Ten Tips

Photographing Children


1. Study Expressions

Working with children is unique because they do not filter their emotions. I stumbled across this realization before I was a photographer. Intrigued by old photographs in my family I began asking to hear the stories behind the faces. I studied every detail in the images. I found myself searching for clues about the relatives that were gone long before I was born. I would look at the way the light fell across the kitchen table, the wild flowers in the vase, the old radio but most of all I studied the expressions. Expressions that could only be seen by reading the eyes. In fact, in most cases the only hint I could gleam of the person was within the eyes. I saw happiness, pride, love, sadness and exhaustion in the eyes of the relatives I would never know. This was the beginning of my study of expression. As a photographer I use this to study the eyes of the children I photograph. When working with children watch to see emotions and thoughts flicker in their eyes.

2. Define your Style & Stick to it!

Style is not something that an artist or photographer chooses. I believe style is much more complex and emerges from a combination of life experiences that are unique to each person. Over time a true style that comes from the heart and soul begins to develop. I have countless experiences that make me see the world through my camera in a very specific style. When I started my business eight years ago in Seattle I went to a client's house to present her proofs from her session. Something unexpected happened when I began showing her the proofs. One by one she rejected each image...." This one would of been good if she were smiling", "Too bad she is not centered in this one", "You chopped the tip of her head off in this one", "She is not even looking at the camera!" No big surprise she ordered nothing and must of thought I was a really poor photographer if I could not center her daughter, make her smile, look at the camera and keep her entire head in the frame! You might think I left in defeat but it was actually the opposite. She defined my style. She made me realize that my personal style had emerged. This client taught me an important lesson....define your style and stick to it! Make sure that your style is screaming from your website or portfolio. You will attract the clients that embrace your work. Try not to mimic other photographer's work but rather take inspiration and blend it with your creativity. Finding your style will help you find success because your finished prints will have authentic moments.

3. Get Moody

We all know children are programmed at a very young age to put on their best "Smile" when they see a camera in their face. This is something I "undo" when working with a child. By simply telling a child they don't have to smile you will see a change in their body language. It is almost as if a weight of expectations are lifted instantly from their shoulders. Children are a virtual library of emotions. Why do we feel the need to document the same "fake" smile over and over again? If you watch children you will see that they are constantly thinking. Sometimes a flash of moodiness stretches across their face only to give way to a brilliant and genuine smile. Catch that giggle but only if it is real. Most of my moody shots are just the quiet moments during the session. Capture those faces too....they will soon be forgotten as a child grows. Children have so many feelings we should not limit ourselves. Moody shots have a certain quality that draw us in to take a closer look. Don't shy away from documenting emotion.

4. Throw Perfection Out!

Who needs it! The world around us is not perfect so why would we try to make a child appear perfect in a portrait? Get real and enter the world of a child. Document who a child is that very day.....messy hair and all! That is the child the parent will long to see in their mind's eye when the child becomes an adult. When they go back and look through photos it won't be the ones with the perfect hair and a manufactured smile that make the edges of their mouth curl up with laughter. It will be the photograph where one knee sock is slouching down and the wind has caught the child's hair creating quite the mess that will stir up an emotional response. The impish smirk, the subtle smile, the child as they really were once before. Don't wait for that missing tooth to grow, that scratch on the knee to heal....those are the hallmarks of childhood and they should be worn proudly.

5. Skip the Cliche

We all see the same images with different children over and over again. Skip those shots and broaden your mind. Be creative and unique instead of swimming with the crowd. Don't fill your portfolio with images that did not come from your mind. Challenge yourself to find your own real moments.

6. Get Close & Get Low

Get close enough that you can connect the dots of freckles that scramble across a child's nose. Close enough that you can count eyelashes. The human face changes at an astonishing rate. Be quick to document this changing canvas. Use a proper lens to avoid distortion when taking close up shots. My favorite lens is a 90mm macro. Get Low.....really low. Don't be afraid to get on the child's level. I once left a session covered in sand and ocean water from my neck to my shoes because the shot I needed required me in the waves. I did get a few funny looks but I got my shot! Change your point of view....shooting up can give a child the illusion of power.

