Children are notorious for being both adorable and difficult to photograph. Their seemingly endless energy has photographers scrambling to avoid motion blur and their tenacity sometimes makes them unwilling to cooperate. Beyond those issues, there is the dreaded “Say cheese!” face. These days, kids are raised with an iPhone in their face all day, every day from the day they enter this world. By the time they are walking and talking they have a well-practiced smile that emerges the moment someone takes out a camera. Here are some pointers to get past those canned expressions.
Get down on their level:
There are few things more intimidating than an unfamiliar person with a big camera. Most photographers are at least double the size of the children they are photographing. Getting down on their level and introducing yourself will eliminate that instinctual stranger danger reaction. A quick handshake and “Hello, how are you today?” goes a long way.
Kids can spot a phony from a mile away. Their ability to judge someone’s character and intentions within seconds of meeting is uncanny. You get what you give. If you want stunning, emotional photos from the children you are photographing you’re going to have to leave your pretentious artist side at the door.
Stand here. Do this. Don't do that! Kids are constantly bombarded with commands. Although it would be easier if kids always followed directions, they weren't built that way. They were created to wiggle around and giggle a lot. Use that tendency to your advantage. Letting them play and goof off is going to result in something more natural than asking them to perch dutifully on a pedestal of outstanding grownup behavior. Embrace the chaos and make it a game. Something as simple as having them yell out random words can get some real, toothy grins (Start with chicken nugget. It is always a hit).
Let them call the shots:
Much like adults, kids usually react to photo sessions in one of two ways. The first is that they get incredibly shy. The other, they are energized by the camera and act seriously crazy. One way to temper both of those reactions is to give them a little control. The self-imposed structure helps the energizer bunnies chill out while having some control seems to make shy children more comfortable. When kids are relaxed they are going to interact with you more authentically. Giving a choice of two options you are equally okay with is a great way to get kids invested without letting them run the whole show. “Do you want to start on this side of the lake or that side?”
Give them some space:
This is an approach that is often overlooked. Bust out the 135mm or 70-200mm lens and give them a little room to breathe. Being in front of the camera can be nerve-wracking and exhausting. That space allows them to relax and perhaps act how they actually feel like acting. Perhaps it’s bored or tired or just calm. That photograph of a little boy tugging unceremoniously at the necktie his mom bribed him into wearing is going to be emotive in a completely real way.