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Photographing children is one of my favorite things to do, but at times it can also be one of the most difficult. Sometimes with kiddos, there is a very thin line between capturing memories that will last a lifetime, and capturing tears, tantrums, and meltdowns. After years of photographing nieces, nephews, friends, and my own girls, I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes. But, I’ve also picked up a few tips and tricks that help things go a little more smoothly when it comes to photographing children, that will hopefully make your life a little easier as well.
When photographing children, heading to a park is a no-brainer, right? Well, maybe. Parks can be really great, free resources for photographers, but it’s important to think about them through the eyes of a child as well. As a photographer, if you take a young child to a park with a playground and then attempt to have them sit still on the grass directly across from the playground for a portrait, chances are that you’re creating an scenario that may not end well. If there’s a playground in view, you’d better be prepared that the kids will want to play on it.
Sometimes, letting kids play on the playground is a great way to capture some more candid moments, and other times it is a big distraction. More and more, I find myself scheduling sessions at hiking trail heads, covered bridges, and open fields, which still allow for plenty of room to run and play, but in a location that provides fewer distractions. In addition, I find these sorts of locations to be more aesthetically pleasing for capturing those candid moments, than playgrounds often are.
Anyone who has photographed kids knows that most kids have a fake smile, that makes an appearance any time someone asks them to smile. That fake smile is fine, and may be unavoidable to some extent, but it is always better to get a real smile or laugh whenever possible. There are so many ways to do this, but I’ll share just a couple that I’ve found to be effective with lots of different children.
The first is simply to ask them to show you a variety of different faces. It’s fun to capture the silly faces that they make, but the point is really to capture their genuine smiles and laughs at your reaction to their silly faces. In the photo above, I asked my daughter if she would show me her angry face (left), and while I absolutely love that photo, and think it actually captures her slightly mischievous personality very well, my goal was really the more natural smile (right) that came after my laughter and exclamations that her angry face was absolutely terrifying.
In my experience, most kids think it’s hilarious to run through a whole string of different faces: angry, silly, dinosaur face, prince/princess face, hungry face, tired face, surprised face, and happy face all tend to be fun, and often result in lots of genuine smiles and laughs.
Another thing that seems to work well for most kids is to simply ask them to give you a funny pose. Be ready, because you may get anything from a stuck out tongue, to much more hysterical shenanigans. I truly never know what to expect, but always be ready to capture whatever it is. I often include a few of the most silly photos in the final images, because even if they aren’t 100% perfect or they don’t fit my normal aesthetic, they just plain make everyone happy, and I think there’s value in that. There’s also a practical value during the session as well, in that once again, being silly results in genuine smiles and laughs. Time and time again, my favorite images in a session are often the ones that come directly after the silliest images.
My oldest daughter once cried for a half an hour because I made blackberry cobbler for breakfast, and she wanted toast instead. My youngest daughter laid on the floor, cried real tears, and screamed that I was ruining her whole life because I asked her to put on her shoes this morning. Moments like those are rarely funny at the time, but sometimes an hour or a day later, you find yourself laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
When it comes to kids, the reality is that even if you’ve been thoughtful about the timing and location of a session, sometimes meltdowns happen for no identifiable reason, and come from out of nowhere (sometimes they even happen mid-photo, as above). Photo sessions can be kind of stressful, and feel really high pressure for both kids and their parents. Sometimes with a little humor, distraction, or quick change of plans, everyone can get through a tantrum or minor meltdown just fine, and you’ll all laugh about it years later. Sometimes, it’s more than that, and a child may be having a meltdown because of sensory issues that you are unaware of, or because they’ve been battling a cold or they’re teething and they just don’t feel good.
Regardless of the reason, sometimes it’s clear that the kiddo is genuinely upset, and isn’t going to calm down any time soon. If a child is genuinely upset, don’t force things. If it’s possible, offering to try again on a different day can be a really meaningful good-will gesture. After all, a parent saying, “Stop crying and smile” rarely (if ever) results in those genuine smiles that we so desperately try to achieve as photographers. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, between being sensitive to the really legitimate feelings that kids may be having, and to also recognize that sometimes kids cry and get hysterical about really silly things, and then get over them equally as fast. If things go south, just do your best to be sensitive, while also keeping a sense of humor about things. Life is messy sometimes.
Do you have any other tips that make photographing children just a little bit easier? Please share in the comments below, and I’d love to see your kid photos too.
This week on dPS we’re featuring articles all about different kinds of people photography including portrait, event and travel photography. See all the previous ones below, and watch for more people photography articles over the next few days.