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5 Tips for Stress-free and Successful Child Portraits

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Children are the best examples of spontaneity, creativity, and wonder and that is precisely why we all love them so much. Then family picture day comes and you wish they’d just sit down and be still for five seconds. Photographing children comes with its own brand of challenges, but if you arrive to a session with a few tricks in your bag, you’ll come away from that shoot with pictures that perfectly capture that what being a kid is all about. Here are five tips to help you have more stress-free and successful child portraits

1 – Kids Don’t Like Dictators

Children are used to being told what do to. All day long, it’s all they hear. “Sit down,” “Be quiet,” “Don’t hit your sister,” and “Spit that out!” Wven though they don’t like being told what to do, they’ll expect the same treatment from you. You’ll find, however, that you’re more likely to get great photos out of them if you shatter those expectations and treat them as equals.

Children like being helpers and they like being grown-up. So give them what they want. Instead of saying, “Sit down there and look at the camera,” you might try something like, “Hey buddy, would you help me out by sitting right here so I can see if the light is right?” In that phrase, you made them the big helper. You may already know that the light is right, but the child doesn’t know that. All he knows is that you needed his help and you see him as an equal. Another technique is asking the child where they’d like their picture taken. This gives them adult-like control. Give them options though or you run the risk of them picking a bad spot. Point out a few spots that you’re okay with and let them choose from those. Even go as far as to ask their advice when it comes to posing. Give them a little control and they’ll be happy to give some back when you need it. I once had a three year-old tell me that he wanted to do his epic mad face for a pose. I told him, “That’s a great idea! Let’s do it!” After I took a picture of that epic mad face and I then said we should try out a few other faces just to make sure we get them all. He was more than happy to let me pick the next face.

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2 – They Don’t Need to Look at the Camera

Even with the best psychologist-tested techniques, children are still children. Most children have a hard time looking at a camera. The reason? Because the camera is a big black thing and it doesn’t even come close to resembling a human being. Children like to look at people’s faces, especially their eyes. Older children have an easier time, but younger ones really don’t like looking at the black hole in the middle of our cameras.

That’s okay! Some of your best shots could be the ones where the child isn’t looking at the camera. Being a kid means being on the go, constantly exploring, and living for the very next moment. Allow the child to move around the location and explore. Your job is to follow and click away. Once in a while, they may look directly into your lens and make a connection and that’s awesome. More than not, you’ll get shots of them whizzing past or looking down at a flower or hugging mom’s leg. All great shots that show what being a child is all about.

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3 – Use Their Inner Actor

Getting genuine smiles out of a child is difficult at times. It seems that as children get older their smiles get more forced. So how do you instruct a child to smile naturally? Even adults have a hard time with that. One effective technique is to work with the little actor that lives at the heart of so many kids. Try asking your kid clients to give you a fake laugh. Go as far as to model how the laugh should go. The awesome thing is that when you ask someone, child or adult, to fake laugh, it’ll make them feel silly and then they’ll really laugh. There is a smile that happens toward the end of a laugh and that is where their natural smile lives. This technique can work even on shy children.

You could also have them imagine something and see what expression you get. You could ask them to give you the smile they get when they’ve just gotten away with something or the smile they get when they get a present. For older children, it seems like asking them about a boy or a girl they like at school, in a playful manner, always elicits a very nice smile. Children like acting and pretending, so use it to your advantage.

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4 – Monkey See, Monkey Do

Most children, especially young ones, don’t really excel at following directions. If you’re trying to pose them and you’re giving them the same directions you’d give adults, you’ll end up with a very confused child who pulls off a really weird pose. If you’re photographing children and they’re okay to sit and pose for you, model every pose you want from them. Children can mimic like pros, so use that gift. If you want them to sit cross-legged with their elbows on their knees, get down and do it yourself. This goes for facial expressions too. Say you want them to smile, but not a big toothy smile. Show them the smile you want. They’ll give you their own version of it, but you’ll get what you’re going for. You may be exhausted at the end of the shoot after moving around so much, but in many ways, it’s easier than trying to verbally instruct a child into a pose.

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5 – Give Them a Break

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We all have our limits. Children are no different. If you find that your kid client is getting tired or upset, it’s time for a break. Take them by the hand and explore your location together. If the parents are okay with it, break out some snacks and have a sit. Talk to them and let them relax. Many photographers are worried about the use of time during a shoot and may be reluctant to do something like smell the flowers with a three year-old when they should be getting those precious shots mom and dad want. That’s understandable. But great photographers understand that you’re more likely to get the shot you’re after if you work with the client, not against them. In fact, you might find the perfect shot during the little break. Perhaps the child is picking flowers or collecting rocks and because they’re so happy, they look at you and click! You’ve got the shot. If you’re doing a family shoot, a break could mean that you go off to photograph another member of the family while the little one gets to sit back and relax a bit.

Children live in their own worlds with their own rules. If you prepare and have the right mindset, they’ll let you in and you’ll both have an awesome time.

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Anna Durfee
Anna Durfee

is a temporarily retired high school English teacher from the beautiful mountain country of Idaho, a mother of four, and a photographer. She’s been a hobby photographer for the last six years or so, but amped up her photography education and now shoots professionally. She adores photographing people in an attempt to find their stories and display them. She’s also a sucker for long exposure shots and loves playing with HDR images too.

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