Most of you probably know that my greatest passion is photographing children, mostly my own children. They are the sole reason I picked up a camera three and a half years ago and learnt how to use it. In Marrakesh (you can see our trip here) I was lucky to get lots of captures of the boys that love, and I’ve noticed since I’ve been frequently asked about how I do it with them, and whether they are really as good as they appear when it comes to being photographed. So I thought I’d shed a little light on how it really works for us! Here are my top tips for photographing kids, and hopefully preventing them from becoming either camera shy, or too aware of the camera.
The truth is my children are really good and I’m very lucky, but I do believe this is down to the approach I have taken with them over being photographed. I have never made a huge deal of the camera, or making them do things, and now they barely realise I’m there. When we got back from Marrakesh and were looking at the photos together on my computer, my eldest was surprised how many there were and exclaimed “but you only took one photo whilst we were there!”
There was in reality obviously more than one occasion when we went out with the camera, but it was approached in the way “come on boys, the light is lovely, shall we go and explore the gardens a bit?” I had actually spent a few days simply location spotting, visualising the shots, even taking practise shots with no one in them to see how they looked on camera. Then when we went out together I would subtley make sure they were dressed in something that worked, and then suggest to them they go and look at things.
“Ooh that gate looks good, what can you see through there?”
“look boys there’s oranges on the tree! Can you reach them? Show me the orange!”
You get the idea! You will never hear me say “smile at the camera”. It doesn’t work with my kids, and in my experience it doesn’t work with other peoples kids either. My children are completely incapable of smiling on demand (you should see their school photos!), the best I will get is a weird grimace, and then they feel awkward and shy and don’t want to do any more.
In fact when I have photographed other families, I often come across children who have been trained to smile at the camera, and I will spend the first half hour of the shoot trying to actually get them to forget I’m there. Don’t get me wrong, some kids are brilliant at pulling out a natural looking smile, but I want to capture those natural, fleeting moments – glances between family members, a little smile at a sibling, or the happiness at enjoying a game in the fresh air.
A great way to distract children who grin as soon as they see a camera is to engage them in other things. Ask them to look for sticks, feathers or flowers. When they find one they will more than likely be thrilled and hold it up to show you. Be ready for that moment! Ask them to blow dandelions, or let a ladybird craw on their arms. Be prepared to put the camera down for a few minutes and get involved! Hunt around with them, and judge when they are happy and engaged in their task and then pick up your camera again. If you’re struggling to see anything around to engage with, look for birds, interesting clouds, point out something for them to look at. Of course you need to also keep the light and the backdrop in mind, but do it carefully. Stay on the right side of them, and suggest “let’s look over here” to keep them in the spot you like.
Sometimes direct eye contact is pure magic, and there’s no denying that. If you want to really get that straight down the lens, windows to the soul shot, be the person behind the camera! Don’t say to a child “look at the camera”, but rather “look at me”, or even better don’t ask them to, just try and engage them. Sometimes I have to work quite hard for this, I come out from behind the camera and chat, tell jokes, or threaten a tickle if needs be! When they do smile, they are engaging with me, not the camera, and that smile is so much more genuine. Having another adult to help with this can be great too. Take your partner or a friend along and ask them to stand at you shoulder and do something funny.
Sometimes you will find the perfect location, you can visualise the shot and you know it’s a winner, but your child just does not fancy going over there no matter how hard you try and persuade then it looks like fun. They are just not always tempted to go on their own, so be prepared to go with them! I have a very handy little tripod for my iPhone with a bluetooth remote which I always carry with me if I suspect occasions like this will arise. I also usually carry either my full size tripod or my little gorillapod which is brilliant for wrapping around a fence post, tree, or pretty much anything. I’ve used sun loungers on the beach in Dubai with this one, and even set it up in the buggy. You can see my full guide to getting in the frame and using a tripod and self timer here.
A very simple way of anchoring kids to that perfect spot is to find something for them to sit on. Once they are sitting they are obviously more likely to stay there for a little while! Tree roots, steps or walls in front of buildings, or even just your coat or cardigan if you didn’t bring a blanket are handy for getting them to perch for a minute. Once they are there you can distract them by chatting as you edge back and lift up your camera. My kids usually begin to interact with each other at this point, and I get can well out of way and let it happen. If you’re photographing a single child, they won’t want to feel left, so use a shorter lens and stay nearby.
Here are my top tips for photographing children
- Never tell them to smile at the camera!
- Plan locations, envisage your shots and angles for minimum time wasting.
- Make it fun, you are exploring together rather than going on a photoshoot.
- Be prepared to jump in the shot with them. They will more than likely love the whole thing if you are playing too.
- Always dress them appropriately. A shoot will very quickly go to pot if kids are cold or have wet feet. It’s a complete waste of time.
- Don’t force them. If they are really not enjoying it, leave it for another day.
- Try and step back and let them be. Keep your direction subtle, and as much as possible let it be natural.
- If your child does grin at the camera all the time, try and make up games to distract them and help them forget the camera is there.
- Take bribes! If necessary a jelly bean will go a very long way. They will more than likely be happy to “walk over there” with a fistful of sweeties.
- Most importantly, be patient! It can take time, a lot of time!
I’d love to hear your tips too for photographing children, what works for you?