7. Change of Environment

When seeking a location for a session there are a few things that can make or break your day. Avoid playgrounds and photographing children at their home. If a child is familiar with their environment it can be a recipe for a struggle. The child may realize they would like to go inside for a snack, milk or a television show. Perhaps they are too comfortable with their surroundings. By finding an unfamiliar location a child will become engaged in exploring. When choosing a location look for areas that are large enough to have a variety of lighting situations. If you limit yourself to a tiny location you will have to fight the light. I enjoy scouting out new locations such as urban areas, plantations, beaches, fields and farms. My favorite location is the historic district as it is filled with textures and lines that can take your photos to a new level. Set the stage so the child will be interested in their new surroundings!

8. Think Timeless

When suggesting clothing keep in mind timeless images are the ones that leave imprints in our minds. I personally work with black and white film so I think in terms of layers and textures. Suggest shoes and shirts that don't have logos. I find the most interesting images are the ones that you cannot date. Was it taken in 1920,1950 or 2000? If you prefer the contemporary look to reflect your photography style you can think in terms of suiting your taste. Either way have a clothing guide and resource list for your clients. Explain how clothing can take an ordinary session to extraordinary!

9. Coffee Break for Mom and Dad

When I started out I found it quite awkward to ask a parent for space when working with their child. I learned quickly how it affects a session if a parent is over my shoulder telling a child to smile or look at the camera. I am no longer shy when asking a parent to wander off within view so I can work. Nothing will ever come from a session where a child is filled with expectations to perform. Be firm on this and the results are dramatic.

10. Keep it Simple and have Fun!

Camera, Film, Light Meter. Or if digital same deal.....less is more. Have fun....if it is not fun for you it will show in your images. Find the humor in expressions and actions of children. Children don't hold back and don't care what their best side is....what more can we ask for?

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—The JPG team

18 responses

  • Regenia Brabham

    Regenia Brabham (Deleted) gave props (17 Jan 2009):

    Your images are incredible. Your tips are so true!!

  • Gabrielle Renfro

    Gabrielle Renfro gave props (17 Jan 2009):

    Great article, amazing pictures- got my vote. :]

  • Michael Adams

    Michael Adams gave props (17 Jan 2009):

    Wonderful tips. This article was very well written and the included photos are excellent examples. Thank you for sharing, you have my vote!

  • Spectre Photo

    Spectre Photo gave props (18 Jan 2009):

    Excellent essay and photographs, voted :)

  • Karin

    Karin gave props (19 Jan 2009):

    Well written...you have my vote!

  • Marva Fonseca

    Marva Fonseca (Deleted) gave props (21 Jan 2009):

    Has my vote! Thank you for sharing! Can't wait to try these out on my son!!!

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah gave props (23 Jan 2009):

    Niec tips for a subject that probably every photographer thinks he / she knows, but doesn't, really. Myself included. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kym

    Kym gave props (26 Jan 2009):

    Kelly, I'm such a fan of your work. Thanks for taking the time to share your valuable tips with all of us. I really enjoyed reading your story!

  • Mandi Nikole

    Mandi Nikole gave props (4 Mar 2009):

    Great photo and great images

  • Kel Casey

    Kel Casey gave props (13 Apr 2009):

    Amen to all that. I tell my kids "don't smile", b/c it's always contrived and fake and doesn't capture who they are. I love how you get the eyes.

  • Kayla-Rae Bishop

    Kayla-Rae Bishop gave props (2 Jun 2009):

    Very Insightful

  • molly .

    molly . gave props (28 Jun 2009):

    this is incredible, and all of your portraits are stunning. if this is not published soon, readers of the magazine are seriously missing out.

  • Marco Martinez

    Marco Martinez gave props (28 Jun 2009):

    Kelly, I, too, think that this is a great photo essay. Thanks for sharing what you know. It's great to see such genuine photos. You seem to bring out the best in the children you photograph. Well done.

  • Kelly Roper

    Kelly Roper said (5 Jul 2009):

    Thank you so much for the very kind words! :)

  • Jocelyn Little

    Jocelyn Little gave props (3 Oct 2009):

    WOW. Incredible work, truly. Thanks for the insight!!

  • Karen Menyhart

    Karen Menyhart gave props (27 Dec 2009):

    Thanks so much from a photographer just starting out! your info is priceless! I can so relate to that client rejection story. Thanks so much.

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (14 Apr 2016):

    well photograhed and well written photo essay. my vote

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