Let’s start with a simple look at some facts. You and I are not happy all the time. As adults, most of us have strategies to deal with the plethora of other emotions we face each and every day. We can combat sadness, tiredness, and things like hunger (well, at least some of us can!) which affect our emotional stability. Young children, for the most part, don’t have these coping strategies and express them in tears, tantrums, or a refusal to cooperate. This is a perfectly normal part of every day life, but sometimes it happens at a photo session. This can spell disaster if not handled well before and after the shoot.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the ways I try to mitigate potential issues with uncooperative children before they even arise and deal with them when they do. I’ll let you know a couple of things I try to convey to my parents before the day, as well as to the kids on the day. Then we’ll go through some things that you can do to combat issues on shoot and strategies for when things just cannot be solved.
As a quick disclaimer, the children featured in this article were not all “moody.” These images were able to be created because of the various techniques I will discuss.
There are plenty of things that go through all of our minds before a shoot. From clothing or styling to light and composition, the photographer has their work cut out for them on a family shoot. Aside from that, though, there are things you can do to make sure that your session goes well. For me, my sessions are about authentic emotions and having children express themselves for who they are. To that end, there are some things I like to make clear to families before the session.
First up, I like to make sure that our session is scheduled for a time that is the best compromise between the children’s daily routine and the best light of the day. I say that its a compromise because the best light in the world won’t save you from a willful toddler who has been woken up too early. Rushing children from school to a shoot or just before their sports game in the afternoon are also never ideal times for the shoot. Do your best to find a session time that will lend itself to the children’s overall mood as best you can.
Next, I always like to make sure that everything possible has been done at home to make sure the children arrive to the shoot in a good mood. I always ask that parents be in a forgiving and relaxed mood for the day. Rushing to get the kids out the door and scolding them for things they normally do agitates the children before a shoot. For one day, we can let them run just a little bit wild without damaging the human being they will become. Giving them that extra slice of freedom allows them to be themselves during the shoot.
Finally, I always try to meet the children a few days before the shoot. This really helps to break the ice and let them know that I’m a person they can trust. I’ll always try to meet them in a safe place, their home if possible. That way, they are in control of the meeting and can get to know me when they are ready. I find that shoots where I’m able to break down these walls beforehand always go better.
One thing that really helps the children to express themselves during a shoot is knowing that they’re not under threat of being reprimanded for expressing themselves in their way. This is why I have the parents allow them more freedom than usual on the day of the shoot. I also ask that the parents refrain from discipline during the shoot unless one of the children is actually putting themselves in danger or damaging our location – this rarely, if ever, happen. I also take this upon myself. I don’t want to stifle the children either, so I allow them to be however they want, even if that is somewhat rude to me. This can be a fine line to balance on, but one that allows the children to be who they are for the hour or two I have them.
Sometimes, however, it doesn’t go as planned, even when you’ve done everything you can to prepare. Sometimes, as we all do, a child might just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. They may stub their toe getting out of the car or have had a fight with a sibling on the way over. These things cannot be avoided and thus must be dealt with on the shoot. The first step in doing this is to identify the problem. What is it that is irking this poor human in front of your camera? That will give you some go-to ideas for being able to bring them back to the shoot. Parents can often be a big help with this, so don’t be afraid to ask if they know what’s going on or have some ways to work on it. The second step is to take your time. A little psychology and persistence will bring even the most defiant soul onto your side. Do not allow the parents to intervene with promises of rewards or threats of punishment. This may work for one frame, but it will not carry throughout your session. It will only serve to confuse them about whose side everyone is on and who really cares about how they feel. You need to slowly work on getting the child’s mind off what is bothering them.
If you can, throughout this process, secretly show the parents a great frame from time to time to reassure them that what you’re asking them to do and what you are doing is working. Try not to let the child/children see this as it can become a reward as well and not only eat into your session time but potentially cause them to continually display a behaviour that they like from a picture they saw.
Let’s face it, there a some times where nothing will work. Much of my work is done with the adoptive community in Seoul, and I can tell you that sometimes you just need to roll with the punches. Sometimes grieving is more important than a couple of happy photographs. Other times, I’m working with a family where life has been a little chaotic for a while. These things can be hard as well. Sometimes, nothing that you or the parents can say or do will bring a child back down to where you need them to be. You have two ways of approaching a situation like this.
The first is that you can roll with the punches. There are times when a controlled situation simply will not be possible and you need to be willing to shoot what you have available to you. Let the parents know that you feel this is the best approach and switch to documentary mode. You may just find that this results in better images than you could have imagined.
The other is that you can offer a reschedule. This can go both ways as sometimes a child will remember their first experience and a second session will not prove any better. However, I have found that sometimes just giving the child a breather and getting back to things hours, days, or weeks after can help to let them be much more relaxed for the session.
The actual shoot day for a family session can be far more complex than the preparation at times. As many things as you might have planned in your head, things don’t always work out. Sometimes, you’ll need to employ every strategy you know just to stay afloat and sometimes you’ll need to let the children take control. However the session goes, you need to be equipped with the skills to produce quality images. I hope these have been helpful!