When my children were still very young, I saw another photographer’s images from a session that involved a pillow fight, and I decided that was something I wanted to try and replicate with my own kids. When they got a little older – almost 4 and 2 (read that as “probably not really old enough”) – I had enough of waiting and decided to go for it. The pictures came out okay, but there were some problems I noticed later with the lighting, and we had a horrible time cleaning up – our house remained filled with the remnants of that pillow battle for months later. (It didn’t help that we dumped a blanket full of feathers out an upstairs window before we realized the outside door directly beneath us was wide open. What a mess.)
Despite the challenges of that first pillow fight shoot, I remained undaunted and eager to try again. After a move to a new house, I saw the light and space in our new master bedroom and knew it was time. I thought I had learned all my lessons – we knew not to throw the feathers out the window – but this shoot presented some new frustrations. The pillows were a bit of a problem and the lighting just wasn’t quite right. Cleanup wasn’t nearly as bad, but we were still finding feathers in the rug months later.
We moved once again, and the kids got even older (as they do), so obviously we needed to give the pillow fight session another go. This time, I knew how to set up the room for easiest cleanup, I knew what mistakes we had made with the pillows, and I had the perfect lighting and knew how to use it.
And so – because I have a little experience with pillow fight sessions with my own family – I would like to share some tips that I have picked up along the way, to help you avoid the learning pains we went through.
DISCLAIMER: If your child has asthma or is sensitive to dust or textures do not do a pillow fight – there will be lots of tiny things floating around in the air that could cause breathing problems, and some people don’t like the feel of feathers or fine particles on their skin, so know your kids.
1 – Watch for the right light. Will the pictures be taken in a way that is backlit by a large window? As pretty as backlight images are, if it is in front of a window you may end up losing the feathers in the end. Watch the light in your home like a hawk. If there is a particular time when light streams into a room or if the room is always dark, those are both things that you will want to take into consideration.
2 – Prepare for cleanup. Where would be the easiest place for you to clean up after the inevitable mess? If the floor has a carpet or rug, it is much more difficult to get those feathers up later. (I used a small hand broom on my rug and ended up throwing the broom away due to all the feathers getting stuck in the bristles.) If you have extra sheets, cover anything in the room that will not be in the pictures or that you don’t want feathers on. Even if you don’t have the pillow fight anywhere nearby, feather will most likely settle everywhere. If you can move lamps out of the room, do that – the lampshades in particular like to collect feathers.
Prestage your vacuum and have it nearby. You’re going to want to clean up the mess right away at the end of the shoot, so to keep things contained and avoid traipsing through the house afterwards, it helps to have the vacuum standing at the ready.
Also, I tried making feather removal simple by spreading a quilt on the bed for the first couple of sessions, but realized too late that I shouldn’t have done that. Getting the feathers off of the quilt was a pain – a solid color sheet is best to cover the bed.
3 – Pillow quality. Not all feather pillows are equal. The second time we did a pillow fight I quickly learned that many of the “feathers” were synthetic and they did not even look like feathers. They were an absolute mess to clean up and didn’t look very good in the pictures. Some places sell bags of replacement feathers, and I am going to buy some of them for next time.
4 – Pillow prep. The first two times I did the pillow fight I just cut a hole in each pillow to help the kids get feathers out and called it good. This last time, I had two pillows but wanted to get all four of us involved, so I grabbed some old pillowcases and divided the two pillows between them, leaving the tops open. If you want a little less of a mess and a cheaper shoot I think one pillow between two pillowcases would probably be enough.
5 – Prepare for itchy throats and eyes. Have water bottles and a small fan, and maybe eye drops, ready in the room you are taking pictures. Kids are going to get feathers in their mouth – have water close and ready to help them after they try to pull out the feathers with feather-covered fingers. Feathers will probably get near their eyes, and having a fan that they can stand in front of helps blow the feathers away without having to pick at them every time. Not to mention that the fan can keep the feathers swirling while you’re shooting.
Explain to everybody involved that when they hit each other with the pillows that they will want to have their eyes closed if possible. This will save a lot of headache trying to get feathers away from everybody’s eyes.
Play music, and keep it fun. Everything is more enjoyable when your favorite songs are being played, and it’ll keep the mood light and less like an actual battle.
When the sack of feathers runs out, stop and refill the pillowcases with the feathers on the bed, and start again.
If the kids are having fun, let them put down the pillowcases and just play with the feathers.
Know when to be finished. My son was struggling with getting feathers in his mouth and around his eyes. So after I knew I got the shots I wanted to with him I went ahead and told him to take a shower. If we had continued, the memories of the pillow fight would not have been as fun.
Take some self portraits of yourself playing along too. My kids thought it was great to watch me play around with the feathers, especially when I dragged my husband into the frame and got some great pictures of the two of us.
Check your shutter speed. If you don’t want to have blur then make sure your ISO is high enough and that your shutter speed is fast. At first I was very concerned about the fact that my photos weren’t as crisp as I would have liked, but now I like a little slower shutter speed because it captures the motion of kids and pillows and feathers.
Check your lighting. Shoot low and up if you are using backlight. It is hard seeing the feathers when it is backlit, but if that is your option then shoot up to get the exposure you need while capturing some of the feathers.
Get detail shots. I like to focus on the kids, the feathers, the feet, the faces. I try to get a full view of the fun that they are having.
Be okay with missing a shot if somebody needs help. I quickly put down the camera if one of the kids is struggling – it is really helpful to have a second adult around to get the feathers out of mouths and eyes.
The cleanup is the most difficult and daunting part, but it can be made easier by having two sets of hands to help out.
Get the kids showered as soon as their part is done. This way they won’t be spreading feathers everywhere around the house while you’re trying to tackle the photo location.
Gather up as many feathers as you can into a trash bag or the pillowcases before you bring out the vacuum – most vacuums don’t have a big enough canister for all of the feathers, and you don’t want the bag to explode. Trust my experience on this one.
Vacuums are best. Do not try to sweep up the feathers unless you have a throw-away broom. As I mentioned before, the feathers get stuck in the broom and make it unusable.
Wash items separately from your other stuff – there will be feathers in your lint trap, so make sure you get those out.
If the cleanup of the pillowcases and sheets is too much, throw it away. The last session we used second hand sheets that we were okay getting rid of. My husband just threw everything into the trash bin and we called it good.
If the shoot is in your home and not outside, be prepared to find feathers here and there a month or two later even with all your precautions. They really do get everywhere.
Feather pillow fights are a joy to capture, and can be a lot of fun for everyone. They allow your kids to play and do something a little different. They are also a mess to clean up, and they are not for everyone. Hopefully this will help you decide if this type of shoot is something that you want to try, and these tips will help your pillow fight shoot go smoothly.
I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
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