White Background Colourful Kids - Ideas for High Key Studio Photography

White Background Colourful Kids – Ideas for High Key Studio Photography


group-kidsThe white-room studio look has become really popular lately, especially for children. I love it for so many reasons:

  • Kids are unpredictable, especially when you don’t know them. Removing the element of not only trying to catch the right moment, but also crossing your fingers hoping that the ‘moment’ happens in the right position within the frame of ideal natural light (while chasing them around) gives me more energy to actually focus on the child.
  • It is a more affordable option for clients who can’t afford to hire you for a location shoot. I spend about 30 mins with kids in my studio.
  • The lighting set-up is easy and optimal for whatever the kids decide to throw at you (sometimes literally!)

There are, however, a few drawbacks

  • If you’re not a pretty decent photographer, it can be hard to produce the type of images you see in your head and without the element of a location/surrounding (sunny day in the park?) the only emotion you will convey through this style of photography is that which comes directly from the kids and you have to be pretty darn good to get kids who don’t know you who feel a bit strange in a white room filled with big flashing lights to open up and show you emotion. And then when they do, you have to be ready to catch it in a split-second.
  • The right equipment can be really expensive. There are some really cool and clever ways of doing high key studio without any lights at all, but they’re not at all ideal for children as they involve staying in the same place within the set-up and kids never want to sit in the same place.
  • You need quite a large space for this type of set-up

kid-cakeSo once you’ve got your set up and your subjects, then what? Last week, I wrote an article called Helping Your Client Prepare for Their Shoot – Dress to Match the Sofa. Step one to making it a colourful shoot is helping your clients prepare. Something I forgot to mention is that in terms of clothing, especially for boys, shirts with collars are great for the close-up.

With a stark, bright white background, how do you make the shoot colourful? Obviously the clothing is important. After that, you just have to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get the kids to loosen up and have fun.

Having an enthusiastic assistant is a must. Someone who can stand behind your and interact with the kids in a way that will engage them and make them laugh. Sometimes the parents can be helpful and sometimes they can make things more tense. When the family comes in, I can usually tell right away what type they are and sometimes I offer them a cup of tea and a comfy chair to relax during the shoot and sometimes, I even direct the parents as to what side from which they should be engaging the kids to get them to look in the right direction.

Things I do in a typical shoot:

  • I get down on the floor, laying on my belly, and I encourage them to do the same. They put their face in their hands, lean up on their elbows, feet up, feet down, roll over.
  • We then both sit up cross legged and I show them all the poses to do. The posed shots aren’t always the best, especially the first sets, but it gets them in the frame of mind to be thinking of cool things to do and from there, they usually direct their own shoot!
  • My assistant once found a big bag of ball pit balls in a location I was hiring for the day and whispered in my ear ‘get ready’. He opened the bag and dumped the entire 100 balls onto the floor and the baby (about 18 months) went wild. The shoot when from tense to full of life immediately and turned out really well.kid-green
  • Give them something to keep them still for just a moment – like an entire cake! I love love love the messy sessions! You get tons of smiles and the kids are engrossed in something for a while, although not sitting in a tense, forced pose.
  • When you have siblings, getting them to interact well on camera can sometimes be tricky, but mostly if you just let them go for it (and have all ofyour lights insured against getting knocked over by wrestling boys!) then those can be so much better than when kids are on their own.
  • When kids are reluctant, I sometimes start by photographing their parent(s) just so they can see it’s all ok. I also let them push the button to trigger the lights or push the shutter to take a photo. The strobes can be scary when you’re little so knowing how they work helps when kids are apprehensive.
  • I always have a ladder handy to get some down shots to convey a sense of smallness (hey, kids are little!) or get them from another angle. Getting them to jump up towards you with their hands raised while up on the ladder is wicked cool, especially with a fish eye lens and a kooky angle.
  • Running. Seems easy but not really so easy! Get the child to stand at the back of the room or background and run towards you. The strobes need a second to recycle, so you can’t shoot 10 frames as they’re running. I wait until the split second they’re in the right spot running straight at me and fire the trigger. We can do that up to 10 times and the kids absolutely LOVE it. It’s a great thing to start with because they loosen up.
  • Screaming. I mentioned this once in an article about tips for photographing children. But a kid will be your best friend the moment you allow them to scream their ever-lovin-head off indoors! This would be great from up on the ladder as I mentioned earlier. Tell them certain things to scream “I love poo!” You might get tense looks from the parents, but they will love the photos in the end and that’s really all that matters!

