The Art of Photographing Children

By Jill Carmel

No matter what type of photography you specialize in, you’re bound to work with children at some point during your career. After 13 years of photographing kids of all ages, I have found a few hard-won (and sometimes unexpected) truths about working with pint-sized people. Here are my top five tips for engaging children in a photography session:

1. Food
Believe it or not, food is at the top of the list. You can forget the other four tips in this series if the child you’re working with is hungry, and the younger they are, the more likely this point will affect your shoot. Advise parents to make sure their son or daughter is well fed before the shoot, but tell them to avoid foods filled with sugar (which will only sabotage things further). I still remember the day, early in my career, when I asked a parent to bring snacks for her 3-year-old to the session, only to find that she brought Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Needless to say, the shoot was very short.

2. Action
Children are creatures of action. If they are moving, they are happy. I have “cracked the code” of many a grumpy child by getting them moving. This can take the form of simply having them run around or asking dad to throw them in the air (if they are small enough). At a recent shoot, we tried several tricks to cheer up a persistently crying 2-year-old and, in the end, all it took was having mom hold her and jog around in a big circle, coming back to the family for a lively family shot with a big smile on her face.

3. Games
Who doesn’t like playing a game? I often end up engaging the parents just as much as the kids when playing a game of “What sound does a lion make?”, “Whose feet are the stinkiest?” or “Who’s the most ticklish?” Yes, you will likely lose all sense of dignity when asking questions such as these but they really do work for eliciting natural expressions and interactions.

4. Direction

Although it may often appear otherwise, children really do want to do a good job for their shoot, but they need your help. They do not respond well to criticism or threats, so stay upbeat and give the child clear, kind and confident direction. However, if simply asking them to do something doesn’t work at first, get creative. If I’m trying to have them stay in one spot, I will often find something fun for them to stand on, like a leaf or stick and tell them to jump on it. If you want their hand to fall in a certain spot (let’s say Mom’s cheek), ask them to tell you if her face is soft. Try to think of ways to get the child to do the motion you want them to, but in a way that is fun and interesting for him or her.

5. Feedback
Just like everybody else, kids need to know when they are doing a good job. As adults, we can get wrapped up criticizing children and telling them what they are doing wrong. Skip that and tell them what they are doing right. This will boost their confidence and make them feel like super stars, engaging with you at a higher level. I will say things like, “Oh my goodness, you are just so beautiful!” or “The way you hugged your mom was perfect!” or “Are you secretly a professional model?” Talk to the parents beforehand and advise them to avoid correcting their children unless absolutely necessary.  

With these weapons in your arsenal you can capture beautiful, natural expressions with all ages from toddlers to teens. And my final tip…these ideas work on adults, too. *wink*

Jill Carmel is a lifestyle portrait photographer with over 13 years of professional experience, specializing in child and family photography in Northern California. Visit her portfolio or join her on Google+, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.


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