Around this time of year families will be gathering and happily, many will have at least one, if not several, young children in the mix. As a family portrait photographer I have a lot of experience taking photos of children, alone, with their siblings and parents. As a general rule, the younger the child, the more difficult it is to get a shot with the child looking straight at the camera, and miracle of miracles, smiling too. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks that family photographers may find useful over the upcoming holidays and I’d like to share them here:
- Control the parents! While it sounds off-topic, I have had countless photos ruined by parents who are so worried about what their child is doing, they forget they are in the portrait too. I always tell parents (often several times during a session) to not worry about the child, keep smiling and look straight at me. Parents of young children in particular have a very hard time keeping their focus. One or two shots of both parents smiling and looking at the child (who ideally is smiling and looking back at one of them) are okay, but there is nothing more frustrating than working with a challenging toddler, finally getting the child’s attention and a smile to boot – and a parent is looking askew at the child with a furrowed brow worried about what the child is doing.
- Say hello to the child or children before you start the shoot: Children are just little people. They have feelings and think about things just like adults do. And just like many adults, they need to warm up a bit before smiling on command for a photographer. If you are not photographing your own family, take a few minutes before doing the shoot to get to know the children. Play with them, or let them have a look at your camera. I often even let the children take a photo or two if their hands can handle it, as this demystifies the camera, turning it into a toy and making the experience fun.
- Treat children as you would a small wild animal encountering a human for the first time: Young children are like squirrels. They are easily distracted, unpredictable and rarely sit still for long. But they are usually curious too and interested in what you are doing if you include them in the process. To capture a good photo of a child you need either to take lot of photos or catch them off guard and take the photo quickly. Either way, the trick is to stay calm, stay in control and keep up a steady patter of soothing language in soft tones that calms the child. (This may also help calm the nervous parents as well and help with #1 above).
- Take a break. Sometimes the first round of photos is just a warm up. Take a few in a series, then give the child a break. Let him or her play with a favourite toy or even walk away for a few minutes. If you relax and critically, help the parents relax, often the child will realize that the most fun thing to do right now is take a photo and want to come back and start smiling.
- Make it a game: as in many things in life, adding an element of play to taking a photograph will help you get great, candid looking photos of people really smiling naturally. Depending on the age of the child I’ll try things like asking them to spot my eye through the lens, or balance a stuffed animal on my head. As mentioned in #2 above, letting the child see the photos taken in the LCD screen or even letting them snap a few shots themselves helps win their trust and puts them in a more cooperative frame of mind.
There are several more ways to get great photos of children but key to all is making the experience fun, natural and relatively quick so that child (and the rest of the family) can get back to having fun with each other and not worrying about how they look in photos. Keep in mind that your demeanor, level of relaxation and visible enjoyment for taking the photo goes a long way in encouraging the same response in your subjects. So have fun, enjoy the holiday and good luck with your family portraits.