In children photography, especially young children (1-9 years old), there are a few things to keep in mind to run a smooth session. Camera settings, content, perspectives and shooting angles, are fundamental. But the right attitude and energy will also take you a long way. Be friendly, be quick, be flexible (in more ways than one). Once we’ve established a few basic essentials, let’s see how we can put the game’s ‘odds ever in your favor’.
1. Be Prepared: outfits and props essentials
There are many aspects of a children photography session you cannot possibly foresee (don’t panic!), but it is worth being solid on the ones you can. Let’s start with outfits and props.
I always spend time prior to a session going back and forth with the families on their outfits. That subject alone could be worthy of a whole article, but the gist of it is:
- plain color clothing is best
- avoid bold prints, patterns or logos
- encourage accessories (hats, scarves, headbands, boots, necklaces)
- if more than one child, 2-3 color tones of colors to thread through for harmony (no 90s complete match)
- avoid too much white or black
Ask the parents to bring a few items:
- a favorite toy and/or book
- a special blanket (grandma knitted or comforting cuddler). Posing with a familiar object can make the child feel at ease and create a more personal image with memories
- a ‘clean’ snack (I had a disastrous experience involving simple Goldfish crackers and a lot of images with orange teeth…)
- a ‘reward’ treat (Who said ‘bribe’? Not me! Did you?).
- a rested child
Sometimes, the ‘reward’ can actually become part of the shoot. A beautiful and colorful lollipop, a cupcake with vibrant frosting and sprinkle decorating.
2 Be On-the-go: settings and gear for children photography
Whether you work indoors or out, make sure your settings and lighting measures/gear are as ready as can be. Don’t count on too much time to assess once the kids are here (30-45 min overall is as good as it gets).
Your priority should be Shutter Speed. Unless you realize early on that this child is the most compliant on the surface of the Earth (which is possible, I’ve had the privilege more than once), I wouldn’t go less than 1/200 on Shutter Speed. The higher the safer, especially if you make them jump, run or throw things.
Focus Mode & Burst:
I typically go ‘focus with moving subject’ (for Canon AF Mode ‘AI Servo’ for moving, or ‘AI Focus’, for still to moving). Consider burst mode, depending on what and where you are shooting. This will allow you to let them throw leaves, tickle fight, kick a ball (this one may need a higher shutter speed, 1/320 or 1/400).
Please read our camera focus mode guide for more info.
As for the Aperture, bokeh and shallow depth of field are lovely if you can swing it (f/2.2-2.8), but you have to make sure their eyes are in focus. Setting your Aperture at f/3.5-5 is safer for a close portrait, but you will lose some light and ‘cream’ to your background. It will all depend on your model, your location, your available light and the style you are going for. Setting your aperture at f./5-8 will help you capture the whole scene and not miss any of the action. If you pair it with a wide angle lens (I personally use a 16-35mm), you can aim for full scene/full room action. Include the child’s life, his/her room, toys.
As mentioned above, you need a wide angle that performs reasonably well with speed and high ISO. For close portraits and bokeh, I prefer to use an 85mm. The one downfall of that lens is that you need enough backup space. If not, use a 50mm. Also a great lens for portrait, but allowing you to be a smidge closer which is useful in tight spaces. You never really know what you will find when you shoot in people’s homes.
Light and Other Consideration:
I find it easier to use natural light and no tripod, as it allows me to be more mobile and faster to adapt to the ongoing situation, but I always have a fill option handy, flash/strobe or large/small modifiers (reflector).
My personal artistic choice gears towards a wide aperture (f/2.8-4) and I tend to prefer close-ups and details, the eyes in particular. Try different ways and find your own favorite approach.
3. Be Warm and Patient: help them help you
Most children will be shy when walking in a photography session. Either hiding, moody or over-excited. Remember that you are a stranger to them, potentially in an unusual (or at least new) place, and you are holding an unusual object.
Make yourself approachable and warm as soon as they walk in the door. Kneel down to their level and show your enthusiasm for their smile, their hair or their choice of clothes.
Compliment them on the amazing toy they are holding or on how big they are. Connect with, ‘I thought mommy said you were 5 but you look like you are 12!’ or ‘that’s amazing, unicorns are also my favorite, I can’t believe it!’.
