Cut the Cheese: 5 Tips for Photographing Kids - Digital Photography School

Cut the Cheese: 5 Tips for Photographing Kids

Note: all images in this post are copyrighted to Natalie Norton, unless otherwise indicated. 

Photographing kids can be a real pain adventure! They’re busy, they’re squirmy, they’re fast, sometimes they’re cranky, but guess what? Comparatively, all of that stuff is a total piece of cake. The real challenge? The cheeeeeeeeeeese. Never have I photographed a child who didn’t do exactly one of two things when I first pulled out my camera. 1. Put on their “camera face”—you know, the one that Mom has programmed into their psyche since infancy, or 2. immediately ran in the opposite direction.

Given a choice, I’d take the latter, any.day.of.the.week.

I have exactly one rigid, non-negotiable rule for myself as a photographer: I don’t shoot fake smiles. Period. I want to photograph what’s real, authentic, alive. Not only is approaching sessions from this space a million times more satisfying for me as an artist (and a human being), but it completely changes my subject’s experience (for the better) as well.

My friend, Tara Whitney (who shot the soulful and hilarious tire swing image below), has a beautiful tag line for her photography business: “Just be you.” Her philosophy blows my mind (I wish I’d written it myself). It says in part:

“I am looking to capture your authentic connections. Leave the perfect hair and clothes at home. I would much prefer to see you just as you are—beautiful! Show up in your favorite jeans and tousled hair, your child with a lolipop-stained mouth from the ride in the car. Relax. Have fun. Be real. Be alive. Be in love, and loving each other. Perfectly imperfect.” -Read Tara’s philosophy in full, here. It’s absolutely worth your 37 seconds.

Above image credit: Tara Whitney

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING AUTHENTIC IMAGES OF KIDS:

1.  REMOVE “CHEESE” FROM YOUR VOCABULARY:

The word “cheese” is to authentic photography what a bell is to Pavlov’s Dogs. The MOMENT a kid hears it, they obediently put on their “picture face.”

If you’re looking to create real, timeless images, avoid that word like an open field in a thunderstorm.

2. CHILL:

Just relax. Kids respond authentically to normalcy. If you’re chasing them around, desperately trying to pull smiles out of them, you’re going to get exactly what you’re asking for: strained, forced, inauthentic smiles. If you’ll just be patient and quietly go with the flow, your subject will warm right up, and you’ll eventually get what you’re looking for. 


3.  DISENGAGE MOM AND DAD:

This point is probably more important than all the others combined. You’ve got to keep mom and dad under control. Often parents are tempted to engage to try to help force get their kiddos to cooperate. This is particularly likely if the kids are being somewhat rascaly. I get it. I’m a mom. I want my kids to listen, be respectful and behave appropriately—expecially when we’re getting our pictures taken (PS. it never happens for me, ever). But when mom and dad step in with their frustration and angst, we get either tears or the types of expressions that the kids are trained to give for mom and dad. . . that’s not what I’m going for.

At the beginning of a session, I explain to mom and dad that I’ve got them covered. They are free to sit back and relax. They are allowed to hang around, but they aren’t allowed to intervene between the kids and I unless I specifically as for their help. This not only ensures I have the opportunity to connect with their kids the way I’m hoping to, but it also alleviates a lot of pressure from Mom and Dad. “You mean, this experience doesn’t have to be a hellish circus for me?!” Cue huge sigh of relief.

 

4. LET THEM GO:

Instead of trying to contain children to a specific backdrop, allow them to explore. They’ll be a thousand times more cooperative when you do try to get them to do something specific if you haven’t spent the entire shoot calling to them “look over here” and “look over there,” and “stand up, sit down. . . fight, fight, fight.” (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) Remember, your subject doesn’t have to be looking directly at the camera (or even facing the camera at all for that matter) in order for you image to tell a powerfully authentic story.

5. BE YOURSELF:

It’s not easy for everyone to connect with little people, and if you can’t authentically connect, how can you hope to capture an authentic image? I have a clear advantage after nearly 10 years of practice . . . day in and day out . . . 24 hours a day. . . 7 days a week. No, I’m not complaining. . . just counting. That’s what moms do. We practice our math.