Before starting my studio, I was really nervous about the part where I had to interact with the kids and help them along in their shoot with poses or just fun ideas in general but it came so naturally and after the first couple shots, the kids often take over and come up with tons of shots. And if you’re confident, the parents will be confident so don’t let on if you’re secretly crapping it!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Steve Smith October 5, 2011 01:00 am

    Thanks so much for your tips, i gave the whole write up a thorough looking over and had my first ever studio sitting today. Following your guidelines made me feel very comfortable and in control whilst maintaining the important fun factor!

  • Tim September 17, 2010 12:02 pm

    trying to upload an image....bear with me.

    EF 70-200MM

  • jonathan November 10, 2009 04:11 am

    Thanks Jerry
    I get it now.

  • Gerry Coe November 9, 2009 11:15 pm

    Last attempt, photo hopefully now attached.


  • Gerry Coe November 9, 2009 11:01 pm

    My photo did not load, will try again.[img]C:\Users\Gerry\Desktop\Coe Pencil 1.jpg[/img]

  • Gerry Coe November 9, 2009 10:46 pm

    Johnathon, This is not the sort of subject that can be called "High Key" and lightening the child will not help.
    My advice would be, No shoes or socks, a plain light coloured or white PLAIN t shirt and possibly lighter trousers. and then you could lighten the the subjects tones a bit. See my attached photo.

    [img]C:\Users\Gerry\Desktop\Albums\Coey\Coe Pencil 1.jpg[/img]

  • jonathan November 9, 2009 06:45 pm

    Would you call the attached photo high key or is the child`s skin tones not blown enough?[img]http://c4.ac-images.myspacecdn.com/images02/21/l_27cc09d28f654890bcd1b8acc26b1fb3.jpg[/img]

  • irene jones November 9, 2009 01:28 am

    Not a bad bit of advice. I love the ball idea, what fun that must have been to shoot. I recently wrote a blog post on my website along the same lines it has tips for both parents and photographers about how to make a session go smoothly. Check it out :

  • Sime November 8, 2009 04:23 am

    Simon, Don't follow...?


  • Simon November 8, 2009 02:03 am

    @Josh. I know you've been told before DON'T shoot a wedding without a back up camera. "Can't afford it" is not a valid excuse, put your price up enough to cover the cost and RENT IT. I pay between $80 and $150 to rent a Nikon D3 for a day or weekend. Shooting a one-time event with a single camera is irresponsible, and unfair to yourself, your bride, and the profession as a whole. (sorry for being off topic :)

    @Mattias, @Sime, you are certainly correct that many people use technical or semi-technical terms in a variety of confusing ways these days, and it doesn't help newcomers when this happens. However, I'm slightly surprised at your dogmatic attitude to the term "high key". It's pretty much standard to use that term to describe "generally bright" images. In particular I note two references. FIrst, in "Photography" London, et al. (Pearson/Prentice Hall) which is generally accepted as the "standard" text in the U.S. at least, the term High Key does not occur in the glossary nor in the index, and I'm darned if I can find it in the body of the text. Second, In "Lighting Techniques for High Key Portrait Photography", Norman Phillips (Amherst Media), the author defines high key as follows:

    "High Key is the term used to describe photographs with white or bright backgrounds, and usually with bright lighting situations that render subjects in a light tone similar to that of the background."

    On that basis, I think you've expressed personal opinion, rather than some almost-universally accepted judgment.


  • Gerry Coe November 7, 2009 08:07 pm

    I am working on a submission for "High Key" my way.
    @casal, Me espanol es no muy bueno pero aprendar. you use the word "expoximetro" is that a word for exposure? How does it translate, I could not find the word in the dictionary.

