Photo captured by PictureSocial member Robert Nemeti

Let the kids take their own pictures

Set up a makeshift photo studio. All you need is backdrop and a 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’ve camped. Years later, that information will add more meaning to your memories.

About the Author:
A Riverside-based freelance photographer, Peter Phun, who also teaches photography at Riverside City College. He does portraits, weddings and editorial work. He writes about photography, Macs and the internet. He also designs websites and is a stay-at-home dad.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Comment

Personalize your comment with an avatar from!

Prove Your Humanity * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever