Children are so stinking fun to photograph. They are full of emotions and expressions. I want to preface this by saying that I have very little experience working with babies and toddlers, I am not a baby whisperer. I think any child under 3 just KNOWS they have one up on me because they I am FREAKED out by this age group. So this post applies to kids between the ages of four and sixteen. I approach teens older than sixteen as young adults. I did photograph newborns and toddler early in my career but they ran me out of the room and I learned that I needed to focus on the older kids.
Each child is different so these tips are just suggestions they may not work for every child as each his or her personality.
The best preparation you can do is to talk with the parents before the shoot. Parents must understand how you work. You must be able to take control over the photo session long before it begins by providing the parents with good information about the session. Of course, you do this in a friendly way and let them know that your guidelines via a welcome packet or detailed email.
How to prep parents before a shoot
- Prepare your child: talk about the session a few times during the week before the shoot.
- Make sure your child understands that the session will be fun, but that they should also listen to directions from the photographer. Many time kids don’t take well to strangers so let them know that this person is here to do a job for the family and is it’s ok to be nice to them.
- Make sure the child has had a proper meal beforehand – and bring a snack to the session.
- Make sure the child´s hair, face, and hands are washed and clean. Also, make sure their teeth are brushed and clean. You have no idea how hard it is to delete food from teeth in Photoshop.
- Plan the session at a time of day when the child is rested. A child that needs a nap or that is cranky is not a child that will be cooperative.
- If you are planning studio portraits. The fewer people on the set, the better the child will be able to focus. Unfortunately, that means no grandma, friends or family members. When I worked for a local chain kids would get distracted and run out of the studio into the mall because of all of the people around. Now that I own my own business I see a huge difference in child behavior because it’s just the family.
- Don’t dress the child ahead of time if you don’t have to. Kids get dirty in the car, I know my kids always ALWAYS manage to find a red juice box under the seat and spill it on their shirts so I learned to bring a big bag of their best clothes and shoes with me to the session. I also advise parents to bring hats and hair pieces. (If the session is taking place at the family home, you can politely ask to look in their closet for other styling goodies.)
How to interact with kids on a photo session
You´ll quickly learn that you need to have a special place in your heart for kids to establish a bond with them on a shoot. This bond will help you get those perfect little smiles from them. If you have no tolerance or patience for children, you should focus on adults instead. Children will pick up on your stress and frustration and make the shoot that much harder for you.
Your goal should be to make friends with the child before you begin shooting. They need to feel safe with you and know that they can have a good time. Don’t just show up, start shooting and expect them to smile for the camera! You don´t have to entertain them or act like a goofy clown, just small talk a little and ask them some questions about what they like – popular subjects to talk about are the family pets, best friends, and hobbies and fav school subjects.
Kids love to talk about themselves. Ask them about their hobbies and favorite things. Ask what they watch on television, and build the further conversation from their answers. Give them plenty of encouragement and let them know that they are doing a great job. (I always give encouragement even if the child does not perform well because doing so will get them to focus on me and my directions + they´ll begin to feel more comfortable and become more present). Being on a photo shoot is often a new experience for a child, so be sure to take any pressure off them. For the most part, children want to do a good job you just need to get them to trust you first.
- Most kids are actors and actresses. Have some patience
Many times I spend the first 15-20 minutes of a session, taking pictures of the children knowing that the pictures are not going to make the cut. This time is really to help the child relax and get to know me and what we are going to be doing. I’ll ask questions, I often bring coffee for the parents and ask them to step away (not too far though, and allow the kids and I to chat, we look at my camera and I often bring an extra body so they can take pictures of me too. I tense or shy kid is hard to work with, but I know that after a while the child will feel more safe and relaxed. Then, I get my pictures. Patience will pay off in the end!)
- Build a connection with them.
This makes the concept of a photo shoot less abstract. It also builds confidence in tweens and teens because it helps with confidence and lets them know they are doing well. This age group is also focused on images perception so help them by reassuring them they are doing well. The younger age group will get a kick out of seeing their pictures.
- Don´t try to force the child to do anything
You cannot get anything remarkable out of a child who is emotionally shut down. Ask the child for their ideas, you will be so surprised by what they bring to the table,
- Show them their photos
Most children are visual and need to see you do it. It works best if you actually stand, or sit, in the pose for a few seconds and then guide the child after that.
Child portraits are best with simple props and locations. Use a chair for them to sit on, place them on some stairs, in a doorway or have them lean against a wall. Less is always more.
- Focus on the child
Look in magazines or catalogs for posing inspiration. When you see a pose you like, cut that image out and put it in a scrapbook. By doing this, you start to create your own posing guide. Look through that book before you begin your session and decide on at least five poses in advance. That way you will have a good start at your session and the rest of your ideas will follow.
Shot list of children’s portraits
- a headshot portrait – vertically
- a headshot portrait – horizontally
- a half body shot – from the stomach and up – horizontally
- a half body shot – from the stomach and up – vertically
- A full body shot – vertically or horizontally
- Movement, action, activity – captured when the child is naturally playing, jumping, dancing or something similar
- Close up, details (hands, eyes, smiles, feet, details on clothes)
- 1-3 set´s of clothes changes (to many will tire out the child)
- Watch out for things you don´t want in the picture
Always be aware of the little details – they can make or break your photos. Look for dirt in the eye corner, hair in the mouth, running nose ect. It´s just too much of a hassle to edit it away in photoshop after your session. And I know from experience that it´s so easy to overlook because there are always so many other details to pay attention too.
TIP: Always ask for permission before you put your client’s pictures on your blog or website. I often offer two “free of charge” image, if they will let me use their pictures to promote myself. This is a win-win situation as it will help you build your portfolio and get new clients.