Fallen Leaves as a Secret Weapon for Expressive Child Portraits

excited girl tossing leaves

Probably the most difficult challenge in photographing children is garnering genuine and happy expressions from them. If you routinely photograph children, chances are you’ve found yourself on a few occasions in the company of a bored or uncooperative little one, with a parent just out of frame screaming: “Smile! Smile! No, not like that!” Every fall, my favorite tactic to virtually guarantee happy expressions is to make use of all those leaves that have fallen to the ground. 

Young children can feel overwhelmed when plunked down on the ground outdoors in front of a stranger pointing a camera at them. Implementing various props can help to distract them from the fact that they are being photographed. Leaves are terrific for outdoor photography in the fall. They are plentiful, safe, and can add movement to your portraits. Try having a parent toss the leaves at their child from different directions. Then get the child to hold an armful of leaves, and encourage them to throw them up as high as they can on the count of three. 

happy boy playing in autumn leaves

There's something special about fallen leaves that excites children of all ages.

I have been through so many fall family sessions where a child was unwilling to crack a smile and once the leaf-playing began, didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the session. For this reason, I like to incorporate the leaves at the very beginning of the session, as it helps the child feel comfortable around the camera, making the session seem like any other outdoor playtime.

Camera Settings for Photographing Active Children

For portraits of children as the sole subjects, I typically shoot wide open at a focal length of 200 mm. I prefer to use longer focal lengths as it makes it easy to keep nearby family members out of the frame of the photo. It also puts some distance between you and the child, which helps them forget that you are there. I set the aperture wide open, as a shallow depth of field will keep the subject and leaves separated from foreground and background elements.

Burst mode is a must for these types of photos and for photographing children in general. Keep the focus point on the child’s eyes, and when the leaves are in the air, burst away. Then repeat.

Prepare the Parents

There are a few things you can do to help reassure parents prior to the session. First of all, explain to them that it’s not necessary that their children are looking at the camera. Personally, I have found most of my clients choose images in which their children are not looking at the camera, but rather have a candid and excited expression while they enjoy their playtime. Second, urging children to “smile” is a surefire way to guarantee either no smile or something where there are teeth showing in more of an awkward grimace. Instead, encourage the parent to talk about the child’s favorite toy or food. Add in time to play in the leaves, and you’ll be sure to get plenty of genuinely joyful expressions in your children’s portraits this fall.

happy boy tossing leaves in the fall

The combination of a long focal length and shallow depth of field can yield beautiful results.

Of course, leaves are great for the fall, but what about the other seasons? Luckily, I have found a prop that can be used in any season and works just as well as fall leaves for getting these delighted expressions. This ultra-secret prop will be revealed in a future article. Just kidding. It’s a bubble machine.

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Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The leading image made me open the link and smile further.

Jordan Pinder's picture

Haha I'm glad to hear that Tihomir. Part of the fun with these sessions is getting home and smiling the whole time I'm culling through the photos.

Looks awesome can't wait until i get my iPhone 7 plus and take bokeh shots like that. Wow the iPhone has basically reinvented photography! 😉

Ramon Acosta's picture

Great pictures! All taken with the same lens? 85mm? I really like the look!

Jordan Pinder's picture

Thanks Ramon! They were all taken with a 200 mm lens, though the look would be very similar using an 85 mm lens at wide aperture.