Some tips for photographing children

An infant mimics the pose of her older sister as they pose by a pond.
Very often, children will imitate their older siblings, which I think is adorable. 

I have two incredibly adorable nieces (not the two charming kids shown above) who have been brought up in the Facebook age. We have a lot of fun playing, and they are genuinely healthy and happy kids, I’m sure, who will grow up to be amazing adults. But they have this amazing capacity to hit these perfect poses whenever a camera is raised in their direction. Some of it, I’m sure, comes from them seeing their favorite performers pose in music videos and in the various media, but it still kinda freaks me out whenever they do it. It’s like watching these goofy five- and seven-years olds turn in to adult models on cue.

In my experience, most kids don’t do that.

Maybe it’s because my nieces know me, and they know their folks (who shoot most of the photos they appear in and get posted almost daily on Facebook) but it seems pretty rare that the children of my clients are able to get comfortable so quickly in front of the camera when we start shooting. By the time we’re done shooting, though, most of the kids I work with don’t want the picture-taking process to stop. One parent even emailed me the day after a family portrait shoot and said, “[my son] woke up this morning and asked me when we can "go play with Thomas again?!?!" He's asked me at least 10 times. When sedans pull into our driveway, he yells "It's Thomas!"  Just to blow my own horn a bit, that same mom asked, when she saw the photos of her kids, “how do you make reality look so damn good?”
A young man strikes a pose on a small footbridge in this photo.
Young Luke, the first time I met him.
Looking like a sheriff from the old west, that same young man is seen two years later.
And then two years later. One tough cowboy.

So here are the few simple steps I follow when I work with children. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if the little ones are two years old or 17.

Play with them. Kids have to feel comfortable with you, as if you are their friend. Grown-ups are giant, strange entities when you’re a kid, with different ways and viewpoints. But if you make an effort to enter their world, it means a lot to them and can really help to make them comfortable when you need them to smile or behave in a certain way while making portraits.
A young girl beams as she runs past the camera, her hair flying.
I spent a lot of time running around and playing with Penelope. 
When I was a little kid, I loved “Lost In Space,” and I set up my own little spaceship in the basement using the cushions of the window bench. My parents had a circle of friends they entertained from time to time, and there was one of dad’s colleagues, Bill, who took time away from the grown-ups’ party to come downstairs and have me explain the complex workings of my little star-bound explorer. This guy is a respected Nuclear Physicist, and he happily played the role of co-pilot on our missions exploring other galaxies.

I thought this was the coolest grown-up in the whole world. To this day he remains a very dear friend, though he swears he doesn’t remember playing at space travel with me when I was nine.

But he did teach me a valuable lesson about how adults can relate to kids. Now in almost every shoot I do with kids, I make a point to try to enter their world and make them the boss of it. If they can explain how they play a game or why they like the toy they are holding, it creates a kind of understanding that helps when it comes time to take pictures. I’m not just a big person telling them to behave a certain way: I’m a co-conspirator helping them to have fun, and maybe being pretty goofy while I’m doing it. (It helps to be something of a clown, and also to be willing to get your clothes dirty crawling around on your knees.)
Several children attempt a yoga balancing pose in this photo.
Not everybody is able to hold their balance, and this sort of thing inevitably induces laughter and smiles.

Get down to their level. When you’re three, or four, or nine years old just about every interaction you have with the adult world means you have to look up. Orders and rules and everyday conversations come down from the grown-ups towering above you. It’s true that love and affection comes down from your parents above you, but so can punishment and scoldings and orders to go to the principal’s office.
A young girl shows off her pet for the camera.
This is one of the few times that I think looking down to a subject has "worked."

So when I photograph kids, I try to get down to their eye level, and stay there as much as I can. With really young kids, this can mean that I am on my stomach while I’m taking pictures of them. Most little kids think this is hilarious and it helps them to open up a bit. I’m not just another grown-up standing like a sequioa above them. I’m a peer, a buddy, a playmate. Some times the only way or the only time you can get a photo of a child is when you’re standing, but it makes a huge difference when you can get on the same plane they are, or even have them looking down at you. I think it gives them a bit of confidence, too, and that helps them be more expressive.

