Never work with children or animals, but if you have either, you know you're going to be photographing them. Whether you're photographing your own children or someone else's, here are some tips on how to take better photographs of them.
I had always had an obsession with portraiture, but my interest in photographing young children didn't arrive until I reached an age where young children were suddenly everywhere. Once one friend had their first little one, the floodgates were open. As a professional photographer — and one who took a lot of portraits — family and close friends asked if I would take photos of their children, and at first, I agreed reluctantly. But with a few under my belt, I began to enjoy it for the very reason most avoid it: it's difficult. Young children are temperamental, flighty, easily bored, and impatient. Most have no interest in being photographed, and the ones that do usually don't have any earthly idea of what sort of pose or face makes for a good photograph. I'd go as far as to say a child being indifferent towards pictures is significantly better than a child who likes their picture taken!
There is a lot of information online about photographing children and a lot about photographing babies and newborns, but I'd argue that the hardest age to photograph is the toddler phase, from around one to three years old. Though it is difficult, it's also one of the most rewarding phases of a child's life to photograph, as they have so much personality and almost no inhibition. For those of you looking to photograph children of that age, here are some tips.
1. Stop Asking Them for Favors
This mistake is common and often perpetuated by the parents. The photographer or parent will say: "if you sit still for this photograph, you can have a treat." There are a few reasons why I think this is a bad path to take. Firstly, it's a false economy; if you're on a shoot or even a day out with the child, you can't give them a treat or a reward for every shot. Secondly, I've almost never got a natural and pleasing shot from a child who is sitting still purely because they want some chocolate. The shoot needs to be engaging for the child, which brings me on to tip two.
2. Turn It Into a Game
The child enjoying the shoot will reward you so many times over. If they're having fun, it will show in your pictures, I promise you. One way to ensure they are enjoying themselves is to turn the shoot into a game. This can be done in a number of ways, but I'll give you two of my favorites. The first is simply telling them they can't catch you and running off, then photographing them as they pursue you or vice versa. This does require a little fitness on your part and a camera and lens combination that can keep up with the tracking!
The second is easier and can get some beautiful, genuine smiles: play hide and seek, except you "seek" using your camera. If you're in woodlands, for example, they can hide behind bushes and trees, and you can jump out and snap as you find them.
3. If They Don't Want To Be Photographed, Take a Break
You will inevitably run into this problem at some point. The child is bored or frustrated at the state of play and wants a change. Do not try to coerce them into shooting more, or bribing them again, or shooting anyway. Your shots will be borderline unusable in most cases, you'll upset the child, and you'll sour any rapport you have built with them. Let them take a break and do not rush them. You need to factor this sort of thing happening in a shoot with a young child; it's par for the course.
4. Get To Know Them
This is a tip I would offer for all portraiture where at all possible. As photographers, it's easy to get wrapped up in our own worlds of composition and f-stops, but it could cost you a connection with your subject that leads to singular photographs. It might seem a little ridiculous to try to cultivate a relationship with a toddler, but I assure you, it isn't. Ask them questions — lots of questions — and see what they think about different subjects. Do they like exploring or dinosaurs or music? If you want to get great photos of young children, you can't just take from your time with them, make sure they get something out of it too. Even if the subject is too young to hold a conversation, I will chat away to them for as much of the shoot as possible.
5. Cultivate an Interest in the Camera
I find that on most shoots with young children, at some point during our time together, they will grow curious about the camera. Now, this is admittedly a difficult area. Toddlers are infamously clumsy and heavy-handed, so letting them run around with your camera is unwise. However, if they want to touch my camera, I will dial in the right settings and then hold the camera with them while they press the shutter button. On shoots where I am with more than one child, I use this opportunity to take low-angle shots of the other child. It's a little tricky to do, and you don't often come away with anything usable, but it's brilliant for bonding and planting a seed that might sprout into a photographer one day!
6. Shoot Somewhere Fun and Interesting
When planning a shoot with children, there can come the temptation to shoot at their house or in their garden. I have done this, and there's no doubt it can work, but I would recommend not doing this. The child's home is too familiar, they will fall into their own patterns which aren't overly stimulating. Furthermore, houses and gardens rarely make for great settings anyway. My personal favorite for a shoot destination is — as you might have spotted from the photographs in this article — woodlands and forests. You get interesting, often dappled light, great bokeh, textures, and lots of opportunities to play. A particular favorite of mine lately is to go to the woods when it's muddy and wet as the photos often have such character and the child is having fun.
7. Get Down to Their Height
This might seem like a compositional tip or it might seem like a psychological tip, and the truth is, it's both. While I will take many shots from my standing height, I love to get down as close to the floor as possible. On the compositional side, the low angle both separates itself from ordinary photos of the child and offers better background separation. On the psychological side — on which I am certainly no expert — it seems to be more engaging and fun, and the child is more likely to interact with you.
8. Be Patient and Miss Shots
Tantrums, short attention spans, and refusal to cooperate are just a few of the ways photographers can be annoying, but children are on occasion difficult too. As I've alluded to in my other points, you need to factor in enough time for the shoot, and you'll likely want to budget more than usually would for portraiture. You are mostly at the mercy of that child's mood, so I would recommend doing two things: be patient and shoot constantly. Storage is cheap, so take thousands of photographs, even if 90% are deleted later.
What Is Your Best Tip?
There are lots of great photographers here and a lot of parents too. Both (and some people fit in two columns there!) will have tips and tricks that help them get their shots, so share them in the comments below.