The best thing you can do to create beautiful art with a child is simply relax and be yourself. Kids are perceptive. They sense when you’re overdoing it and aren’t acting like yourself, and they’ll respond in kind.

Also remember, kids love being treated with respect (just like every single adult I know). If you respect them, breathe deep, act like yourself and have fun, you’ll be a big success. Guaranteed.

Everyone does things differently. I’ll be the first to jump up and down and throw my hands in the air to celebrate that truth! The most dangerous thing we can do as educators is impose limitations on creativity. And the most important thing we can do as artists is fight against those limitations—self inflicted or otherwise—and find our authentic artistic voice (more on that in a future post). Take what you’ve learned here and modify it in a way that fits within the realm of YOUR unique style and passion as a photographer, or if it’s not a fit, throw it out all together. Remember Tara’s words, “perfectly imperfect?” well, they apply not just to our subjects, but to us as artists as well. There’s not a right way or a wrong way to approach our art. The right way is simply whichever way we choose.

Happy shooting!

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Natalie Norton is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at www.natalienortonblog.com. You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

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  • Jacquelynn Gagne

    I have a shoot with 7 kids today. I am a mom, but 7 I was nervous about. Thank you!

Some older comments

  • Kathy

    August 3, 2013 05:27 am

    What are the rules on photographing children...like for camera clubs etc not for sale if you dont know the child...jist someone for example in a park or beach if you dont know where the parents might be?

  • marie

    July 25, 2013 06:23 am

    I was just thinking - whoever wrote this article is a great writer & kept my attention the entire read! And then I read it: Natalie Norton is a writer.... :) Seriously, loved this article & your style of writing! xox

  • Oliver Henlich

    January 11, 2013 05:59 am

    Hi Guys,

    I was just looking through some photos that made me laught and really drove some of your points home to me (and demonstrated it nicely to my wife).

    With "Cheese/Smile"
    cheese 1

    cheese 2

    Without "Cheese/Smile"

    natural 1

    natural 2

    natural 3

    natural 4

  • Naz

    January 4, 2013 05:00 am

    Nice Shots Natalie- The girl with a flower reminds me of an Annie lebievowitz (SP?) kind of shot- it's got that kind of atmospheric feeling to it- and hte two girls jumping, I liek that all of the reflectiosn are not present- gives the photo more of an immediancey feel to it whereas shwoign all the reflection woudl have madwe it a bit more static I think- the cut off reflection imemdiately draws the viewer into the photo-

  • Nikki Everylight

    October 23, 2012 07:11 am

    Love this article. This is exactly the philosophy I've been trying to articulate. Thanks for the tips! :)

  • Joel

    April 15, 2012 02:57 pm

    I love shooting kids, especially my own. But I have a question, what do you do about lighting? Often they are inside, and if I want a decent DOF I don't have enough lighting without a flash. I have both remote flashes and a cable to keep it off camera but I can't adjust the setting fast enough to keep up with the kids. So if I want candid inside photo's, who do I handle the lighting. Sometimes I get lucky, but that's not as often as I'd like.

  • jocie

    April 11, 2012 07:46 pm

    After every 5 shots or so, I show the pictures that I've taken of my 2yr old daughter to her. Seeing her pictures really makes her smile and makes her cooperative for the next shots that I take of her. She even makes her own poses and facial expressions! :)

  • nicole

    April 9, 2012 03:52 am

    Thank u for this. I'm not a kid person, I really don't know how to relate. Of course, all of my friends have kids and of course they want me to shoot them.
    This helps a lot. Thanks.

  • Jen

    April 7, 2012 11:54 am

    Great post. As I started exploring portrait photography, I did a lot of Christmas card photos for friends. It was great fun, but I distinctly remember shooting two boys (around 6-7 years old) and their little sister (around 1 1/2). The boys wanted nothing more than to be boys and goof around, and their mom kept really wanting them to sit still, etc. Then I told them to make a goofy face picture and they LOVED it and then were so much more cooperative about the posed shots mom wanted. Why bother having pictures of kids taken if they don't even get to be kids in the photos? They're a great family, and the images ended up coming out really well, but it was a great lesson for me about both how to work with kids and parents!

