I’ve photographed children for over 20 years — it was a staple of my photography work since early on, even before I had my own children. It used to be an easy thing to fall into as a photographer as having a nice camera and set of lenses was unique back then and drew the attention of friends with kids. Today, people can do most of their family photography on their own. Or at least, they have the equipment to.
I’ve notice over the years in shooting a lot of family-oriented stuff — portraits, maternity, newborn, graduations, etc. — it all kind of gets lumped together under the header of Family Photography. The truth is, there’s worlds of things to consider for each kind of shoot that make each one almost an entirely unique genre. A graduation can be like event photography, for example, whereas shooting toddlers is practically sports photography!
One of the shoot types that I find to be most personal is taking pictures of sons. There’s something about the world of little men that takes me back to my own roots. And by its nature, capturing the essence of a boy is often like mining for a precious metal. Boys can exaggerate, over-emote, be goofy or otherwise hide their inner selves in ways that make it hard to get an honest look.
Like any subject, you learn a few tricks along the way that you bring with you in your camera bag for any given shoot type. And it doesn’t hurt that I have two sons myself who act as constant test subjects for me. At this point, I consider myself a bit of an expert on the strange art of photographing sons, which really has become a bit of a thing unto itself.
Here are some of the techniques I’ve learned over the years, with my own boys and with others, to capture something unique around the elusive subject of Sons. Maybe some of it will lead to an idea for taking photos of your own.
From The Minds Of Lads
Boys have their own brand of quirkiness. And that hardly ever gets quirkier than between brothers. One of my favorite ways of dealing with brothers is to create a narrative-driven concept photo. I have a few families that I do this with every year — and it’s a blast. They always look forward to it and bring an energy and creativity that makes the shots magical.
A concept photo forces interaction between the brothers, and sometimes the parents, as well. These relationships, seen through a conceptual framework adds a dynamic you don’t usually see in a regular family photo.
When engaging in this kind of idea, I like to let the boys run the concept session. If they feel ownership of it, they’ll engage more and bring more to it. Also, it needs to be an idea they think is cool. And boys often have different ideas of what’s cool than their parents. I throw some ideas at them, of course, but I know I’ve got something when they feel excited about it.
You need an idea that can be inventive but still relatively easy to get. Keep it simple and plan it out. If there’s retouching to do, you have to really think about how you’re going to do it before you grab the images. Remember to pre-plan.
As a photographer, an idea-driven image is a great way to add creativity to a shoot and become a valuable part of the process of creating memories for a family, as well as build a portfolio of family photography work that is different from the usual fare.
Get The Crew Together.
Another trick is to shoot your boy with his friends. When the boys are hanging with their buddies they lose nearly all their inhibitions. A shy kid suddenly gets caught up in the confidence of his amigos and the power of the gang overwhelms the insecurity of the individual. I find this to be true in general with boys, but very noticeably in photography, where you’ll see the boys doing things together that you’d never get them to do by themselves.
As anyone with sons knows, what goes on in the private lives of friends is something you only get a little bit of insight into. By bringing that dynamic to a photography session, you tend to open that door just that much more.
One of my favorite tricks, once I have the crew together, is to zoom in on one kid during a session to grab a portrait and not even tell them I’m doing it. Or I’ll separate them a bit so I can crop or retouch one kid out for a parent.
A couple friends in front of a seamless with a big softbox is a recipe for success, every time. But it doesn’t have to be a studio. Anywhere friends are hanging out, you’re likely to get an opportunity to get a great shot with the boys just being boys.
Take the crew out for some ice cream. As the goofing off and edgy fun of boys takes on a life of its own, there’s a great opportunity for imagery that is natural, interesting and very boyish.
Capture Their Focus
I don’t mind a studio portrait, but there’s just something extra special about lifestyle. More natural, free-flowing and authentic. A son will go along for a studio portrait, but he’s going to be thinking about other things and just waiting for it to be done so he can get back to what he enjoys (and probably being forced to wear clothes that he doesn’t think are cool). That shows up in the portrait. My preferred technique is to get somewhere where he can do something he really loves, in whatever clothes he wears most often.
