Photographing Children | Tips For Better Photos

Photographing children is something that I love to do. Fortunately, they seem to be happy to put up with me

A few days ago, I was photographing a Bridal Shower, when in walked a very pretty young lady. As she was taking her coat off, she saw my camera, and immediately launched into a couple of modeling poses. She knew just what to do. Nothing out of the ordinary about that, except that she was just 3 years old! Say hello to my little model. We had a matter of minutes to shoot a nice image, the details are below.

This post may be useful if you are a parent just wanting to take better photographs of your children. If you are a professional photographer – there might be a nugget in here for you too, as this was a less than ideal scenario. Read on below the image.

Photographing children. Child model at a bridal shower.

The Environment.

This was not a great environment for a portrait. An upper floor of a venue, with the only natural light source being a single sliding door. It was raining heavily outside, reducing the already sparse natural lighting. The room lighting was uneven, and harsh, with tungsten spotlights that cast deep shadows under the eyes dotting the ceiling.

As it was a bridal shower, there were tables ready for the lunch that was about to start. All in all, definitely not the ideal place to shoot a portrait of anyone, least of all a child. This isn’t a slight on the venue – I actually like this particular one. It’s just that venues are not designed by photographers – well lit faces are not part of the planning process. As photographers, that’s our job to figure out that particular challenge.

My immediate thought was “I have a more than willing subject!” But how to photograph her became the question. It was raining outside, but that wan’t an issue since the sliding door led to a covered balcony. What was the issue was the temperature – it was really cold. An indoor portrait was my only option, and I had minutes to get it done. It’s often that way when photographing children.

Parental Permissions.

Before we go any further, let me be clear about one thing. You absolutely must get permission regarding anything that you do with a minor. Even if someone brings a child to you to be photographed, and you simply want to walk them across the room, ask first. Always. Photographing children demands that you show the proper respect and consideration.

I looked at the parent in this case and said “can I take her across there (to the sliding door) for a couple of shots?  Having been granted permission, I reached out my hand to my little model, and said in an overly excited voice, “let’s go take some photos!!!” She grasped my hand and off we went. We didn’t walk though, we bounced. At this point, I’m trying to further enthuse my model. Another piece of advice regarding transparency, even though I had just been given permission to take my new friend for a little walk, I made a point, as I always do in this situation, to stay highly visible.

The Light.

The number one priority, I need to find my light. Whatever that may be, whether it’s flat and even, directional, moody, whatever, I need to find the light that I want. In this case it was a sliding door, the only natural light source in the entire room. Opening the door and standing outside to shoot in was not an option, my popularity, if I had any, would have plummeted when everyone felt the rush of cold January air, even though it was mid April. Yes, it felt very much like January, and we were still getting snow.

This is a point that can’t be emphasized enough. You can take a stunning subject, with beautiful light falling on their face, and even if the background is a landfill, you will have a worthy portrait. The landfill would of course be out of focus! But take the same stunning model, put them in really harsh light, with their eyes deeply in shadow from say, overhead tungsten spotlights, and I don’t care if the background is absolutely gorgeous – you will have a very poor portrait. You will look at the lighting on the face and immediately be negatively effected by it.

In a portrait, unless you are aiming for a particular effect, the lighting on the face is paramount. Pay attention to it, I mean really pay attention. Our eyes adjust for differences between highlights and shadows much better than our cameras do, so don’t let your brain fool you into thinking the light is good, when it isn’t. Today, with instant digital previews, we can have a look at the back of the camera and verify the quality of the light.

How This Was Lit.

There was a small white sofa off to the side of the sliding door, which I dragged as close as I could. With my little model on the sofa, and the door off to her left side,  (camera right) I was going to be getting a pretty directional lighting pattern, with her right side in shadow.

There were a couple of things in my favor though. Both the sofa and her cardigan were white, and they would provide some bounced light to fill in shadows on her face. Still, it was going to be a little more directional than I wanted. Enter the flashgun sitting atop my camera.

Firing that flash straight at her was not an option. It never should be. That’s about as unflattering a light source as you will ever get. It’s harsh and to be avoided at all costs, unless that’s what you are going for. The answer was bounced flash. My flashgun was pointing almost straight off to camera left, traveling about 35 feet to the wall on the other side of the room, and bouncing back. It was quite a distance, but I only needed to open up the shadows and create a more even light. So this is mixed lighting, some natural, some flash.

Even light is not to everyone’s taste, but for me, it’s what I wanted with this young lady. Even lighting is what I pretty much always want in photographing children. So now that we had our lighting figured out, what was next?

The Background.

The background is the second go to, after the light. Very often, in venues like this, I will try to get some lights in the background. Perhaps that means aiming upwards slightly so that chandelier lights will give me highlights in my background. Here, I didn’t have that option.

Family photographer Hugh Anderson Photography. Studio photograph 02

I did have some light on a wall in my background, but it was off to the left. The solution was for me to tuck myself into the sliding door, and shoot at a slight angle. That brought the light into the

shot, and adjusted what would have been a pretty dark background. Look at the image and you can see she is looking back at me.

