If you ever visit the Powell Photography website, one thing will quickly become abundantly clear: I photograph a LOT of kids.
And I LOVE it. I love photographing adults too, of course, but children are un-self-conscious and uninhibited in a way that’s nearly impossible for grownups. If you don’t believe me, just try asking one of your adult friends to jump in a leaf pile in his Sunday best and see what reaction you get.
The challenge with photographing kids is that they’re not always up for having their pictures taken, and they don’t necessarily have the ability to communicate, “Not right now, thank you; I’m not in the mood. Perhaps we can do it this afternoon.” Any parent reading this knows exactly what happens when you try to force a kid to do something he’s dead-set against doing, and it ain’t pretty.
Also, photo sessions can be intimidating for kids. I mean, think about it: Here you are, four years old, most of your bingo balls still floating around in the draw-tank, so to speak, you’re dressed in your best clothes, which are not very comfortable and which your mother has threatened your life if you ruin, some grownup you don’t even know is pointing this scary mechanical object in your face and screaming “SMILE!!” and your dad is standing off to one side getting madder and madder because you don’t particularly want to stare down the barrel of this big ugly glass thing that looks disturbingly like something out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Really, is it any wonder kids melt down during your Christmas card shoot?
Photographing children is one of the few things that I can say with confidence that I’m really good at, and I’m about to share my big secrets with you.
Warning: These are easier said than done for most people.
2. Keep your expectations low.
3. Think like a kid.
(Thinking like a kid is one of the other things I can say with confidence that I’m really good at. This is not always a fortunate thing.)
Seriously, though, where most parents and photographers run into trouble is expecting something a kid is just never going to do. The way I see it, you have two choices: You can either a) have a kid who sits up ramrod-straight and all prim and proper with his clothes smoothed neatly and his face turned just so in front of a backdrop in a studio and takes an absolutely perfect (but boring) portrait or b) you can have a kid who looks happy and like himself and STILL takes a beautiful photo. Very rarely, if ever, can you have both.
Thankfully, the vast majority of my clients would rather have the latter.
So what can YOU do in order to take better pictures of your kids?
1. Chill. Beautiful photos don’t always happen when your kid is doing precisely what you want her to do. Beautiful photos happen when you let your kid be herself. If that kid is eight years old, then yes, it’s reasonable to expect that she can sit on the sofa for a few seconds while you snap a few pictures. But that’s probably not going to happen with your preschooler. Sit on the floor with your camera and let your child PLAY. Let her have fun and be happy. Interact with her – talk, play, make silly faces, make funny noises. I promise, if you’re patient, you’ll get terrific results. If your child is older, then tell her what you want her to do, but keep it simple, and make it FAST.
2. This past February, we shot Valentine’s mini-sessions with a kissing booth my husband made. I think a grand total of two kids ended up sitting behind the kissing booth. Ah, well; lesson learned. But we ended up with a lot of precious portraits anyway. The point is, if you’ll let go of your expectations and look for the wonderful moments as they happen, you’ll both be a lot happier.
3. One of the things we did right with the Valentine’s minis was have a little stuffed frog for the kids to hold. Even the ones who were intimidated and a little scared about having their pictures taken relaxed when they held their froggy pal. Recognize that children don’t see things the way we do – strangers and cameras and new places can be disorienting at best and frightening at worst. Assure them that this whole thing is no big deal, we’re just having fun and nobody’s going to get a spanking, and it will go a long, long way toward calming them and making them a lot more willing to do what you want.
4. If you’re having professional portraits made, then sit back and let the photographer do her thing. Often, parents are embarrassed when their kids don’t want to cooperate. I’m about to say something that I want all you clients who are reading this to remember forever: I HAVE SEEN WORSE. No matter what your kid is doing, there is a kid who has done 10 times more. Unless she pulls out a switchblade and cuts me, it’s all going to be OK. And don’t worry, we’ll probably even get some good shots on the way to the ER. In all seriousness, children sense when their parents are upset, and that obviously doesn’t do anything to calm them OR you. Standing off to the side and saying “Johnny. JOHNNY. Sit down. SIT DOWN THIS MINUTE! Look at the camera! Look at her! She wants to take your picture. Do this for me. Do this one thing! Why can’t you just BEHAVE?! You’re not going to get a sucker if you don’t sit down and look at the camera. I’m calling your father,” doesn’t help and in fact can make things worse. Take a deep breath, step back and let me do the heavy lifting for you. Chances are good to excellent that Johnny and I will develop a rapport and I’ll get some shots that will make everybody happy.
5. Be flexible. Every time I do a mini-session, I have a couple of kids who are straight-up TERRIFIED. They absolutely, positively do NOT want to do this, and the very THOUGHT of letting go of Mama and sitting in front of a backdrop fills them with abject, pants-wetting fear.
Both of the following photos were taken with the kiddo sitting on someone’s lap.
See? In this case, it’s the end result that really matters, not the process.
6. Just go with it. Don’t take yourself or the situation too seriously. Sometimes, you gotta work with what you’ve got.
Because when it’s all over, no matter what happens, what you’ve got is beautiful.