A toddler beams up at his mother, out of the frame, as he walks in a sunlit meadow.
I was laying on my stomach for this little man, who didn't yet have a lot of experience with walking.

Don’t make them sit still. Stillness isn’t something that comes naturally to most kids anyway. They want to run! To jump! To play! I let them. Sure, it sometimes means I have to chase them around trying to take pictures of them, but it also means they are spending their energy having fun rather than being on guard for me. My theory with both adults and children is that when people are having fun doing what they like, that’s when they look their happiest and best.
This young lady plays hide and seek behind a tree on a pretty fall afternoon.
It may look like she's sitting still, but it's a during a game of hide-and-seek.

Let them be kids. This may seem obvious, but I find a lot of adults who seem to want their two-year-olds to act like they're forty. I never understand this, because the things that make your kids special to you are the mannerisms and behaviors they exhibit while exploring their world and learning to be adults. 
Two young children peer over the railing of a footbridge at the water below.
Checking out the wildlife at a local pond. Some of my favorite images are of kids exploring their environments.
grown-up siblings goof around during a portrait session.
Even older, um, children, have fun goofing around, and these kinds of photos often say more about
relationships and personalities than when they're just standing still and behaving. 
Before heading to prom, a large group of teenagers vamps for a photo.
Kids of every age love to show off and ham it up for the camera. 
Let them take breaks.  Most kids aren’t going to have the patience to behave for extended periods of time. Heck, I’m not even sure adults are built to do this, but at least they have more practice at faking it. It’s very common, if I’m photographing children, that I put the camera down every few minutes and let the kids run around and burn off steam. Let them get a snack, have a drink of water, play with the dog, whatever.

A mother holds her son high in her arms as he reaches out to touch a tree branch.
During a little break in shooting, mom and son explored their surroundings, and it made a sweet image.
Very often, too, by watching them do the stuff they want to do when we’re not shooting it gives me ideas about how to get them to do what I want them to do once I’m behind the camera again. Often you can just continue the activity they did during the break, but now it’s happening while you’re making photos.

Little breaks keeps us both sane, and usually helps kids focus a bit once we get back to taking pictures. There isn’t really a schedule for this: it’s just something you have to watch for an intuit. It’s also good to know when kids have had enough and you have to call it a day. Usually by then we’re both ready for a nap.

Father and daughter watch the action as she sits in his lap.
Another photo that happened during a break, but also a nice interaction
between dad and daughter on a pretty autumn afternoon.
Get the parents involved.  There aren’t many sentences that are more frustrating to me than to hear, “oh, I just want you to photograph little George.. I don’t want to be in the pictures.” There is no one in the world that your child trusts and to whom he or she will open up more than mommy or daddy. I always encourage parents to get in there and play with their children, if only for part of the time. I should say that I try not to make anyone pose too much: kids don’t like holding poses (except for my nieces) and if you have a whole family trying to pose you’re almost always going to end up with one person blinking or looking the wrong direction or something.
With her son on her shoulders, mom tries to navigate with her eyes covered.
To me, this photo says a lot about how much fun mom is, and how much
her kids must get from being around her. You don't need to see the eyes or
have them looking at the camera: body language says it all.

Parents hoist their baby in the air, much to the delight of the baby.
When you get the parents involved playing with their children, you can often see the love. 
As I said, my philosophy is that if people — even very little people — are enjoying themselves and having a good time, that’s when they look their best anyway. I can’t remember how often I’ve heard someone describing a favorite relative by saying, “he used to make this great face when he laughed!” Or, “that time when we were all around the campfire at the lake, I’ll never forget how happy she looked.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Uncle Kevin sure did know how to sit up straight and smile.” On that note..

Don’t let the parents get involved. As I said, I don’t generally work by having people pose in a formal way for me. If they’re already doing something great and I think it might be better if they were making eye contact with the camera I may say, “hey, look over here for a sec.” But it’s not uncommon that parents have certain expectations about what they want a portrait to look like, and usually that’s along the lines of what they looked like in their yearbook or what they saw on the wall at the photo studio in the mall. Sit up straight. Smile, but not too much. Tilt your head a little. A little more, please? Good. Aaaaaannnnd, “click.” Does that sound like your kid?

