Let Them Run Around: Photographing Children

Let Them Run Around: Photographing Children


The girl in this photo was like the Energizer bunny- she wouldn't sit still! This photo was taken as part of a family portrait session. The posed shots were challenging because three young children didn't want to sit still. Once we allowed her to play in the surf a little, we got much better shots of her.

I am often asked by people, “What can I do to get my children to sit for a photo?” Children can be among the most compelling of subjects to photograph, and as a professional, one of the most profitable.  But children have this odd tendency to want to move around, and not sit still.  This can at times be frustrating when looking for that perfect portrait.  To combat this, as a photographer, a change in mindset is in order. Rather than trying to force the child to sit still, try allowing the children to move around.  Let them get involved in exploring their surroundings. No, you won’t get the traditional portrait of the subject sitting in front of the camera, but you may just get something better, more natural, and more fitting with the child’s personality.

Children can sometimes be the hardest subjects to photograph because they become self conscious in front of the camera.  The worst thing I’ve ever heard a parent say to a child when being photographed is something along the lines of “Let’s see a REAL smile!”  Parents think they are helping but saying such things makes the child wonder what’s wrong with the smile they just gave, and the next one will invariably be worse.  By putting children in their own element, allowing them to explore, to play, you elicit a more natural response that shows their true personalities.

This shot was taken in the child's own home. She was shy around the camera and wouldn't sit still for me. By allowing her to roam around, talk to me, get to know me, she let her guard down, and I was able to get some candid shots of her.

One of the ways to encourage children to be themselves is to put them in a setting that they’ll want to explore. A studio setting, while great for the photographer, can be a nightmare for children.  The lighting, the stands, the backgrounds are at times intimidating and at others distracting.  If a child is going to be distracted, have them be distracted by something that will make a great picture. Often, when I am approached by people to photograph their children, I’ll suggest a setting like a beach, a park, or even their own bedroom. These types of settings put them at ease. Once they are at ease, a variety of shots, including the traditional portrait, can be captured.

Another tack to take would be to schedule the session to specifically be a play session.  In the winter, with snow on the ground, a hillside with sleds can be an ideal setting for capturing children.  Bring a couple of sleds and let them have fun! Build a snowman! Have a snowball fight! In the summer, at the beach, playing in the water and in the sand provides a wonderful glimpse into children’s personalities. A pool will work just as well. Any park setting with a jungle gym is a great starting point for a children’s session. Let them climb, let them swing, let them get dirty.

Get the kids out and let them play!  Just be sure you are ready with the camera when they do.

In the winter, a snow-covered hillside can be the perfect setting for a children's session.


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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • lizzy May 1, 2013 09:17 pm

    how do you get off camera light indoors if the child is moving round? my camera does not work well indoors with just natural light - i find i need a high ISO, meaning the photos are poorer quality, and the on camera flash looks harsh

  • Guigphotography January 19, 2013 11:52 pm

    Great article. Has to be one of the most rewarding things to do with a camera too. I almost always prefer the candid shots, so letting them play is a great way to get natural shots. I often find that grabbing their attention mid-play makes for some great portraits too, if you get the time to arrange your position. Thanks Rick!

  • Alan Combs January 19, 2013 01:55 am

    I agree that letting kids play is a great tool, but I try to work in a balance of more posed looks as well. I have 3 kids under 7 and find as long as I have my camera ready I will find a "posed" look as well as some fun ones of them at play. You do have to let them be themselves to. Don't try to make them something their not. I use a 50mm 1.8 for most of my kid shots and it does an amazing job.

  • Rick Berk January 18, 2013 12:16 pm

    Hi DIane- Johnny beat me to it.
    Brendan- the best I can tell you is be quick and be mobile. Kids are unpredictable and you just have to be ready. if they are playing sometimes it can't hurt to call their name and get them to look up at you.

