Lose the Cheese: 6 Experts Share Their Tips on How to Photograph Children

Portraiture. You either shoot it or you don’t and the photographers that do know it can be challenging.

Photo: © Sarah Vasquez

What’s even more challenging is when you shrink your subjects to under three feet tall, make them even less prone to sitting still, and make their personalities even more volatile. No, I’m not talking about the movie Honey I Shrunk The Kids or some sort of real-life Benjamin Button-ing, I’m talking about photographing kids.

I’m certainly no expert in snapping photos of youngsters, so I’ll leave it to the experts. Technical skills can only get you so far. If you’re looking to hone your photography skills when it comes to photographing children and are ready to open up your personality, then here are six experts you should take notes from.

Six Tips From The Experts

1. Think like a kid! I tend to be immature; I use the word “poop” a lot when photographing 3–6 year-olds because that always makes them laugh. And I never ever stop shooting when I am with kids. The magic always happens after they get a bit stubborn and want to stop but patience and perseverance prevails. –Sue Barr

2. Be real with them. Kids can smell a fake from a mile away so just go ahead and drop that ego at the door. They don’t care how much clout you have in the industry, what your accomplishments are, or what you are known for. They care who you are from the moment they meet you and for the few hours you are with them. The secret to getting a beautiful photograph and cooperation from a child is getting them to trust you. You must be genuine with them and they will bloom, allowing you to capture their authenticity. –Sarah Vasquez

Photo: © Caitie Mc Cabe

3. Create the environment for the shots you want. With kids — more than any other subject — if you want it to look like they are having fun, the kids actually need to be having fun! Once everyone is having a good time, getting the shot you need is child’s play (pun intended). Bribery also does wonders. –Caitie McCabe

4. Lose the cheese. Asking a child to look at the camera and say “cheese” during a session isn’t going to result in meaningful or powerful images and usually these images aren’t very flattering anyway. They feel contrived, flat and lack emotion. Working with children requires a large amount of patience as a photographer. Children need freedom to play and explore. They can’t be confined into a perfect posed picture and often are best photographed with they are interacting and connecting with those around them. Those are the images that people connect with because they remind them of their own childhood. These types of image require patience, time, and freedom to be. –Sarah Rypma

5. You have to be flexible (in addition to being patient, of course). Don’t be too set on one situation or set-up. The plan may be to shoot in one area and, depending on their age and interest, they may want to wander off or do something else. In addition to getting the right shot for the client, you want to also be able to shift gears as needed so you can capture something spontaneous that occurs. –Joan Ford

6. Keep it simple. Have fun, choose an activity for interaction and capture that natural moment. Talk to them as an equal, to make them feel relaxed and not posed. Make it an adventure, because kids are always an adventure. I love playing games on set, Simon Says, peek-a-boo, dancing, etc. If all else fails, reverse psychology works like a charm. Tell them not to smile, not to laugh, and they crack up in giggles. –Jade Albert

Photo: © Jade Albert

Theory Is One Thing, Doing Is Another

You can try to follow tips and rules all day long, but when it comes down to it, when you’re in the middle of a shoot, you have to go with your gut. These six children’s photographers share some of their more memorable moments on a shoot.

I’ll never forget an early shoot with a bunch of one year-olds. Their client was a Fortune 500 company and their president wanted to do a Christmas card that said, “No butts about it, we wish you a Merry Christmas.” Cheesy, yes but it was in the days when Anne Geddes was popular. We had a huge red box with a bow on it and the idea was to show several naked babies from behind. They were crawling everywhere so we put one baby in the box and that got the others to crawl over and climb up it. Of course, if you take a diaper off, you take your chances. This was before I had kids, so I was a little taken aback with all the pee flying everywhere! We got it done though. The client loved it and there was lots of laughter on the set! –Joan Ford

Photo: © Joan Ford

I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who did not want to play “Once Upon A Time.” At the prep wardrobe run-through for a project called “Charming Tales”, all the girls loved the clothes and were thrilled to be “Missy Red”. However, I had to choose only one little leading lady. Several moms called the night before the shoot expressing tears and disappointment from their children not being chosen. What a dilemma! Bingo! My solution was Little Red Riding Hoods; the more the merrier! It reminded me of an Elvis convention in Las Vegas, with 5 Little Reds on set. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. –Jade Albert

I recently shot a new line for one of my favorite boutique clothing companies for little girls. The creative director wanted group shots of all the outfits in the same style with different patterns. Normally this would not be a problem, but when you are talking about photographing six, 18-month-olds at one time, it presented a bit of a challenge. After spending over a week building out the set and planning everything down to the finest detail, I was sure everything was in place and ready to go according to plan. I did not anticipate the bubble machine deciding to randomly stop working or one of my memory cards to fail. Thankfully, I had a great team on hand to help manually blow bubbles and feed the babies raisins to keep their focus while we figured it out. The client was astounded with the finished product and it was a really fun day, albeit a memorable one for sure! –Sarah Vasquez (check out this video of Sarah at work)

One of the more difficult shoots I had to do was on the topic of picky eating. Our poor model was just a little bit too young to understand why he was getting “yelled at” in the photograph. The idea was he was refusing to eat his broccoli, the only catch was our model liked broccoli and had no idea what was happening most of the shoot! –Caitie McCabe

Photo: © Sarah Rypma

From almost stepping on a rattlesnake during a session, to photographing a child that began to throw up mid-shot, I’ve learned that you have to change directions at any given moment (preferably away from the snake and projectile vomit). However, my most memorable shoot was last fall when I did a lifestyle session for a friend at their greenhouse. We had spent a lot of time shooting inside the greenhouse and were ready to call it a night. I was watching the light bounce off of the greenhouse across the street and asked if we could do one more round of images in the open field. The sun was going down quickly and I knew we could capture some amazing golden hour lighting. I sat back and let the mother and child explore a milkweed plant without interfering. They played with the seeds, blew them in the wind, giggled and enjoyed the moment. I let them be and I shot until I filled a memory card. All of this came together into a set of images that I hope they will cherish forever. –Sarah Rypma

I was commissioned to photograph toddlers ages 1–3 for a book, Raising your Toddler published by Globe Pequot Press. After 400 images in six weeks, the shear volume was exhausting but some of the shots were kids actually in distress. For example, capturing real toddler moments, like temper tantrums, sibling rivalry, etc. Also on another job for a pharmaceutical campaign, I had to photograph babies in distress. Getting these shots was not all that difficult but capturing children unhappy was emotionally draining. As soon as I got the shots that were needed I hugged each baby and toddler! –Sue Barr

Photo: © Sue Barr

This post originally appeared on the ImageBrief Blog and was written by Jacob Pastrovich, Community Manager at ImageBrief.