The Art of Photographing Children

Children are the most wonderful subjects to photograph. They can make you sweat blood, stand on your head, max out every emotion of frustration, helplessness, and exhaustion you have ever had — and then make up for it all with their innocent exuberance, gorgeous open smiles, and their beautiful young faces. Often the pleasure of photographing children comes after the shoot!

child photography

“Untitled” captured by Phillip Dodds

Uploading the photos and looking at them in the comfort and quiet of your own home or office, you will find that the trials and tribulations of the shoot are soon forgotten as you pore over the results. I photographed children under three years of age for a national magazine for five years. It was certainly the hardest thing I ever did. We did not have the luxury of a room full of children to choose from when the current subjects got tired. We weren’t paying model fees, so we had to make the child or baby we had chosen work in the photos, no matter what it took. And that meant finding the key for that specific child—what was going to make that child or baby happy?

Basically, that’s the key. The shoot has to be organized around the time the child is at their best — fed, changed, and wide awake. Naturally, on the day of the shoot, the child will have gone against their usual schedule and will arrive tired and cranky. You will just have to allow for a nap and whatever else it is going to take to get them happy.

baby photography

“Baby Asleep in Vintage Sausage Box” captured by Jay Sadler

Of course, the above mainly applies to young children and babies. Older children can be a delight, as they are often happy to follow instructions while looking artlessly natural. They are also more socialized and so willing to please an adult — and they can be more successfully bribed with deferred treats!

Here are a few tips for photographing young children:

The session has to be fun for the child.

If they are old enough (over two years), you can take them on a tour of your studio and try to break down the “stranger with a black box in front of their face” barrier before you even adopt that role. Give them time to adapt to the strange environment and to develop a tiny bit of warmth toward you away from their parents. Make them feel important and knowledgeable (what’s the name of your puppy and what do you like best about her?). Ask about their favorite toys and make sure the parents have brought some of them along with them.

photographing children

“Elias – Sept 2009” captured by Vivian Chen

It is also a great help if there is one extra adult available who is loved by the child (i.e. someone who is not going to be in most of the pics — an aunt or a child minder). They can stand next to the photographer and get the child to look in the right direction, smile, laugh, etc. Singing and hand-clapping games also work well. And, again, ask the parents to bring along their favorite songs to be played during the shoot.

Allow for plenty of refreshment breaks and don’t try to incorporate them into the shoot; bribing with sweets or biscuits will give you a messy, distracted child with crumbs around and in their mouths. Chocolates are a no-no unless you are a parent photographer and want to capture that messy little face. Request that parents bring several changes of clothes for the child to allow for mishaps.

Change the action frequently.

Kids tire of a game quickly, so if it stops working, stop plugging away at it. Kids have a very basic sense of humor — anything with naughty words like “stinky” and pet names for body parts works well. Making up funny stories about their parents, anything obviously ludicrous (can your dog fly?) will earn an amazed smile at your simple mindedness. Be prepared to make a fool of yourself!

Be quick and be prepared.

In a studio environment, you have a very small window where the child will cooperate before getting bored. This time cannot be wasted fiddling with your equipment or fetching new props. Everything needs to be ready and waiting. Use flash, go hand-held, get down to the child’s level, and be patient. Interact often with the child eye-to-eye, but with the camera in your hands and ready.

baby portrait

“Baby” captured by Jay Sadler

Choose a familiar location.

It’s a lot easier to photograph kids outside. For one, they don’t need to be limited to the small area in front of the lights, and for another, the photographer can back off and let them be themselves.

child portraiture

“Child Portrait Photography with Autumn Leaves” captured by Scott Webb

A long zoom lens is a must; I use an 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens, which works well in separating children from the background. Take them to a park or let them play on their parents like a jungle gym. They will soon forget there’s a photographer present, and they will relax and have fun. Don’t try to get them back inside afterwards — rather, start inside and then go outside. If I am able to choose a location, I go with the child’s home and garden every time. A studio is alien and limiting. Location pictures bring something new and fresh. Whether it’s the family pet getting in on the act or a quick dip in the pool, the child is just going to be so much happier and relaxed. And that also goes for the photographer!

About the Author:
Lisa Trocchi (www.lisa4photography.co.za) has been a photographer in Johannesburg for the last 26 years. As a baby and child photographer for three national magazines, she has been there and done that when it comes to photographing children.

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