  • Vicky November 7, 2009 02:08 pm

    Looking forward to Gerry Coe's article. This is a great feed, I can't wait to see more. We are all trying to get better, no matter what you call it. Gerry, I learned so much from Zack's page, and also went to Elizabeth's site. My worst problem is not figuring out the lights, but posing. I am probably more technical than creative.

  • Jana November 7, 2009 01:35 pm

    Elizabeth, I loved your article and especially your reaction to all the critiques (some of them quite angry ;). Your tips on how to work with kids are awesome!

    Gerry, I am waiting for your article now...;)

    Matias, please relax and invest more time on taking great shots, not in correcting people. Now in a mean way at all.

  • Vicky November 7, 2009 01:16 pm

    I studied this...

    And did these in my (former) dining room...


  • Vicky November 7, 2009 01:09 pm

    slpurser01...go here...you can do this too. I set it up in my 11 x 15 dining room .

  • casal November 7, 2009 03:23 am

    se necesita bastante potencia en las lamparas y bastante espacio para obtener el blanco puro asi como un buen expoximetro para lograrlo

  • slpurser01 November 7, 2009 12:52 am

    I'm great with the kids etc... but I can't figure out how to set up the studio to get the "white background" I like so much... I'd love some hints on preparing the studio... not the client.

  • JenA November 6, 2009 09:43 pm

    Look forward to reading all about the "white" studio set-up.

  • Vicky November 6, 2009 09:19 am

    That cowbellyblog.com link is priceless!! I will study that for sure. My house does not lend well to natural light, thus the Britek lights. Yes, Zack Arias is a genius.

  • Jacqui November 6, 2009 03:18 am

    Great tutorial thank you with some lovely ideas for shooting children. I love the idea of using the ball pit balls. Jacqui

  • Gerry Coe November 6, 2009 01:32 am

    @Vicky, I have never heard of Zack Arias before, (he's never heard of me either) but his tutorials on High Key lighting are right on the button. I don't think there is much that I could add to what he has already said. I am enjoying reading his blog.

  • Elizabeth Halford November 6, 2009 01:02 am

    @April: lemme guess - you work for them? :) They ARE lovely, btw. Although in America. The only one I remember from living in America for that matter. I think they (USA) were a bit behind on catching the trend.

    @Vicky: Zack Arias is a genius isn't he? Oh my goodness if I could live in his website, I would.

    @simone: Did you see that last comment from Vicky? Great set-up for white studio. But if you don't have all that equipment (and a very calm granddaughter who can stay in one place(ish) check this out: http://www.cowbellyblog.com/2009/03/23/high-key-natural-light-studio-dog-photography-yes-really/

  • Vicky November 5, 2009 11:38 am


    I set this up in my former formal dining room, got great results. I bought a big roll of white paper from Fort Worth camera and white tile board from Lowe's and use 2 Britek PS300H on the background at f16 and another as main light at F11 (usually)

  • April November 5, 2009 04:18 am

    If you really like this style and want to see it in action, go to Picture People. Their photographers are trained to do exactly this. Many of them never held a camera before doing this job, but by the time they leave about a year later they're able to get excellent shots.

  • Gerry Coe November 4, 2009 10:20 am

    Ok Elizabeth, I will do an article on how to set up light "my way" for my "High Key" style portraits. Give me a few days to get it all sorted .

  • Simone November 4, 2009 07:26 am

    I would love to take better pictures of my granddaughter, any recommendations for setting up a in home studio..How can I obtain, the stark white studio, i notice in your pictures, its looks like the floor is completely whit as well (first picture) obviously, I'm a hobbyist, but I would like to learn about in home studio setup lighting..material to obtain the white background from top to bottom.