  • Jen

    April 7, 2012 06:07 am

    Some great tips here. On a recent family shoot, I found that it was the mom & dad that had a hard time just relaxing and being themselves. They seemed to really want that "posed" shot. They ended up loving all the candid stuff that centered around their daughter playing with an acorn (even sticking it up her nose!). She was so fun and easy to photograph because she wouldn't sit still. Got tons of great pics of her!

    HOWEVER...I have a niece who loves to pose. That is just who she is, so I go with it. Her shoots always have a ton of cheese, and that is part of her personality right now. It ends up looking totally endearing and adorable for her, because everyone who knows her knows she loves to "ham it up." She's an exception, though, and it's way more fun to just follow the little ones around most of the time.

  • Silvernale Studios

    April 7, 2012 01:34 am

    I have to say, child photos are magical; and it can take a wizard to get good ones on cue. It helps to know your subject, or at least be comfortable with them, and they you. That takes time, and a portrait shoot isn’t always long enough. The more people involved the longer it can take. Sometimes, patience wears thin and you have to schedule another go at it. But, when exuberance becomes weariness, you can get some nice ones sometimes. Just be ready for a few parting shots and don’t put that camera down until it’s all over ?. Here are two of my favorites – I knew we were done by her expression, but couldn’t resist.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/silvernalestudios/2218549321/in/set-72157603788072074
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/silvernalestudios/2293060370/in/set-72157603788072074

  • kath mclean

    April 6, 2012 08:03 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I loved Tara's philosophy and website, very inspirational!

  • Patrice

    April 6, 2012 06:57 pm

    I have a son that is autistic and I will def be passing this along to people I know that shoot pictures of him - grandparents etc. they get frustrated that he can't look at the camera. Then they totally love my pictures that I take in the yard etc. however when I do catch him looking its amazing. So thankful for digital camers so we can shoot 300 pictures just to get that one perfect shot!

  • Charles Bury

    April 6, 2012 02:02 pm

    I enjoyed the article and pictures. My two rules for photographing kids:

    1) Get down on their level;
    2) Pretend to take pictures for a few minutes and they will forget you are there. Then it starts to get good.

    The headline Cut the Cheese: '5 Tips for Photographing Kids' is a double-entendre. At least here in Canada, Cut the cheese is a slang term for 'fart'.

    best to all,
    Charles Bury
    Cookshire-Eaton, Quebec

  • Norm Levin

    April 6, 2012 03:49 am

    A local family who hires me every year for their holiday portrait provides one of my greatest photographic challenges. Their three kids (ages 6-15), come with three different personalities (not surprising that). The youngest boy, however, can be quite distracted and doesn't like to take direction, especially when it's from mom or dad. I have to banish the parents from the shoot as they employ alternately coercive or bribing tactics to get him "to behave". My approach is to take advantage of his natural exuberance, letting him just be himself. It doesn't always work, but when it does, the results are precious:

    http://www.naturalportraitsandevents.com/Portraits/Portraits/3273171_vNPqi#!i=1541881900&k=bd2gvSP

  • Michelle Sip

    April 6, 2012 03:33 am

    I agree these are great tips and great added comments. My question is, what do you do for a studio portrait shoot where the (paying) mother just wants a perfectly posed family portrait and the kids just want to run around the studio instead? And, they have only paid for a certain amount of time. I'm usually good with kids, following most of these tips already, but had one recently where the aforementioned happened. Mom was not happy with the "candids", even if they were cute.

  • deb

    April 6, 2012 03:17 am

    Yes, yes, yes! I ditto your 1st three paragraphs word for word! As soon as she learned to talk, my granddaughter was taught by the other side of the family to say, "Cheese". I almost cried.

  • Geoff Naylor

    April 6, 2012 02:45 am

    Instead of "Cheese1" try saying "Fromage!" before you snap. It often gets unexpected results.