A boy will lose himself in his endeavor — especially if it’s skateboarding or doing bike tricks where he has to perform well. And there can even be a sort-of competitive streak that kicks in, where they want to showcase their talent, working hard to hit a trick or move. If the boy’s into sports, I’d recommend shooting in and around those events and focus on getting shots where he’s focused on his task. There’s just something about a boy engaged in his sport of choice that seems to convey so much of what he’s about.
I recommend shooting these kinds of activities wide open — f/2.8 and wider. Shallow depth-of-field is a great way to capture and accentuate a boy’s concentration and effort in something he’s deeply engaged with. That Friday Night Lights look doesn’t hurt, either.
Bring Your Own Artistry To It
In photographing boys, it’s easy to let the subject take over and lose who you are as a photographer and artist. At least once or twice in a shoot I like to remind myself that I also have an opinion to offer. My own signature. I try not to let that dominate the shoot too much, as it’s about them not me, but I will often just glance around for an opportunity to do it in my own way.
My work utilizes graphic elements, so I’ll sometimes choose a location or find light that helps me get a few images that showcase my own style. And, in some cases, a client will specifically ask me for that. In those cases, I will use locations I’ve already shot and where I already know the good angles and light.
Capture A Memory
My favorite photo ever taken of me was by my grandfather. I only just recently discovered it, going through all his old slides. My grandfather was excellent with a 35mm and took photos all over the world. Going through the thousands of images he took through his life has been a revelatory experience. But stumbling onto his quick observation of a moment between me and my mother was a great lesson in photography for me.
This is the job of the photographer — to use a power of observation to capture some moment that might seem small at the time, but will be a cherished memory down the line.
I’m always trying to remind myself that, when shooting kids, I’m not trying to simply create a beautiful image, but capture an honest moment. Despite what social media has done to family photography — in its clichéd search for idyllic beauty — the honest and unstaged moment is still the pinnacle of the quest.
But this type of moment-getting is an entirely different approach than the usual portrait. So, some thoughts just on Capturing A Memory seems in order.
One cannot overstate the power that a mother has to make her son feel loved and adored. One could easily argue that there is no greater bond. It’s a completely different dynamic than mother/daughter, father/son or father/daughter — each of which has its own special and unique thing to it. But the mother/son relationship is rooted in something that I don’t even think is describable in any other way than by seeing it and feeling it.
So, when I set out to get something more lifestyle-oriented for a son, I’m first trying to capture the bond he has with his mother. A boy is so often trying to be tough, or big, or jokey, or handsome — the dynamic quality of that tension with his mother is 100% gold.
It does not always have to be a loving gaze or gentle kiss, by the way. It is going to be powerful no matter what the activity is. I don’t ever script it or ask anyone to do anything but be themselves in these situations. The most I will do is just ask them to be together, perhaps head off to look at something, then I just let it play out. Moms know their sons so well, whatever they do is going to be amazing.
When in a studio, there’s still an opportunity to capture this kind of moment between a mother and son. One of my techniques is to tell them that I’m just “testing the light right now.” Practice shots, if you will. So, then it’s not so official and, if we’re in a studio setting, they can just go ahead and be themselves while I “warm up.” The in-between moment of their interactions are often far more interesting and great than the two facing camera and posing.
A boy and his pop is a pretty special thing, too, and a rare photo to actually get. For whatever reason, dads tend to shy away from photos. Also, the most awkward shots of any family shoot are dads posing with their sons for the camera — so I don’t even attempt it anymore unless they’re dead set on it, as it always looks forced to me.
I’ll often ask, what do you guys do together? Then I’ll get them to go do it — play guitar together, wrestle, play video games, climb a tree, take a drive, make breakfast… anything. It’s a simple technique, but nearly always the right way to get a meaningful shot of a boy and his old man.