  • Kendall November 3, 2009 03:16 pm

    I think this post was amazing! I love all the photos in it and I admire all the work you guys have done on this site! I absolutely love DPS and visit it everyday and have loved reading every article available. Obviously some people think they are "better" than you guys, "better" than what you have done and that your work is lower than their own, but I think the 2 million people you get on this site is proof that all of this is completely awesome and is very helpful, otherwise you wouldn't have so many people reading your articles! Or am I wrong? The photo of the baby snacking on that yummy-looking cake is tremendous! I have kids and am astounded at how well the photo turned out. Who knew kids sat still? =) There's always "someone" better than you, isn't that what they say? I love your site and I'm glad I googled photography tips and found the site! This tutorial, btw, has not confused me one bit! Regardless of how long you have been doing something, you are obligated to mess up your words every now & then. It's the privledge of being human =)

    Love it & can't wait for the next post!

  • Adrian Johnson November 2, 2009 08:58 am

    This is such a great article. I run a small business manufacturing and retailing photographic backgrounds and studio backdrops. I sell a lot of white backgrounds and usually get blamed, when people use them and the results are not what they expected. In future I will recommend this article.



  • Gerry Coe November 2, 2009 04:06 am

    I agree with what you have said and the "High-Key" background is a good description. Your photographs are excellent and I like the spontaneous nature of them. The use of bright colours makes the children stand out. One other point, you misunderstood me, I did not "invent" the white background I was probably the first person in Ireland to start using it instead of the old traditional brown backgrounds with plants in the background etc. I was also the first person to work totally in B&W. High Key type work has been around from the early days of photography. Like you said there is nothing new, all we can hope is to put our style onto something that will give it a new look.
    Now days things are starting to change again and the "Low Key" style with dark backgrounds are starting to creep in. Mostly with slightly older kids but all ages will work.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Elizabeth Halford November 2, 2009 02:43 am

    @david: ha ha yeah you're right - making children say unacceptable things is never appropriate and I judge depending on whether I know the parents at all or not. But I hope no one would take advice from anyone if it does not gel well with their own sensibilities. But thanks so much for bringing that up good point!

  • Elizabeth Halford November 2, 2009 02:41 am

    @matias, sime & gerry:
    Hello and thanks so much for taking the time to read my post. I am truly honoured that such seasoned pros as yourself would even read to the end so thank you. Firstly, I must state the obvious: this isn't an article about 'high key' photography. It's an article about helping children in the studio. I simply used the term in passing in the title. High Key is a term which (as us younger set can attest) has taken on a bit of an assumed/revised definition. Photographers often refer to white background studio photos as 'high key' simply because we have no other short description other than "photography-with-a-white-background" and who wants to say that over and over?

    @Gerry, very impressed that you basically invented photos with a white background - wow! Although I call this a 'new' technique because even 20 years ago is still relatively new in comparison to how long photography has been alive - it's all relative. I only said that it has recently become popular, not that it is new.

    @matias: "...this new age thing of amateurs getting to business" Aren't all start-up business people amateurs when they start out? You're not a pro until you're...well...a pro.

    Thank you again for all of your very knowledgeable input for it has hilighted that I am very low in the pecking order, indeed. If you think you can write a satisfying tutorial on high key photography as you understand it, I invite you to please submit a guest contribution via the user forums - looking forward to reading what you come up with - maybe I will learn something!

  • Gerry Coe November 1, 2009 10:35 am

    Hi, White backgrounds have been used for years now and I was one of the first people to use it in Ireland and have been doing so for over 20 years now. The white background is great with kids and a general overall light ( preferably 2 lights) on the front, and 2 to light the background will give a lovely soft light. And if the backlights are balanced correctly then you have a plain white background without flare. I do agree above that that is not "High Key" If you wish to see some "High Key" work then look at my site and look at the "Pencil Portraits" style. That is how High Key works. I give many talks and demos on how to achieve this effect and it still takes a while for people to get it right. [img]http://www3.clikpic.com/coefoto/images/ONeill_087_pencil_WS_thumb.jpg[/img]

  • Sime November 1, 2009 09:54 am

    Matias, while you're technically correct - there are no "high key" photos in the post - there's no reason why some of the ideas by the poster can't be adapted to a high key situation... Get rid of the shadows, user higher exposure values and you're talking high key.

