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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.