Let them walk in and assess the space (safely, of course). Let them own the situation. ‘I set this up just for you today, I hope you like it. Mom told me you liked green.’ Reach out to them in various ways until it clicks.
4. Be Flexible: don’t impose, use the flow
Be as prepared as you can, but be just as ready to let it all go. Insisting and imposing are your worst enemies. Even if the shot would be perfect with a backlight in this exact spot, you are better off going with the flow. Capture what is happening, maybe the perfect moment will happen later on, maybe it won’t. Maybe kids will be compliant, maybe they won’t. But they will get frustrated if they receive too many instructions or if they get bored. Guaranteed.
5. Be Funny and Engaging: everyone needs to loosen up
If you have children, you know what jokes to use. If you don’t, be ready to hear this.
- The ‘Fart Face’ – To release someone’s tensed facial feature, you need to relax the cheeks, close the eyes and shake your face. Actors use that technique to relax facial muscles. It comes down to making a fart noise with your tongue and flappy cheeks. But you will gain a huge tension release by giving it a ‘witty’ name.
- The ‘Dino Roar’ or ‘scream your funniest word’ – Tension releases with the screaming and usually breaks into a natural laugh.
- A word that makes them think of mommy or daddy – You can get some great images coming out of that, even if the parents end up being the ones cracking up. If the parents laugh, the kids will too, think of it as a ‘bounce laugh’ just like a flash.
- Jokes – Telling jokes makes you look accessible and friendly, so brush up on your ‘knock knock’ jokes repertoire.
- Make faces – The faces game works great whether the children or the parents make the faces (or you!). You will get funny faces on camera, tension release or candid reactions. Just prompt them to make their best surprise face, mad face, monkey face, daddy face, it’s-my-birthday face, etc.
- Peek-a-boo – Little ones cannot resist ‘Peek-a-boo’ with mom/dad.
- Bubbles – Either from you/parents to them or by themselves.
- Outdoors – Running, ball games or parents throwing them in the air, water or mud if you are daring, throwing leaves or snow depending on the season.
- Indoors – Set up activities such as painting, cake decorating, building. It will help you create energy/life within your image.
6. Be Subtle: sneaky ways to direct their eyes
Use the parents as visual targets:
Ask the parents to stand close to you and direct the children to look at mommy or daddy or direct a game from there. They can hide behind you or tell a favorite bedtime story or pretend they are about to come and tickle (‘the Claw’ works wonders). You can whisper to them what they need to do to create the reaction you need.
Cloud shapes, birds and planes:
Clouds, birds, planes are perfect to get a dreamy sky stare pose and a beautiful catch light in their eyes. But it works best in open shade or in an overcast day. Bright light will hurt their eyes and you will get a squinty face.
The old ‘look at the bird coming out of the camera’ trick:
With a modern twist, it kinda still works. I personally usually go with ‘hey, when you look through here, do you see you or me?’ I get a couple of seconds of stillness and an intense stare that way. Or ‘someone once told me they saw a tooth fairy living in there but she’s very small and hard to see’. My favorite is when they say ‘Yes, I can see her!’.
7. Be Mobile: how low can you go?
I never realized how working out would be useful in my professional life until I had to squat for 45min straight. Children photography is best done at their level, if not ground level. Show their perspective. So, you need to get yourself there, squat, crawl, roll! You have to be quick on your feet, be ready to run around.
Usually, you have to drop the tripod for these sessions, especially outdoors. They make it harder to keep up. Which means, do not forget to keep that shutter speed up to avoid unwanted blur.
8. Be Ready to Follow the Leader: let them own the session
I have found in many cases that if you give the children choices, a way to express themselves, they will be more willing to comply. Offer them to choose where they want to start, on the bench or on the grass, ‘you’re the boss, you tell us what you like best’. Or ‘ if we do a nose picking picture, can you make that sweet face for mommy after?’. You may very well find that the nose picking one is better! Choose a dress, a color, a pose. Let them own it, and let them see how great it works on the camera.
9. Be Aware: parents are your best assistants
Be conscious of the parents’ state of mind. Even if they are not on the picture, they may be anxious. Taking care of them, helping them relax is just as important. They will often worry about time or their children misbehaving. Make them feel at ease because you need them during the shoot! You will find that the parents’ help in the games and eyes direction is priceless. Especially if you work alone.
