W.C. Fields was famously quoted as saying that actors should never work with children or animals because they always steal the show. And, you know what? He was pretty much right, especially when it comes to children. Unlike adults, they’re almost always naturals in front of the camera because they don’t have much to be shy about. They’re as guileless as a photographer could hope for, which makes them great subjects for portrait work. When they’re not crying, that is, but even then they can deliver some priceless images. Getting those shots, however, requires knowing how to work with little ones, which isn’t always so easy.
Child photography is a lot about timing, as there are definitely sweet spots and not-so-sweet spots in the day for working with kids. Even older children can get cranky at certain times. Experts suggest setting up portrait sessions with children when they’re well rested, ideally mid to late morning or, for younger children, in the afternoon after they’ve had a nap. There’s more leeway if you’re shooting kids closer to teenage years, but ensuring a good shoot with them can have more to do with making sure they’re well fed more than anything else. Pre-teens burn a ton of calories, and they can get cranky if it’s been a few hours since they’ve eaten. Have some snacks on hand. All it typically takes is an apple or a banana and a granola bar or two to put them back to happy.
Timing is also often about waiting for the right shot when working with children. Not only are they easily distracted, they have short attention spans and they’re not great about listening to direction. Tell kids what you want them to do in front of the lens and you have maybe a 50/50 chance of getting them to follow your instructions. Spend some time getting to know them and you’ll increase your chances. But all is not lost if you can’t build a connection, or as much of one as you’d like. Just shift your paradigm and let the kids dictate the action instead of you. Some of the best shots in child portraiture come this way.
See more: 7 Awesome Examples of Baby Portraits
Children are often more comfortable in front of the camera if they’re playing with their toys, as they’ll focus more on what’s in their hands instead of on what you’re doing. This might seem like a tip that’s more for photographing younger children, but it really isn’t. Pair an older child with a favorite toy and you’ll probably get a shot that says a lot about the child’s interests and personality too.
Children are often photographed sitting on the floor, whether toys are involved or not, which makes photography backdrops like seamless paper, muslin or even vinyl a great choice as they provide a smooth, seamless background. But the floor isn’t the only way to go. Pair a pensive kid with a stool or posing kit setup, and you might get that proverbial shot that’s worth a thousand words. A posing table can also work well if you’re shooting siblings together, as you can use it to create symmetry in the shot.
Since so much about photographing children is about capturing their personalities, it’s usually best to keep things pretty simple when it comes to what’s around them. Clean, uncluttered foregrounds and backgrounds will keep the children as the focus of attention. If you’re shooting in your studio, this is a great time for using a bright backdrop. Children lend themselves exceptionally well to using eye-popping colors like hot pink, lime, bright blue, even orange or yellow. Seamless paper, which is inexpensive enough to allow for experimenting with various backdrop colors, is an obvious choice here, with 68 colors to choose from. Be sure to pick colors that complement the child’s coloring and clothing, and definitely consider something fun. Save the more somber backgrounds for when you have to use them.
Perhaps the best thing to remember when photographing children is to have fun. The more you show your enjoyment of the moment, the more they’ll reflect that right back at you through the lens. Keep the spirit light and happy, and chances are you’ll catch the essence of childhood that makes these years so important to capture.
Sonia has been a self-employed writer and editor since 1988, building on her experience working in the education, healthcare and publishing arenas in various communications capacities. She has served clients across the United States and abroad and has written, co-authored, or ghostwritten more than 20 books and hundreds of print pieces, ranging from sales brochures to annual reports, plus numerous articles and reports on subjects ranging from home architecture and interior design to the high-tech and pharmaceuticals industries.