  • Rekha

    April 6, 2012 01:22 am

    Thank you for the insightful article! It's so true!! And yes, it's the mom and dad (well, mostly mom), that are challenging... Not the kids.

  • Marie

    April 6, 2012 01:05 am

    I was doing a family shoot for an old friend and had done some searching for ideas. one I really liked was the baby sitting in the grass and the parents farther back and out of focus. when I tried it though the little guy wouldnt sit and face me so I took the shots of little Blake crawling back to mom and dad and that was one of my fave pics of the session :) With kids its bad to have a plan but good to have ideas. just don't get upset if something doesnt work, make what happens work for your pics :)

  • Dave

    April 6, 2012 12:37 am

    I photograph kids in youth theatre. Most of the kids are receptive, but once in a while they don't cooperate.

    I do invest a large amount of time with the kids to earn that trust. I show up throughout their rehearsals...sometimes even at auditions and callbacks so that that know I'm there and they know who I am. After a while, they usually just forget that I'm there.

    When rehearsals start in earnest, though, I get the director to introduce me and I talk to the kids for just a few minutes. I tell them that I am there to document their work. I tell them that if I am in their way, they don't have to say "excuse me", because I am in the wrong. I tell them to not play to the camera...just do what you're told to do by the director. (Sometimes, later in the run I will ask them to look at the camera for a particular shot...but usually, I won't shoot the picture if one of the cast members is focused on me.)

    I post many pictures on Facebook under an alias for their troupe--they rush home from rehearsals to see if I've posted anything yet. They make my shots into profile pictures and make comments.

    It takes work and time investment, but the natural shots do appear.

  • Aaron Seet

    April 5, 2012 07:55 pm

    Absolute truth. That is why I'd always be a "hunter" photographer - I want to capture people in their most natural moments and not pose/smile for a camera. It is not just about children alone.

  • John J

    April 5, 2012 01:03 pm

    You have to catch the kids unaware. That's when you get the best expressions.

    This is my son smiling on a merry-go-round.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtyellojacket/5966549919/

    This is my younger son with a pouting look.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtyellojacket/6413775893/

  • bobbyv

    April 5, 2012 11:30 am

    use a telephoto so you can capture their candid expressions from outside their personal space ...

    shoot at their eye level ...

    shoot even when they are crying - these pictures will stand out among the happy ones ...

  • Michael Adams

    April 5, 2012 03:17 am

    Well written and great ideas!

    Especially agree with #4 and #5. Find the more vulnerable I am - the more childlike - the better the portraits. Plus, I have more fun.

    If you are after some "look at the camera and look natural" portraits, I find a "secret" helps. Kids love secrets, especially those that mom and dad don't know. So, before the sessions begins, I tell that kids that this is going to be fun, that they are going to get to run around and we'll all be silly together. We're also going to look at the camera for some pictures. If they are good helpers and doers (my exact words), they get to splash mom and dad at the end of the session (for a beach session; your secret will vary). They light up; the combination of a secret and splashing mom and dad is almost too much. Any time, they wander, physically or emotionally, during the look at the camera images, I remind them of "the secret".

    Thanks again,
    Michael Adams

  • Jannie Pleasant

    April 4, 2012 10:15 am

    I just photo a austim child and I just let him do his thiing and I got amazing shots of him. His grandmother was amaze of the photos I got of him. She said I was the only one that could get photos of him

  • Lightworks Photography

    April 4, 2012 09:45 am

    I always think that it is a case of wait, wait and more wait - the longer you wait and the more part of the furtiture you become the more relaxed the children become. So many times I have tried to direct this type of shoot and it never really works - actually the hardest thing is getting the parents to just let it happen rather than trying to get their child to do things for the camera!

  • Hawaii Wedding Photographer - Kevin Foley

    April 4, 2012 07:47 am

    Great advice. Another tip that pops to mind is to get in the dirt with them. Not a hard and fast rule, but getting down to their level creates a unique perspective and tends to get more clear, genuine reactions than spying from above.

  • Barrie Photographer

    April 4, 2012 05:16 am

    There's no better subject than a child exploring their surroundings, every expression is pure and true.

