Childhood is running, jumping, playing, giggling — pretty much the exact opposite of sitting still and saying cheese for perfect kid’s portraits. The task of sitting perfectly posed for pictures is torture for active kids, terrifying for shy kids, and impossible for many kids. Yet, the fast pace of childhood begs to be photographed because the next day, the next month, and the next year, they’ll be just a little bigger.
Taking kid’s portraits is a task that doesn’t just require understanding the technical aspects of the camera. While knowing what shutter speed will get you a photo of that squirmy kid that’s not blurred, understanding the quirks of the child — and the quirks to kid’s photography — will take those shots even farther. Here are a few kid’s photography tips that go beyond camera settings to capture authentic kid’s portraits.
Every portrait begins with an understanding of just who the subject is — but that starting point is even more essential when photographing kids. Children feel emotions much more intensely than adults, which means the right steps can create the most amazing smiles while the wrong ones can turn into tears.
Before you start shooting, begin with a general idea of the child’s personality and their preferences. Before the session, ask the parents to tell you a bit about their child, including age, likes and dislikes — something most will gladly chat about. Finding out a few likes and dislikes can help you plan your session, including what props to bring. Then, at the start of the session, spend a few minutes talking or playing with the little one to both get a better understanding of his or her personality and to help the child feel more comfortable with you.
Learn the six most common personality types in kids and how to photograph each one with Tamara Lackey live for free on Nov. 8.
The photo on the left was the result of asking for a smile, while the photo on the right was the result of some casual joking. Photos by Hillary K. Grigonis.
Once you understand a bit of who that particular child is, you can come up with a few ways to get a genuine smile or even a giggle. An active child may give better expressions when being asked to jump or play freeze tag. A talkative child will often get good giggles from a few classic knock knocks or other kid-friendly jokes. A shy child might give the best expressions to a nearby, joking parent while you stand farther back with a telephoto lens. Develop a few “go-to” strategies for each personality type, with a variation for the youngest and oldest kids, so you won’t run out of smile tricks.
Kids and posing don’t mix, at least not in the traditional sense. While poses for adults and teenagers can be adjusted down to the fingers, kids poses should be both more natural and more basic. If you are going to joke with a talkative child, for example, you can ask them to sit a specific way, but prioritize a good expression over getting a textbook-perfect pose. Use fun, kid-friendly directions, like asking them to sit “criss-cross applesauce” or correcting a slouch by saying, “show me how tall you are.”
The key to getting great expressions and keeping kids engaged long enough to shoot a variety of different shots is to make photos fun. Include games and jokes. Use a fun, upbeat tone of voice. If a particular shot isn’t going your way, getting visually or verbally irritated won’t help anything. Keeping an open mind is essential to photographing kids — if you go in with a particular shot in mind and get frustrated when it doesn’t happen, you could miss the opportunity for a great (but entirely different) shot.
This preschooler tends to put his hands up when he’s excited (left). By asking him to put his hands in his pockets, I could shoot a more formal portrait while still getting that genuine smile (right). Photos by Hillary K. Grigonis.
Photographing kids is challenging — which means you will probably find yourself, at some time during the shoot, thinking this just isn’t working. Maybe the toddler won’t keep fingers out of the mouth or an older child won’t stop fidgeting. Recognize what the problem is, and find a way to either counteract that or work with it.
For example, for a little one that won’t keep his hands off his face, try asking him to put his hands in his pockets. Or, to work with those hands instead of against them, play a game of peek-a-boo. Try asking that little girl that keeps biting her fingers if she can get her hair to twirl around the fingers. For a fidgety kid, you might get better shots by giving him or her something to do or something to hold. Tired toddler mid-shoot? Try more relaxed shots on a picnic blanket.
Kids aren’t going to suddenly change their nervous or excited habits for photos — but if you recognize what’s not working, you can find ways to work with those quirks.
Taking great portraits of kids is about understanding each child’s unique personality and choreographing shots that work with those different traits. While the best tricks for getting genuine kid smiles is going to depend on both personality and age, understanding a few essentials and how to troubleshoot shots that just aren’t working can help you capture genuine kids portraits that freeze time during an age where time seems to fly by the fastest.