If photographing children at say a wedding reception, and you are using flash on all of your shots, then start paying attention more to what’s behind your subjects. Test that by taking a shot facing one way, then walk around and shoot from the other side. Shoot with light in the background, and without. The difference is often dramatic.

If in a controlled situation, then you can have any background you want. Like the shot here, taken on a painted sheet of insulation material.

The Connection.

Of course finding the light and planning out the background means absolutely nothing if your model is bored to tears, and looks it. No level of technical expertise will save that shot!

So what do you do? It’s simple in my opinion, just act like a child. Photographing children demands that you get on their level, act like they act to a point, be as excited and as exuberant as they are. My stance changes, as I stoop more to be closer to them, my voice changes to be a little goofy, and my enthusiasm starts to bubble over. I don’t walk with them, I bounce, sometimes skip. How else can I expect children to be enthusiastic if I am not. Hey, I didn’t say photographing children would make you look cool, frankly, I am more often acting like a total fool. And for one reason – connection.

Look at the image at the start of this post, is she connected to me, and ultimately, the camera?  I think she is. Bear in mind, we have known each other at this point for literally 3 minutes, and that’s the second of only 2 shots taken once we arrived at the sofa. The other image is identical – I pressed the shutter twice to allow for a blink.

Making Friends

In a nutshell, to successfully photograph children, you have to make friends with them really fast. And it’s such a joy to do this, especially in more heart wrenching situations.

Photographing children. Girl in a wheelchair portrait

The young lady in this photograph is non verbal. She can’t speak, and communicates by simply making noises. When she was brought to me, I immediately got down to her level, smiled big at her, and displayed enthusiasm. I tried to connect with her.

Have a close look at the image, was it working? I think so. On facebook, her mom posted a message that really made my eyes well up. She wrote “And it was incredible to see how well she communicated with you!”.

That’s what it’s all about for me. In photographing children, if you can get them to connect with you in ways that they don’t normally connect, don’t change a thing! It’s working. Every time that I look at this image, that smile melts my heart.

So remember, while trying to juggle the lighting, background, and camera settings all at once, don’t forget the connection. You are going to need it.

Forget The Cheese!

If I hear another person saying “say cheese” to a child as I am photographing them … well, never mind, you get the point.

Here’s what proves to be the most challenging aspect of photographing a child when adults are around. Having several people, in several different positions, all calling out “smile Johnny, look at the camera Johnny”. The child doesn’t hear the command and look straight at the camera, no, the child hears the command and looks straight at the person that barked it. Then the next person. And the next. But rarely the camera.

Here’s a question.  What happens when you tell a child to “say cheese”? Do they break into a natural, beautiful smile? No, they clench their teeth together and put on the silliest grin ever. Not what anyone wants, right? It truly is the worst thing to say.

But whatever you say, there is only one position you should say it from – behind the camera. And if you are not holding the camera, then it’s behind the photographer. Where you want the young model to look is where you want to be.

Dismissing The Parents When Photographing Children.

Parents can be the biggest obstacle to getting a good result when photographing children.  There, I said it!

Seriously though, children play up when parents are around, making it difficult to get a good portrait. I was photographing a brother and sister recently at a local club. The kids, maybe 6 & 8 years Brother and sister portraitold, were not co-operating. We had a very limited timeframe, as they were all about to sit down to dinner. It was basically a 10 minute session, in a club.

What to do? I turned to the parents and said, “hey, would you mind just going off into the next room, keep the door open so you can see, but be far enough away so that I can work with the kids without distractions?” I felt a little hesitation, but they agreed, and off they went.

Here’s why I did that. These children are now under my direction. They don’t have their parents to bounce off of, and they have absolutely no idea what they can get away with in my charge. So they behave. Now, all I need is the connection, and to get that, a little bit of goofiness ensues. Making them laugh naturally is infinitely better than telling them to “say cheese”.  The shot on the red sofa is from the session.

I played around to make them smile, shot individual images of them both, then a couple of frames of them together. I have their attention, and there was no way on earth that I was getting it with the parents standing behind me trying to direct, albeit with good intention. So don’t ever be afraid of telling parents when photographing children that you will get a better connection with less distraction.

Oh, and remember that point earlier about using lights as part of you background?  The lights on the Christmas tree gave the background a little lift. And it’s much more evident in the individual portraits as the are closer in. So look out for background enhancements not just when photographing children, but all the time.

Coaxed Not Forced.

Lastly, you can’t force children to have their photographs taken. It doesn’t work. You either have to walk away and sneak around looking for candid shots, or wait to see if the become more co-operative later, or employ my most used tactic – play the fool. Have fun, laugh with them, make them want to be around you. It will all flow from there.

If you have any questions on this or any other photography subject, I would be glad to help.

From here  you can visit the portraits page, or if you prefer, the families page. Or any page you want really!