  • mark

    April 4, 2012 12:56 am

    Get permission. This article is focusing on kids you most likely know. When shooting kids you don't know (at a carnival, baseball game,....), get permission from the parents / guardians before you starting shooting. Parents are rightly so very suspicious these days of strangers with camera. Be considerate and talk with them 1st.

  • Kent West

    April 3, 2012 11:11 pm

    Honestly, this stuff is gold. I'm serious, I hope a book is on your horizon. A free e-book, like Richie. Something small but valuable to wet people's appetites.

    I would also add one tip, may be obvious but it will save loads of time post-processing and will save a lot of hassle. Before the shoot even begins, have the parents do a once over on their kids' faces. I hear Tara's philosophy to "come as you are" but it is valuable to take a quick minute to get ride of crusties, boogers, etc that may have camped out on the kids' faces. Sometimes we may forget that and when we get home we notice the infamous cliff hanger in every picture, and I'm not sure we want to capture that part of real life ;)

    Great tips, thanks again!

  • raghavendra

    April 3, 2012 12:46 pm

    photographing the kids is a pleasure.
    It is a lot of fun taking them a picture

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/03/kids-feeding-goat.html

  • Jessica

    April 3, 2012 11:27 am

    Sorry that should be *important*

  • Jessica

    April 3, 2012 11:15 am

    Really great tips! This artical is so importain to me not only as an Early Childcare teacher but as an artist as well. I just recently photographed some of my children in my classroom at snack time, it was really fun to sit there with my camera and capture monments of them enjoying their snack. The children however upon seeing my camera went absolutely silly with excitment and glee! (you would have thought I brought a puppy in, instead of my camera!). I never once asked to say "Cheese" just sat there and watched them interact with the camera while snapped of pictures.

  • Jeff E Jensen

    April 3, 2012 11:01 am

    Great tips! The biggest problem I have with shooting my kids is that they want to be the ones running the camera. Here's the gangsters that hang out at my house:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2011/08/three-gangsters.html

  • ccting

    April 3, 2012 09:44 am

    Wow.. a really great useful piece of info for me. So far, my main subject is 20 months "baby". Shooting running baby is harder than shooting events .. ;D

  • Lara White

    April 3, 2012 07:57 am

    These are GREAT tips! As a wedding photographer, I thought kid photography was going to be a piece of cake...boy was I wrong! In a wedding situation, everything is usually rush rush rush, and if you have a few minutes of downtime to spend with a kiddo, you might get something magic...or they might spot the camera and stop doing that super cute thing and start doing the cheesy smile thing. But when you have an entire session with kids, the dynamics are completely different, and you have to have patience and wait them out, play with them, engage them, and keep the parents relaxed.

  • Mik

    April 3, 2012 03:36 am

    When taking pictures of the grand kids my problem is as soon as I take the first shot they all want to rush over and look in the back of the camera, "Let us see grandpa".

    I have to try and tell them the viewfinder on the back doesn't work before I start.

  • Alexx

    April 3, 2012 03:32 am

    Also, be really funny to get the real smiles.

    http://disney-photography-blog.blogspot.com/

  • steve slater

    April 3, 2012 02:29 am

    I agree with the idea of not having a fake smile.
    I think kids are great when you catch them without any form of pose.

    The composition is not fantastic in this one but the smile is VERY infectious:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Street-photography-in-Spain/G0000hLnlKwnbtX0/I0000NI_ArieOqRs

  • Mridula

    April 3, 2012 02:23 am

    Lovely my kid after a while screams if I try to click a picture. But after trying stop motion (operative word is trying) I am going to do one with her.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/04/india-in-stop-motion-a-first-attempt.html

  • Jade

    April 3, 2012 02:20 am

    Kids have always been a favorite photography subject. Yes, candid photos of them are always priceless. :)

  • Brian Fuller

    April 3, 2012 02:08 am

    Totally agree with this post - great job! I never want to take a forced pic. The candid ones are always better with kids. The poses rarely turn out to be anything close to representing the real personality of a child.
    Let them go and capture the kid as who they really are.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

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