One of the things I have specialized in over the years is getting natural, great expressions from kids in photos. It’s not the easiest thing, and I’ll tell you why.
Children are naturally curious, interested creatures. They move. They are used to interacting with people by looking at them in the eye, not down a scary round black hole, and they’re super used to other female voices telling them what to do, which can work to your advantage, whether you’re a male or female.
I was surprised to find out that it’s cold and miserable here in North East Ohio…a LOT of the time, unlike Phoenix, where I was formerly, so I have had to turn a lot of outdoor shoots into indoor shoots on the fly. This particular day, I was armed with a flash that fizzled out the very first shot I took. Aaaargh, what to do? Shoot with what you’ve got, of course…The Show Must Go On!
Get them to Trust You
The first thing you need to do it talk to the child and get her to trust you. They’re scared. They don’t know if this is going to be a good experience or a bad experience, or if what they’re going to have to do is hard, or if you’re going to yell at them or make them feel bad.
It’s important that you make them feel happy and comfortable and good about anything that they’re doing, no matter what they’re doing, but you also need them to know that it’s time for them to shine now, and that you’re in charge of how they are going to shine. So while everything that they do is right, they have to do it in the manner in which you want them to do it.
Not sure how to do that? Ok, to start with, Don’t tell them no. Film is cheap. Heck, you’re not even using film, you’re using a compact flash card, so start by just shooting what they’re doing, whatever it is. I needed to shoot “Brookie Cookie,” a little dancer, for a local magazine. She has a great yard, so I planned to shoot her outside. However, it was spring in Ohio, so while it had been 70 degrees out that morning, the golden hour came and all of a sudden it was starting to snow. When the writer and I got to Brooke’s home, she wasn’t quite ready to shoot. She was doing what all kids do when a stranger comes to their house, showing off and being all crazy one moment, and all shy the next. The light was disappearing quickly. My deadline was the next day. So I pulled out one of my old babysitting tricks:
I had her show us her room. If you’ve ever babysat, you know that kids love showing you their rooms. Men, and women, for that matter, do NOT go in to a little kid’s room alone with them. Have the parent go with you. Brooke had an extensive stuffed animal collection, and dove on to the bed immediately, so I asked her if she wanted to play “E.T” and be buried in her stuffed animals. She loved the idea, so we shot the first scene. We pretended that we couldn’t tell her from the stuffed animals, and “searched” for her. She loved it, and was then ready for me to fix her hair and to let me see her clothes for outfit suggestions.
Get distracting elements out of the way, then get ready for anything that might come your way.
Kids are natural hams. They love trying new poses, check out your camera roll on your phone…your kids probably have ten thousand selfies on there. They’re also used to their parents yelling at them to stand still and be normal when they get their pictures taken, and they can’t.
They don’t care if you’re losing your light. They aren’t made that way, so just take your worries and stresses out of your vocabulary and realize that you will shoot them on the fly. In this case, I moved the furniture out of the way, moved her forward, away from the wall, and stood with the window to my right. Brooke was doing somersaults on a comfy chair. So I started saying silly things, like that I wanted to do somersaults or “Ooh, is Daddy doing somersaults?” She stopped to look and see if Daddy was actually going to do the somersault, and I caught this shot of her little sweet self.
Be prepared for trust and shoot it
After I knew I got the shot and moved everything back, as I was leaving, I realized that I didn’t have a strong horizontal to show my editor, so I turned back, and there was little Brooke, just lounging on her chair and looking all adorable, so I ran back and shot that little sweet girl and it was awesome. Reward them for doing great…tell them how amazing they are.
Make it a great experience for them so that they will love having their pictures taken the next time. And guys… don’t ever settle. Once kids realize that you’re nice and fun. The magic will happen. Wheedle or beg, definitely don’t threaten. But also , don’t put down your camera. Make it a part of your body, and just keep trying new thoughts, because the best shots aren’t always planned, and they can be the most magical.
Send me your wins and fails of your kids portraits to email@example.com and you and I can talk about them. Let’s get better together!