A child's birthday party is another page in the family history. Not only are photos a great way of recording these events, but they will also provide lasting records of who the child's friends were through the years.
But just as importantly, a birthday party is a time for kids to have fun. As the record-keeper of this event, it's up to you to let things happen, and not to control the situation. If one of the party-goers smears his or her face with cake frosting, catch it on film. If someone spills Kool-Aid on the table, get a shot of it before you clean up the mess - or let the kids clean it up; that could make a good series of pictures, too.
One thing to remember when photographing children is to shoot from their eye-level, at least most of the time. There will be occasions when it's best to shoot down, such as when someone is in the way of the intended subject. But getting down on their level will make the pictures seem more intimate, and the emphasis will be on the kids rather than on the person taking the pictures.
When you want a fairly tight shot of one or two children, it's better to move back and use the telephoto end of the zoom range. The reason is parallax. Remember that the camera's lens doesn't see exactly what you see in the viewfinder. Moving in close to the children and using the wide-angle range can result in cutting off the tops of the kid's heads.
Two types of cameras can overcome the parallax problem. If you shoot the party with a single-lens reflex (SLR), you'll see through the viewfinder what the finished photo would look like. This would also be true when using the LCD monitor on a digital camera.
The SLR would be fine to use at a party, but, except for shooting close-up pictures of individuals, it would be better to use the rangefinder option of the digital camera for faster shooting. The LCD is great when you have plenty of time to compose a shot, but at a kid's party things move too fast for a person to react while looking at the monitor.
An important bit of business at a birthday party is having the guest of honor blow out the candles on the cake. If the party takes place outdoors, most of the pictures will be taken with flash, but the cake shoot is a good time to use available light. One reason is that the illumination from flash can wash out the candle flames. Also, the light from the candles reflecting from the child's face will produce a very interesting effect.
With a 35mm camera loaded with ISO 800 film or an ISO setting of 400 on a digital camera, there should be enough room light to allow for available light shooting. But remember to turn off the flash.
Take at least two available light shots. For the first one, light the candles, then have the child stand just behind the cake, looking down at it so the light reflects off his or her face. For the second shot, have the child blow out the candles. For this one, you want to begin pressing the shutter release just before the child begins blowing. This way you'll have a few lighted and unlighted candles. If you wait too long, you'll just get a bunch of unlit candles standing on the cake.
If you use available light for the blowing-out-the-candles shots, be sure to have the event take place in a room that's illuminated by tungsten light. This will cause a warmish yellow or orange cast, but that's much better than the greenish tint produced by fluorescent lighting.
When using a compact 35mm or digital camera, it might blink at you as you prepare to shoot under available light. It's telling you that there isn't enough light to produce a sharp image - you might get camera movement. If you have a tripod, this would be a good time to use it. Have it handy so you won't have to tell the kids to wait while you get it.
Even if the camera can be braced, the movement of the child blowing out the candles might cause him or her to be fuzzy. That's okay, as long as the cake is sharp.
A birthday party signifies the end of one year in a child's life and the beginning of another. Photos can be a lasting reminder of this transition.