  • Johnny Walsh January 18, 2013 06:44 am

    Diane: To get good shots with a Canon camera make sure you are putting your shutter speed (the number in the upper left hand corner of display) to a very quick setting. Something like 1/250 or higher. This will help capture the moment quickly. Just make sure you adjust the other two settings (Aperture and ISO) to get enough light in the photo. Aperture should be lower number to get more light, ISO should be higher to get more light. Hope this helps!

  • Diane Soto January 18, 2013 04:46 am

    I have a Canon t3i camera and still have yet to figure how to take good photos with children (moving around); my pix comes out blurry. Can someone help me with this issue, please.

  • subbu January 18, 2013 04:10 am

    Hello i like the idea of letting children free. However what are the different settings that will help me take good pictures?

  • brendan January 18, 2013 02:48 am

    Any tips on positioning yourself to best capture candid pictures of kids? I always seem to be on the side opposite where they are looking.

  • Joseph January 18, 2013 02:28 am

    I did a session with a two year old and his mother was so in his face, smoothing his hair, getting mad, making him sit and I had to take her aside and say "If we make him mad….we're all done. Finished. Just let him be and I will follow him around". It always works out better. If you have a meltdown, you get nothing.

  • Cheri Fettes January 17, 2013 09:08 am

    Guess I'm the lucky one, I have a photogenic granddaughter, who loves the camera. Since she was a babe in arms, and now at age 4 she adores posing in great ways, both natural and the "standard" poses. Now, she has her own real digital child's camera and she looks like me, when I bend or squat for a good angle.
    (it would be awesome if I could upload an image direct from my computer!)

  • raghavendra January 17, 2013 01:00 am

    Agree that they will not remain in a single place,
    but that is what makes to take pictures on them :)


  • gnslngr45 January 17, 2013 12:07 am

    Completely agree with this post. I have 3 kids under 5 and to get even 2 of them in a portrait setting is extremely difficult. 99% of my good photos of them are candid.
    You have to take what you are given especially if you want authentic smiles and really portray their personalities.


  • Zain Abdullah January 16, 2013 06:22 pm

    Having kids is an advantage to practise shooting "free model" although not absolutely free since you still need to bribe them with sweets, ice-cream and junk food. I have four kids and I normally experiment with them.

    My fourth kid, Nashmia, is framed by "the star"

    My third and fourth child, Aishah and Nashmia playing the slide

    My kids and wife

    My son, Danial, is framed by the stone bench

  • bobbyv January 16, 2013 02:46 pm

    another tip is to use a longer than usual lens, so you are not in their personal space, so they can be relaxed and more natural ... then be patient and wait for that priceless expression ...

    also, pictures of them when they are crying or frowning are also interesting, even if only because they stand out from the usual pictures of smiles, but moreso because one is forced to try to remember the context of that particular instant

  • Mei Teng January 16, 2013 11:26 am

    Great tips and beautiful pics.

  • Scottc January 16, 2013 10:50 am

    We don't have children, and I'm careful about photographing them, but sometimes come up with a good "still" capture.


  • Rona January 16, 2013 09:56 am

    I love this article - I always try to get a posed photo - but, when that doesn't work, let the kids have the more natural setup, toys, interesting rocks, a tea set, a book, you get so much more of the "real smiles". I will then try to sneak a couple of posed photos in the middle of all of the "chaos"! It works! I am glad I am not the only one who does this.

  • Jennifer January 16, 2013 06:02 am

    I would love to know what settings you use to photograph kids. Aperture priority, manual? Spot metering, evaluative? I LOVE back lit settings and sunflare but capturing kids with this (and getting it great SOOC) is my nemesis!

  • Mridula January 16, 2013 03:34 am

    Maybe this will work for my daughter, she is also unable to sit still!


  • Juan January 16, 2013 03:20 am

    Great tips. I shoot just for the fun of it and I have taken pictures of my friends' sons and daughters when they pay a visit or when we meet by chance and the portraits I snap of their children are by far some of the best portraits I have taken.