I’m all for candid moments, but a bit of idealism can be a good thing, too. The rest of life is always there to remind you that you’re just human. Photography is a great medium to accentuate some of the heightened and emotional sides of being a dad that we don’t often express.
I will use compositional techniques to bring just a bit of Dadness to an image. Centering dads in wide angled images works well to make him the central character around which his son, or sons, revolve. I also like to shoot a bit lower, to give dad a bit more of a central figure look.
I also like to remember and be aware that most boys grow up to look similar to their fathers and so there’s a visual story being told about future and past coming together. It can be a very powerful image.
By nature, we grow out of our routines, but the formative nature of them never goes away. One day a son will look back on his life and want to make sense of it — piece it together. That is what reminiscing is all about. I consider my job in shooting my own son’s life — but also those of my friends — to look at the things they do regularly, the things that make up their current routine and maybe even take for granted: the jaunts off with dad to go see old cars, scooter rides around the block, the walk to the park, making pancakes, etc. While they may feel quotidian, as a photographer I see them as opportunities to capture something that the future will be happy you did. Simple routines are great material for family photography.
And boys have routines that are all their own.
I pay close attention to not just an event, but the surrounding routine of an event. For example, my older boy has played soccer most of his life and I’m always shooting the games. But there’s a whole world around the games that is rich with moments that are special and worthy of capturing.
That’s easier, of course, with your own family than with others. When trying to do the same for other families, you have to be invited in. One family I take photos of regularly had the foresight to have me take photos of their morning walk to school. It was the last year that the two boys would walk together, as the older brother was moving on to middle school. Capturing that morning walk will mean something to them, as brothers and the whole family, that is immeasurable.
This kind of thing means being extra conscious of your day-in/day-out activities that will be worthy of capturing for posterity. But in general, my rule for shooting other families and getting editorial-like photos of their normal lives is to get over with them early and just make it a hangout session. I want to see them relaxing and doing their thing in the morning and just make myself more of a guest observing their day than a photographer who shows up to take a portrait.
In this kind of shooting, I like to bring a rangefinder camera and do much more “from the hip” shooting. I don’t like to look like a photographer as much as a friend with a camera — it just keeps the whole thing looser and more comfortable than if I lug around the big DSLR and 70–200mm lens.
Lastly, I just wanted to address the portrait. This is usually what a family is looking to get, so it almost always comes up in a shoot.
Personally, I want to capture a boy’s strength, but not in a cliché macho way. Sometimes a boy’s strength is his calm, sometimes it’s his charm, and sometimes it just emanates from inside somehow — a posture, a lift of the chin, or a wry smile can accentuate it. In fact, it’s the same with girls. All kids are individuals with their own little quirks and inner strengths. Talk to the kid, but also talk to the parents (or if it’s your own kid, think about that inner strength of his), then consider how that quality is conveyed in a look. I enjoy the quiet calm and confident straight ahead stare of a boy — and I tend to like how those images turn out better than asking them to smile or pose in some kind of unnatural way.
To capture strength, you’re working very closely with the face and expression and then accentuating with the textures of the environment.
To me, nothing captures strength like a relaxed portrait. A quiet, immovable force of boyhood emanates out of a relaxed stare. So, I usually start with that — asking them to relax every muscle of their face. For little boys I’ll ask them to close their eyes first and relax, then slowly open their eyes and try to find their own reflection in the lens. From there I might give them some slight direction, but mostly I just want the relaxed face — charming, handsome and confident.
Another important element to me is the texture and surrounding imagery in a portrait. Sometimes referred to as editorial photography, you can use environment to add character and interest to a portrait.
This is another great reason to keep an ongoing list of locations that you like and have interesting elements to them.
P.S. Shoot A Lot
The real secret to getting great shots of your son is no secret at all — just shoot a ton of images. This good-looking gent here gets his mug captured at least a few times a week. I use a nice camera constantly, but it never feels like it has found its purpose in my life more than when I’m using it to take photos of my little man. Perhaps a lesson learned from my grandfather.