There’s a lot to working with small children, when you’re taking photos…. or not! These little creatures (especially if they’re your own) want to push the limits and boundaries whenever possible and seem to have a way of knowing exactly what you want… and doing the opposite. When we take photos of kids we have some tips/tricks/black magic we use to help massage the ‘subjects’ into submission (or to ensure we get something usable)
How to get the child to look at the camera.
I’m sure there’s a percentage of my city that knows me as “the crazy lady with the camera at the park”. Like, I’m almost dead certain I carry a reputation in some neighborhoods. I will do pretty much anything to get the attention and facial expression of a child. Often times this means making a fool of yourself. One of the first and most important things I can tell you about working with children in photography (and getting good results) is you gotta think like them. Kids don’t care what others think of them (didn’t you know?). They behave erratically and they’ll notice if you follow suit. To capture their attention they often need a little drama. Don’t be afraid to do some “out of the norm” things to get what you want.
0-1 year olds
- Sophie, squeaky toys, rattles, etc. These are the best in my opinion
- Cheerios, cheese, food… this works well for a few (and especially the over 7-8m crowd)
- Singing, peekaboo
1-2 year olds
- Peekabo is a classic favorite of ours. pat-a-cake and itsy-bitsy spider also work but are more “hands on” and it’s harder to pull off well
- Food! Offer treats like it’s going out of style. I’m definitely not above shameless bribes. I recommend the helicopter moms and tight asses to reassess their priorities. Do you want great pictures or maintain a rigid diet? (just bend now. It makes the rest of life so much easier) try things that aren’t terribly messy if you can. Fish crackers (if they work) are gold. Try raisins, craisins, or welsh’s gummies (for bigger toddlers), M&M’s if you must (but they’re a tad messy), chips are also a good motivator
- ***Sometimes if we’re really struggling with a child I’ll actually full out stop and just play for a bit. I’ll brainstorm about our current environment and situation to try and figure out if there’s a way to trick my toddler into doing what I want him to (ex: chase him to a location. wrestle for a bit to tire him out and then try and pose him. )
- Listen to your child and read their cues… what is it they are wanting/needing? If all their needs are met they’ll be more likely to cooperate (insert laughter here)
3-5 year olds
- Bigger kids make for a bigger fool, in my humble experience. If you’re having trouble really capturing their attention you’ll need to do more outrageous things to arrest their attentions. Make inappropriate noises such as burps or farts (little boys love the fart noise). Noise in general is usually a good way to go.
- Say “OOGIE BOOGIE!!” like a monster and dance around
- Pretend to see a favorite character (LightningMcQueen, Dora, Elmo, Paw Patrol pups) behind them
- Saying inappropriate words will often work in a dire situation as well (Picture of Raine laughing – poo poo bum)
- Jump up and down and make noise, clap, shout, you know….
Raine (the Fairy) was certainly not an easy subject to photograph. She is a very spirited child and was having none of our instructions, suggestions, or encouragements. There was actually a top part to her costume she refused to wear which is why we decided to shoot her with no top.
About 10 minutes into the shoot it became apparent that she was not going to respond to bribes of treats, bribes of other rewards (such as going to the park or watching a movie), so play and trickery were our only options.
We took as many photos of her not smiling as we felt we could get away with; getting her to look for buzzing fairies in the trees, and even just taking shots of her looking sullen.
When I did finally deem it time to crack some smiles, I had a really hard time… until I let her say naughty words. Oh, I wish I didn’t have to resort to that sort of behavior but the results were so worth it. We lat her chant poo-poo bum and ca-ca and something else I can’t recall. She thought this was hilarious. I know this tactic isn’t for everyone, or every shoot, but sometimes you just gotta take what you can get with what you’ve got 😉
There is definitely a skill and an art to learning how to prioritize your camera and the child to get a good picture. Balancing the two is no easy task. Here’s what we recommend:
If the kids are moving fast, you’ll want to get your focus mode in “Continuous” (on a Canon it’s called Ai Servo, on a Nikon it’s called AF-C) so that it tracks them as they move and keeps evaluating the focus. We usually set a single focus point instead of letting the camera choose where the focus point should be.
Again, if they are moving fast, you’re going to want to make sure your shutter speed is 1/125 second or faster. This is where you just need to test to make sure the shot is not blurry from them moving too fast. A child kicking a soccer ball will need a much faster shutter speed (like 1/500 sec) in order to freeze the motion. But sometimes motion is good, so just be aware that you’ll have to play with it and see what it looks like.
If the picture is out of focus and not properly exposed whatever you do capture won’t be worth keeping as it’ll be dark and blurry. Keep it sharp and you’re over half way to a great picture.
Framing is also very important. Unless it is your explicit intention, try not to cut off body parts in pictures. Don’t chop off foreheads, feet, hands, or leave a huge empty space at the top (side or bottom) of the picture.
Capturing a great facial expression is just having a quick trigger finger. Half the time when I land one I don’t even think I got it. Once in a blue moon, you’ll get one by fluke, but the rest of the time you need to be ready to shoot when the moment strikes. It’s better to take 200 bad photos and throw out 198 then to miss out on getting anything, waiting for the “perfect” shot.
Facial Expression and Posing
Facial expression changes so quickly so knowing how to manipulate your subject is going to help you out a lot. Some kids respond well to bribing, but I’ve found the best results come from encouraging your child to really feel the emotion you’re going for. Try and make-believe with them to “take them” where you want them emotionally. In my experience, many kids are very good at make-believe (while some are hopeless and just can’t seem to wrap their heads around it)
Toddlers are the trickiest subjects to photograph, mostly because they’re mobile, opinionated and obstinate, but not yet able to reason for very effective bribing.
Why Children are the BEST (and worst) Subjects
Kids are the best subjects to take photos of, particularly (actually, exclusively) if the picture is ALL about them (aka: not family or group photos. Kids are THE worst in group photos).They are full of so much life, movement, imagination, and expression. There is the potential for an exciting photo every time you pick your camera up, mostly because they’re entirely unscripted and every moment is a surprise. Grab your camera and enjoy the ride. It is impossible to control much when you’re working with kids (but you’re a parent, so you know that) so try to influence because if you try too hard to control the whole thing, you’re going to lose.
Good luck shooting! If you need more support or advise, join our Facebook group now!