  • Matias Holmgren November 1, 2009 08:43 am


    I would like to make a point, these photos are not "high key"!!! It's stunning me, as a professional, how people are nowadays calling everything "high key" or "low key". It does not make a photo high key, if your key is not high! It doesn't make your extremely normally lit photo "high key" if you have blown out background. As it most definitely doesn't make your photo "low key" if you have black background.

    These type of internet tutorials are very confusing to amateurs out there searching information.

    I'm sorry to be so rude, but you are simply spreading false information and underlining your professional status. I'm not saying that your photos might not sell well but this new age thing of amateurs getting to business and not even knowing the basics is just annoying me so much. I would be extremely happy if you corrected this page but in reality, I know it won't happen.

  • Elizabeth Halford October 31, 2009 08:27 pm

    @jesse - You are so so right. It's funny because I've learned not to actually do too much to edit photos for most people because when I do artsy things, they just don't 'get it' and I can tell they don't like it. Most people want pictures, not art so I do the artsy things just for myself.

    @major bokeh - check back next week. I'm working on a post about the equipment I use and then another one on the specifics of how I set up and shoot in my studio with all the tech details.
    Oops...forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  • Blaize October 31, 2009 05:35 pm

    great advice, i also find 30 minutes to be ideal as you mentioned - kids just lose interest after half an hour or so. but it varies - some kids can play happily for an hour others 10 minutes before you need to start improvising. i often compare kid photography to wildlife photography - you seldom know what you are going to get. ;-)

  • David October 31, 2009 08:47 am

    Screaming ... Tell them certain things to scream “I love poo!” You might get tense looks from the parents, but they will love the photos in the end and that’s really all that matters!

    I think you should be careful with this one. I know parents who would probably get up and leave with their kids immediately if you got them to say unacceptable things. Maybe check with the parents first, or just think of things that won't offend the parents.

  • Elizabeth Halford October 31, 2009 04:14 am

    @jesse - You are so so right. It's funny because I've learned not to actually do too much to edit photos for most people because when I do artsy things, they just don't 'get it' and I can tell they don't like it. Most people want pictures, not art so I do the artsy things just for myself.

    @major bokeh - check back next week. I'm working on a post about the equipment I use and then another one on the specifics of how I set up and shoot in my studio with all the tech details.

  • Jesse Kaufman October 31, 2009 04:01 am

    @josh "I’m not, but only the clients opinion truly matters when you are getting paid" -- I'm glad you posted that ... it's been one of the hardest things I'm having to learn ... just because *I* don't like the picture or don't think it's up to my standards, or whatever, doesn't mean the client won't like it ... which is (at least in this kind of photography) the entire point ... i recently shot a wedding too (however, I got lucky and didn't have rain, so the background was the Colorado mountains!!) and wasn't completely happy with the turnout ... my client, on the other hand, was BEYOND ecstatic at how the pictures turned out

  • Major Bokeh October 31, 2009 03:56 am

    Great tips, but can you give more detail on how you actually light the kids in your studio? Like number, placement and percentage of power on each strobe?


  • Josh October 31, 2009 03:55 am

    "And if you’re confident, the parents will be confident so don’t let on if you’re secretly crapping it!"

    Excellent advice. I secretly was very unhappy about the way things were going at a wedding I had recently shot. It was supposed to be outdoors, but it was pouring rain. We got crammed in to a tiny house with no good backgrounds and my camera was not cooperating (yes I should have a back u, but I'm not wealthy enough yet.)

    Anyway to make a long story short, I kept smiling and did my best with post processing and they are very happy with the results. (I'm not, but only the clients opinion truly matters when you are getting paid)

  • Jesse Kaufman October 31, 2009 03:53 am

    great and helpful article! i'd love to see more about the actual studio setup for this kind of situation, but that's kinda outside the article's point (ideas) ... this gives me a lot of ideas just to tryout on my own son before taking it to clients! thank you very much! :)

  • Matt October 31, 2009 01:35 am

    Great tips, thank you mucho!

    Do you know of any resources that show simple (and creative) ways to set up a high key studio in a home or in a smallish room? I have some basic lighting equipment, but would love to learn more about doing this right.