If I learned anything in the 5 years of working for a high volume children's photo studio, it's that kids smell fear. They know if their parents are feeling stressed and if you’re feeling stressed. Often times they’ll show up at a shoot wearing clothes that they don’t normally wear and their parents are usually stressed out from trying to get everyone out the door. Having a good rapport with the parents/guardians is key. If you can make the parents feel calmer, it will rub off on the kids.
Once the parents are at ease it's time to figure out what kind of kid(s) you’re working with.
The Newborn (0-6 Months)
From birth to sitting they are cute little lumps. If they are warm and have full bellies they'll be happiest in the arms of a parent or capable sibling. For a family session that includes a newborn, your task is pretty easy. You don’t have to do much to get them to look/smile because, well, they don't have the stamina to smile on cue for a whole session just yet. If you are shooting them alone, you'll want a soft place for them to lay down either on their back or belly.
The Baby (6-12 Months)
This is a baby who is too young to walk but can sit up. The best option here is to keep their parent close. This will help them feel comfortable and not scared—they often have separation anxiety and you don’t want to start the session off with a baby who is worried that mom or dad just walked away.
Start small with your attention-getting so as not to scare them. Say hi, make clicking noises with your tongue to get them to look in your direction, and be patient. If there are two parents at the shoot (or another familiar face!) the reluctant smiler will often open up.
Make sure that your baby wrangler (or parent) is as close to you and your lens as possible when trying to get their attention. This age range also often loves a cool breeze, so grab a piece of cardboard for your wrangler and get them fanning!
The Toddler (1-2 Years)
This is the hardest age because they have legs and can walk/crawl to where they want to be, and they move fast! They often respond well (and stop for a moment) to loud funny noises, familiar songs, or even silly things like a tickle stick (synthetic feather duster). Sometimes all it takes is one of their favorite toys hiding behind the camera to pop up and surprise them!
Be wary though, toddlers are fickle beasts who have extremely short attention spans. You'll have to work quick and make sure you get a good read on how they are feeling at every moment. If it is a full family session, they are happiest in laps, on shoulders or piggy backs. This is also a great way to help contain their busy bodies. In the studio, they might like to try to sit on a tiny chair or box which may help keep them still for 1/200th of a second.
The Preschooler (3-5 Years)
This comes after the toddler…these little people now speak and can listen to directions (if they like you and trust you or think you’re funny.) It is also the age of the fake smile where they think you’re the dentist and want to grind their teeth together and pull back their lips as far as possible. So, even though they “follow” directions, don’t tell them to smile. Also, avoid asking them to say things like “cheese” because it's basically the same thing as asking them to smile.
You can break out the old tickle stick (a synthetic feather duster) and pretend you can’t reach them, or heck, you can even offer to tickle their parents! Kids love it when they feel like they are in control of some part of the session.
Dream of being a stand-up comic? Now's the time to break out your worst preschool stand up…pick up a leaf and pretend it's a new stylish hat. Play the fool and ask them if a duck says “moo,” and they often laugh as they correct you.
With willing and outgoing kids in this age group, they’ll often follow small directions like give your mom a kiss on the cheek or put your hand on your hip. When they start to get wiggly let them take a break or change up your method for extracting the smiles—if you were joking, switch to the tickle stick or try balancing something on your camera and ask them if they think you can get it to stay while dramatically dropping it.
The School Aged Kid (5-13 Years)
This can be either the most difficult or the easiest group of kids, those aged from about 5 to 13. Some of them are just so happy to do what you ask. They know what a camera is, they like to be in front of it, and they take direction well. With this group your biggest job is to make sure they look comfortable and don’t revert to that “fake” smile which their parents hate. With the younger kids of this group, you might want to joke a bit or ask them silly things like if they had pickles for breakfast if they start looking stiff.
The other group doesn’t want to be there. They are wearing clothes that they don’t love, they are “sooooooo booooooored” and they will often roll their eyes or let out exasperated sighs. Some in this group will even stick out a tongue or put bunny ears on a sibling. For this group you want them to know you’re on their side. That you know how dumb pictures can be and how you want to make this quick and easy for them. If they can help you out it will be over before they know it. So say things like, “Ok, ok, the torture is almost over,” or “Remember, your mom is going to SEE that you’re sticking your tongue out at me, so one funny shot and then how about a smile.”
The Teen (13+ Years)
Kids 13+ to adult. This is your senior session. Or school photos. Or dance recital shots. Some of them are well seasoned and just smile when you pick the camera up. Others really don’t want to smile and are trying out a more serious look. Get a good read on who they are and roll with it.
If they are giving you the death glare but you think they’re going for blue steel just make a joke—“Ok, John, serious is good…but maybe a little less death glare,” and this can break the ice just a bit and bring the glint back to their eyes. If it’s a teen who just won’t stop smiling try going for a serious look…ask them to relax their face and just look into the lens. It really is a fun group to pose and try things with—and if you happen upon a parent who won’t stop commenting negatively and bringing the session down, its okay to ask them to go for a walk for a minute so that their teen feel comfortable!
Your biggest goal is to be on team kid—make them your ally and a photo session with you will be something that everyone looks forward to year after year.
When photographing children it's important to have the right equipment. The faster you are, especially with the smaller ones, the more fun it will be for them. Choosing a Canon 85 f/1.2L lens will prove to be frustrating to use when photographing toddlers as it is "focus by wire" meaning rapid snap AF isn't the lens's strong suit! The last thing you, and the parents, want is to find out that you've missed a perfect shot because you didn't have the right equipment.