Taking photographs of children can be very rewarding, as you are able to create images that parents will treasure for a lifetime. On the other hand, however, there’s a reason why it is recommended never to work with children and animals!
Kids can be scared or moody in the studio, and can end up crying or refusing to smile. Though it might make for a funny story later in life, it certainly won’t make for the gorgeous photograph you intended. So, how do you get kids smiling and happy in every portrait?
1. Let them play
One method is to forget about posing and setting up an elaborate shoot. Instead, find something a kid will enjoy and let them go at it.
Cake smashes are a really great example of this. You put the kid in front of a cake, set up your camera, and shoot quickly to capture what happens. They inevitably end up grinning and getting messy, which makes for some fantastic images.
But you don’t have to ruin a cake to follow the same concept. Even letting them play with their favorite toy can really work wonders. If you have a little boy who loves carrying his plastic dinosaur, then put him where you want to shoot and ask him about the toy. Ask him to show you what his dinosaur does, and what he sounds like. You will get some great happy photos of a roaring boy.
Other fun ideas include bubble makers, small swimming pools for the summer, Lego blocks, dolls, and so on.
2. Assess the helpfulness of Mom and Dad
Sometimes, parents can be a great way to get kids smiling. They know how to make their own children laugh, and they can keep them relaxed and at ease. Having Mom off to one side with a favourite toy can produce some really great grins.
On the other hand, sometimes, parents can be the main source of the child’s stress. They are worried about the child’s dress and hair, trying to keep everything clean, and fretting about whether they will smile. They are so anxious that this anxiety transfers to the child, who ends up crying or trying to hide.
Take an assessment of the situation as you decide how to get the parents involved. They might be great assistants, helping you to put a smile on the child’s face. On the other hand, the child may actually relax more once they are standing at the back of the room.
3. Be silly
Especially for kids that are starting to get a little older, rather than toddlers, you can often get the most smiles by allowing yourself to be silly. Yes, you’re a professional photographer working with a client – but you also need to put your client at ease. When they’re a child, that can often mean acting dumb.
Have a whole arsenal of bad jokes at your disposal which might elicit a little chuckle, and as you tell them, have your eye to the viewfinder ready to shoot. Those little moments in which the child relaxes and laughs only last for a second or two. Older children, getting into their teens, may return to seriousness and try to pose once their laughter dies away.
Don’t be afraid to act out and play the fool. Pull funny faces, wave toys, stick your tongue out – whatever it takes to elicit a smile.
When taking portraits, remember that your subject can only be as relaxed as you are. If you’re tense, if you hate working with kids, and if you feel awkward because you don’t know what to do, then the child will pick up on it and be awkward too.
On the other hand, if you are relaxed and happy, and a little over the top, your subjects will respond to you a lot better.
If you aren’t used to being around kids, it might be a good idea to get yourself some training. Find a friend or family member who has a young child and offer to babysit. Practice making a child at ease, get to know the way they act and what they find funny. This will help you immeasurably when you get a child in your studio.
4. Prepare your space
If you shoot with children often, and especially if you focus on family portraits only, you should prepare your studio space. Have it decorated in a way that will get children staring around and smiling. Hang things from the ceiling, have toys and soft spaces all around, use glitter and bright colours.
When your studio feels like a play room, kids will respond happily. They will want to run around and play, and even when sitting down for a portrait you can direct them to look at pretty shapes on the ceiling to get a great reaction shot.
Having a space that a kid will enjoy is going to make the battle so much easier. With half of your work already done for you, the only thing you need to focus on is being in position to capture those moments of joy and wonder.
When you get these basics into place, you can photograph happy and smiling kids every time they get in front of the camera. Every kid is slightly different, but when you have all of the bases covered, there won’t be any room for failure!