We’ve all seen family photos where everyone is happy, kids are smiling, and the whole brood looks like they are having the time of their lives. Photos like this seem so natural that it’s easy to think they required almost no work at all, when in reality the photographer was likely working like crazy behind the scenes trying to get the perfect pictures.
Shooting photos of adults is one thing, but working with kids brings a whole new set of challenges to the table. Whereas adults generally take directions and respond to requests, kids can be running all over the place, and getting kids to cooperate can be a bit like trying to herd cats. If you have ever had an experience like this, or if you are thinking about getting into family photography, here are four tips for photographing kids that might come in handy.
These usually help when I’m doing a family photo session, and if you struggle when taking pictures of kids, some of these tips might be just the ticket for that elusive perfect photo.
Get to know the children
Anyone who has spent time doing family photos already knows this rule, but I have seen plenty of photographers fail to get the shots they were aiming for, because they did not do this simple initial step. The first thing I do when taking family pictures is spend a few minutes getting to know the kids. I ask them what their names are, their age or year in school, and have them tell me a little bit about their lives. Ask them specific questions, otherwise you’ll get answers that are too general and unhelpful. “Do you have pets? What are their names? What’s your favorite kind of ice cream? What’s your favorite movie?”
By learning a bit about these kids they felt more comfortable working with me and I got much better pictures as a result.
Don’t stop there though. Use these first few minutes as a chance to build a relationship with the kids, and tell them a bit about yourself too, so they see you as a friendly photographer, and not a scary adult with a giant camera lens. One trick to doing this is answering the questions you pose to them after they have had their turn. I like to get a little goofy and set a fun tone for the shoot by giving fake answers that usually make kids laugh. “I’ve got a pet iguana named Mr. Pickles. I like peanut butter and green bean ice cream.” You might feel a bit silly doing this, but it accomplishes two very important things:
- It helps establish a relationship and sense of trust between you and the kids, making them much more likely to cooperate during the rest of the session.
- It shows the parents that you care about their kids, which can make all the difference between a successful shoot, and a series of awkward moments that will haunt you for weeks.
Have them bring something special
Once you have a foundation built with the little ones, it’s time to actually take some pictures. This can be a little difficult because kids aren’t used to doing things that you usually want them to do when taking photos. You might have a specific pose or composition in mind, but the kids would much rather be running around or climbing trees.
One of my favorite tricks is to have children bring artifacts from their own lives such as books, stuffed animals, or a favorite toy. Not only will it give them something on which to focus their attention during the photo shoot, but it gives you something you can talk about to build a good working relationship for your brief time together. Have them tell you a bit about their stuffed animal, ask if you can read a few pages from the book, or spend a minute playing with their toys together.
It may seem silly to have thousands of dollars of camera gear sitting idle while you and the kids are pretending to play house with stuffed bunnies, but think about the big picture (ha!) here: by doing this you are sowing the seeds for a successful session and impressing the adults at the same time. And that can be worth a lot when they call you for more pictures in the coming years.
This boy’s grandfather told me this was his favorite photo of his grandson, partially because of the book which was a family favorite.
Take some information and twist it
One of my favorite tactics to get kids to smile and laugh, is taking something they already told me when I was getting to know them, and asking about it later on, but with a twist. I purposely get some basic facts incorrect.
If a little girl brought along her favorite toy truck, ask her about her airplane. “It’s not an airplane, it’s a truck!” she will often reply with a huge grin. If a boy told you he is five years old, ask him how he likes being seven. When he corrects you, tell him you’ve always been bad at math so you might keep forgetting.
My favorite trick is to make up my own words. A couple of kids brought their well-worn copy of the children’s classic Green Eggs and Ham, but when I talked with them about it I pronounced it Green Freggs and Fram. These little intentional screw-ups almost always make the kids laugh and smile, and it also gives them a chance to teach you something in return, which kids almost always like doing. Let them correct your mistake and show you how to do it properly, and they will start to feel like they have a true back-and-forth relationship instead of seeing you as just another adult bossing them around. In doing so you will find the kids to be much more cooperative when you really do have instructions for them to follow.
Embrace the absurdity
As adults we have all too many inhibitions when it comes to expressing ourselves. We worry about what people will think, how our clothes look, and what everyone around us is doing, and as a result we generally don’t like to make waves, cause a ruckus, or deviate from the norm. Most kids have no such filters, and the results can make for some hectic and stressful photography sessions – if you let it. If you’re the kind of photographer who relishes control and order, perhaps photographing kids is not your particular cup of tea. If you can learn to accept the absurd serendipity of kids, you will not only get some better photos as a result, but you and your clients will have a much better time as a result.
This girl was so bubbly that she rarely stood still, and by embracing her goofiness I got some pictures that her parents were thrilled with.
Rather than telling kids what to do and how to pose, let them just be themselves and capture pictures in the moment. Shots of them playing, goofing around, and jumping on each other might not be what you had in mind initially, but these are the kind of pictures parents, family, and friends often enjoy the most. If your clients do want some specific poses try to get them done first, and then let the kids have fun and loosen up a bit.
“Mr. Ringsmuth, can we take some photos in a flower pot?” “Sure boys, why not?”
One point to remember is that you’re not just taking pictures but creating and capturing memories. Months down the road when clients show your photos to their friends and family, they will often discuss the photo session itself, and how you treated them and their kids. Even if your photos are stunning, your clients will often sour the moment with a bit of commentary about you as an individual. “Yeah this photo is nice but the guy who took it was such a jerk! He practically yelled at our kids to get them to smile.” You want them to be saying things like “We are so happy with the pictures, and our kids had such a fun time with the photographer. She really connected with them and made them laugh.” Not only are your clients more likely to appreciate their pictures, they will be more willing to book future sessions with you, and sing your praises to their acquaintance,s which will often lead to more customers.
What about you? What are your favorite tips and tricks for taking pictures of little ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below, along with any examples of your favorite kid photos.