No? You’d be surprised how many parents I’ve had standing behind me barking at their 10-month old to smile and behave. This almost never generates the kind of response they want, and I’m sure some of those kids are going to end up in therapy later on. I tend to think that the kids hear the stress in their parents’ voices and probably start to get anxious themselves, which just feeds in to the whole disaster. What do I do when this happens? Why, time for a break!

Usually I try to make this look like I need to put in fresh batteries or check the light or something, and in a minute or so after dad’s blood pressure has gone down I’ll quietly suggest something like the following: “You know,” I say, “it may be that your son or daughter is kinda freaked out by having me here with all this camera gear that I’m shoving in their face and the lights and stuff. And it might take them a few moments to get used to me and the noise and commotion, so how about we just let me shoot some ‘throwaway’ pictures of them just playing, and then once it’s not so strange and new to them we can get the ‘real’ photos where they can pose and feel less aware of me?”

Then what I can do is use the time shooting to change the parents’ focus from a “we have to get a good formal portrait of Timmy” to “we should help Timmy have fun during this process so that we’ll end up with him posing for a good formal portrait later on.” And while we’re “just playing and having fun having the camera make noise” I can occasionally get the child’s attention and have them look at me for a nice portrait. Very often, those photos of the little one just playing end up being very dear to the parents, more so than the static posed pictures.
Charming child beams for the camera in a garden setting.
I don't have a photo example of parents behaving badly, but I do think this little
lady is adorable, and she struck this pose without any coaching at all. 

Along those lines, when it does come time to try to get the little one to look up and smile, there’s almost no one who can do that better than a parent. Often, parents want to stay out of my way, and so they will be ten feet off to the side saying “Joanie, look at the camera!” Of course, Joannie hears her mom’s voice and looks over to the side where mommy is standing. I often have to encourage parents to sit or stand right behind me (I’m usually on my knees, down at the child’s level) so that when they do look up toward mommy’s voice, they’re mostly also looking in my direction.

Let them see the pictures. Ahhhh, the glorious digital age. I was dragged in to it kicking and screaming. Now, though, I love it, and I’ve found that one of the best tools in my bag of tricks is to let people see what I’m shooting in as much of a “real-time” way as I can. Once in a great while I’ll shoot tethered so that the images show up on my laptop seconds after I press the shutter, but in the field that’s not terribly practical. So I carry a loupe with me to show parents and kids the pictures I’ve made every few minutes.
Two young girls have fun climbing a tree.
Like the jaguar, lounging in the treetops.

At first I hesitated about doing this. I don’t want to have people see the images that don’t work; the ones I’ve screwed up or those where they don’t look good. After all, I am an Artiste! But it turns out that it’s a terrific way for subjects to feel like they are getting some sort of concrete reward from the process. We take a few photos, and then they get to see them. And voila! They almost always want to take some more, and to do something to make them better. It turns reticent, hesitant, quiet kids in to little Johnny Depps who want to look good for the camera. Sometimes it makes them act up a little too much, but so what? Let them get it out of their system, and then make the good pictures. It costs almost nothing to make a few goofy photos, and the time spent is time building a better rapport with your subjects.
The photographer shows a picture on his camera to a gleeful young boy.
Kids love seeing photos you've just taken of them.

As to those pictures that aren’t the best ones, it’s easy to explain. I tell parents (and kids) that because I’m shooting a lot of photos, there are going to be plenty where someone blinks or has a funny expression, and they don’t want to see those and they won’t end up seeing them. This explanation works very well. So it’s not that I’m giving them editing control, which is what I thought would happen. Rather, I’m giving them feedback to make the process easier and smoother for me. And if there’s a photo that’s out of focus or dark because the flashes didn’t fire, I just tell them that they made that happen because they were bad.

1 comment:

zerry ht said...

Sounds simply amazing! Love this kind of stuff. I am a photographer and pretty soon will be photographing cultural events at domestic venues in Houston. Being a newbie photographer, will be a great task to capture amazing cultural events.