Use the parents as a visual target:
Ask the parents to stand close to you and direct the children to look at mommy or daddy or direct a game from there.
Parents should goof:
Parents goofing around often creates a special moment for the kids, and they will forget about the camera instantly. I often think I should have a GoPro in my back just to shoot the ‘behind the scenes’!
Parents are a loving presence:
There is always something sweet about adding a parent’s hands or feet or blurry silhouette in a children photography image. The symbolic of the bond of family love immediately creates an emotional element.
10. Be ‘Cheese’ Free: capture the real
Children photography ultimately is about the child in front of your camera. Candid shots and simplicity, details, funny expressions and situations, end up being the shots that parents prefer. They realize that the unconventional images reflect the true nature of their children better than the over posed and still ones. Leave the ‘cheese’ shots for school photos. I have been known to use the term ‘poop sandwich’ to make kids laugh, but I’ll deny it all in front of a jury…
11. Be Resourceful: remember MacGyver?
You have to be ready to use any light, scene, and mood! Very few children will give you the time and patience, or the ideal situation. So make the best of what you have on hand. Give them something to sit on or hide under. Your best chance of keeping them still is to provide an incentive. Anything from a small chair and table, a bean bag, an apple box, a tent, a bench, a rocking horse, a log, a flower. Something to test and investigate. They will naturally gravitate around or sit on those interesting features.
12. Be Chatty or Be Quiet: sense the vibe
Some children will want to chat, share stories (favorite character, grandma’s last visit, Halloween costume). Having young children myself, I can easily discuss kids movies and shows. However, occasionally, the more you try to interact the more they resist. Let the parents help. Tell them what you need, let them do all the talking. After all, they know their children best. A small helpful trick to turn unwilling children around is to let them take a picture themselves. Let them take a look at the camera, click the button to take a picture of mom/dad, and show them the result. They are almost always fascinated and will often change their mind after seeing what it is that you do with that thing! And I usually send that picture to the parents too.
13. Behold for the Worst Case Scenario: it can happen
Be ready for all possibilities, but don’t be afraid! If the worst case does happen, do not take it as a failure, it is a common bump on the road. Remind the parents that it’s all ok and their children are doing great. When things go sour, you need to figure out whether it’s time for a break, a distraction, a snack, a worst-case scenario incentive, or time to say ‘we have what we need’. But keep in mind that sometimes, it’s worth shooting anyway (as long as you remain respectful). A sad face in a mommy hug has a tremendous sentimental impact. A baby screaming to get away from a slice of pizza (you think I’m making this up, don’t you?…), has comical potential for posterity.
14. Be Sensitive: shoot with empathy
Don’t judge parents or children. A photo shoot is an unusual situation for most. Parents have ideal situations in mind beforehand and worry that they are wasting time/money when things don’t go as planned. Kids are 90% of the time completely uninterested in the process or the result (although occasionally, they do enjoy checking what you just did on the back of the camera).
It won’t take you long to establish what the overall mood of the children AND the parents is. Most children will be either wide open and take the session as an activity, or completely shut down and run away from you, which will require some magic on your part (one quick piece of advice don’t run after them with the camera in your face, that just doesn’t help. At all.) Take notice and act accordingly.
15. Be Natural: show the love
Embrace the imperfection! Perfectly posed children portraits are obsolete, very 80s. Capture the mess and the chaos. Go for the hugs, kisses, cuddles, tickles, looking at parents, secrets, and whispers. It is ok to dance, scream, jump, get silly and get dirty. In the end, what you are aiming for is capturing that family’s dynamic, the children’s personality, their world, their life, their story. As a photographer, there is no better feeling than when a parent reaches out to you after seeing the pictures telling you how well you captured their children and how it made them cry of happiness.
When it comes to children photography, there is really one rule be ready to have fun with them. And if you don’t, then be zen. Children are fast, they are natural, they are genuine. Absorb their energy! I would love to hear about which advice was the most useful to you on your next children photography experience, and for the sake of a good laugh, feel free to share your biggest fails and what you have learned from them.
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