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Stalking your children to get family album gems

I was recently asked, ''What is the most exciting picture you've ever taken?'' It isn't one of the thousands of pictures that I've taken all over the world. It is a picture I took last year in my own yard - a photograph of my daughter taking her first steps.

There she is with a huge smile on her face, baggy shorts falling down to her knees, tenuously making her way toward me across the unmowed lawn. Behind her is my wife, cheering her on with a jubilant expression that I'm sure mirrored mine.

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Behind almost every camera aimed at a child is a parent with the burning desire to capture the meaningful moments of family life. By applying a few basic rules of good photography, parents can improve the quality of these pictures soon to fill the family album.

An old adage in photography says that if the picture isn't good enough, the photographer wasn't close enough. Almost universally a good photograph is one in which the subject fills the frame. Try to move in close to your child and eliminate any peripheral distracting elements. Include in the viewfinder only those things that are relevant to your child's activity. If, for example, you're taking a picture of your child solving a puzzle, try to find an angle that shows only the child and the pieces of the puzzle and little else. There is nothing more bothersome to me than a picture of our daughter at play in our living room looking as though she is wearing the television antenna on her head.

Also, try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. This may seem contradictory to what I have just told you about moving in close, but children do have the capacity to be completely absorbed in what they're doing. Keep them interested in what they're involved in by keeping a running dialogue (or monologue) going about what a ''great bridge you're building,'' or ''Do you think you can stomp all the water out of that puddle?'' Believe me, it is possible to move in close and still not be a distraction.

If you have a camera that will accept interchangeable lenses, think about getting a lens in the 85- to 105-mm range. These are medium telephoto lenses that are excellent for portraits and allow you to remain just far enough away so you won't be in the midst of your child's play.

The next suggestion may seem obvious - and pardon me for sounding like your scoutmaster - but the key to capturing memorable pictures of children is to ''be prepared.'' I hate to admit that even as a professional photographer I have missed a few shots of our daughter because we ran out of film. Like an avid investor checking the business pages for the closing prices of her stocks in a bull market, my wife now scans the advertising supplements of our Sunday paper in search of special prices on film. Take advantage of these sales and stock up so you'll always have a few extra rolls on hand.

If your camera uses batteries, it is also a good idea to have an extra set of these stashed away.

In putting together our family album I've come to realize that it comprises two types of photographs. One is the standard ''snapshot'' which documents various developmental stages of our daughter's life; the others go beyond this mere chronological recording and capture the mood of the moment in which they were taken. It is the second category that will always have the most meaning to us.

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Of course, in our album we have the obligatory ''first birthday party'' shot. But among those images that go beyond the mere snapshot are the ones that show the perplexed look our daughter had upon meeting her first baby sitter; pure contentment as she sits on a park bench eating her first ice cream cone with two of her friends; and the delighted smile that reflects the special love she has for her grandmothers.

These all have more meaning for me than most of the snapshots, for each time I view them they evoke the same feelings I had when I took them. In each I feel I've caught the essence of the moment in a visual image that will always help me relive those wonderful times.

We all miss opportunities to take some pictures of our children that we'd really like to have. All parents carry within their hearts and thoughts a scene that they don't have a picture of - yet it is something that they would always like to remember. These may vary from your daughter running out to greet you upon your returning home from work, to the contemplative moments your son spent studying an acorn in the late afternoon autumn light.

In many instances it is not too late to capture these situations on film. In fact, when you take the time to think about the picture you'd like to have, you are more likely to come up with an image that conveys the mood of the situation than if you had just taken a quick snapshot the first time you saw it. A little preparation always pays off.

A photograph I took of my wife reading to our daughter is just such a picture. It captures the love of language that my wife has always had and that my daughter now shares. I took it several weeks after first seeing the scene and after thinking about how I'd always like to remember it.

Another approach that will produce some excellent pictures is to give yourself the assignment of telling through your pictures what a day in the life of your child is like. Devote a whole roll of film to this project - you'll realize the expense was a wise investment when you see the unique pictures that come from following your child around for an entire day with your camera always ready.

Start right away in the morning by trying to capture your youngster's enthusiasm for a new day, and end with the serene scene of tucking her in at night.

You might even want to repeat this ''day in the life''' project every six months to a year to keep track of your child's various interests and activities and to see the various routes taken on the ever fascinating voyage of discovery.

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