This is the first part of a three-part series on Photographing Children, written for the Canon Digital Learning Center by Heather Lickliter:
- Working with Different Age Groups
- Camera Gear, Wardrobe, and Props (click to read)
Lighting and Post Processing Techniques (click to read)
I know that children are one of the toughest subjects to photograph well. Not only am I a pro photographer, but also a former pre-school teacher. Over those years and the years of photography, I’ve learned what does and what doesn’t work with kids.
These are some quick tips to help you get better photos of your children.
General Advice (for children of any age)
1) Get down. So many of my friends show me photos of their kids that are taken from adult height, which makes the child look like bobble-head dolls (because their heads are too close to the lens relative to the rest of their body). This angle is generally not flattering for portraits -- however, shooting from the child's approximate height will create a more natural perspective. Get down (or up) on their level! This could mean squatting, laying flat on your belly, climbing a tree, etc. Be prepared for a workout!
2) Anticipation is the key. Learn what the child is inclined to do and get ahead of them. If the child is running, run around in front and get them coming towards you. If the child is interested in one certain toy or activity at the playground, get there before he does. Understand what a child is interested in and make sure you're over there to capture that.
3) Be patient! Nothing ruins a good time like an impatient parent or photographer. Just have fun, and capture them doing what they do naturally.
4) Know when to talk -- and when not to. One thing you need to decide: Do you want the child looking at you, or not? If not, don't talk. If you do want eye contact in the picture, then keep a stream of prattle going. I prefer to have a good selection of 'looking' and 'not looking' photos, because both are different in the emotion and story they tell. I often get really close and stay quiet, letting the child get engaged in whatever they're doing -- then I softly whisper their name just to get a quick glance at me. If I want a quick glance with a smile, instead of whispering, I make a silly noise.
5) A grumpy disposition makes for grumpy photos. Whether a child’s or a parent’s, a bad mood will show up in your final images. Also, I am always flabbergasted when a parent threatens to punish their child for not smiling. This creates a nervous child and fake, fearful smiles and really, no one has any fun. Threatening your child doesn't do a bit of good and just makes the session harder because you have to work that much harder to get the child (naturally) happy again.
6) Be creative! I find myself drawn to less posed photos and more candid 'in the moment' type portraits. I do work on getting a few semi-formal poses for each session (because the grandparents usually like those), but for myself and most of the mothers I'm with, less traditional is the way to go. I also like detail shots like feet in the grass or eyelashes.
Babies: 0 Months to Walking
2 weeks-3 months - This age is especially challenging, because they are so immobile or unpredictable. Either they look like they're smushed into their clothes, or they can't control their arms and legs and you end up getting hands in faces or fingers in eyes, etc. One of the best ways to get nice photos of these babies is to put them on a soft rug on the floor and lay right down next to them, with the camera on the floor (or not more than a few inches off the ground). This makes the jerky baby movements lessened and focuses the picture on the baby's lovely eyes.
3-5 Months - These babies should be beginning to hold their heads up and should be smiling when you're talking to them. Lots of babies this age love to be put on their tummies and can hold themselves up to look at the camera. If your baby is having a hard time keeping their head up, prop their arms up under their chest, or put them on a Boppy (or any infant support pillow). Babies this age are very easily distracted, so be sure to clear the area of toys, equipment, or any grabable bits of fluff -- the simpler, the better! Try to limit the session to about 20-30 minutes because these sweeties tend to get frustrated pretty quickly. Also, avoid unflattering pictures like directly up the nose. One of my favorite things to do with this age is to just keep making a chain of sound (ie: one long kissy noise); eventually they need to find out what it is, and they'll look at the camera.
Tip: This age tends to lose interest when you break eye contact, so a tripod and a game of peek-a-boo is a great way to keep them engaged.
Tip: Babies like repetition. If you find something that works, keep doing it!
Tip: This age is easily overwhelmed, so a lot of people standing around calling to her is just going to make her cry.
6-8 months - This is one of my favorite ages to photograph. This age has mastered sitting up on their own, but can still be a little unsteady so make sure your location is safe. Because they can now sit up, you'll find that everything is much less frustrating to them and the whole session will go much more smoothly and smiley. Since they're not as easily distracted as younger infants, you can incorporate items from your home for a more personal feel. Play a game of peek-a-boo, sing songs, or clap a lot. Since they can sit, benches, chairs and baskets make great additional items to use. This age can roll over, so do watch out when using baskets or benches. One of my favorite poses for this age group is to put them on a nice rug or hardwood floor, stand over them and have them look right up at the lens.
Tip: This age is easily engaged with funny sounds, so don't be afraid to make a fool out of yourself behind the camera! Barnyard sounds are great.
Tip: When using a poser off the ground, have a fast spotter in case the baby decides to throw himself out of the chair/off the bench.
Tip: This age responds to your expressions, so if you want smiles, you need to be smiling too. Get frustrated, and you'll get a frustrated baby as well.
9 -14 months - These babies are on the go! Lots of babies this age have learned to crawl, stand or walk. This age is also beginning to babble, so an easy way to keep them engaged is to repeat what they're saying (ie: baby says "Ahhh!", you say "Ahhh!" right back). This age is getting quite vocal and often expresses pleasure or dismay by screaming very loudly. They get even more amused if you keep the same volume they use, screaming back at them if they screech at you (moms always give me a funny look, but it works). Since they can imitate sounds and gestures, fun games to play include patty-cake and 'find your nose!'.
Tip: This age is more mobile, so pay close attention to what's in your background and you're shooting. I see a lot of accidental inclusion of embarrassing items and extra people.
Tip:Tip: Do keep a careful eye out for anything unsafe baby can grab and get into his mouth. This includes small rocks, balls and bees
Toddlers: Walking to 3 Years
Walking - These kids are just learning how to be steady on their feet and are still pretty slow moving -- but they can sometimes put on a burst of speed. Make sure to keep an eye open for those candid moments when they fall over because when they stand up again they tend to look REALLY cute while doing it. I love getting around in front of this age and get them coming towards me while using a bench or mom's hand to hold onto. This age doesn't last long before they figure out how to run!
This boy was two at the time of this photo and was busy learning how to ride a little push car. This is a good idea for containment because the car was interesting, but still moved slower than he could run (image © Heather Lickliter)
Running - I spend of lot of time running when photographing this age. I always make sure to get at least one picture of the child running away from me, because it really embodies this age so well. These kids can take a little bit of simple direction, so I tend to use questions and redirection to get the poses I want. "Can you be on your belly in the grass?", or, "Oh wow!! LOOK at this bench over here!!", or, "Can you laugh really loud?", or, "What does that flower smell like?", or, "Do you like to dance?" Each of these questions will result in an action that I want; lying on the belly, sitting on the bench, giggling, smelling a flower and dancing.
Often for these younger ages containment is key. I bring chairs to a lot of these sessions. All you have to do is set the chair down and the child goes straight over to it and sits down. If you ASK them to sit in the chair, you'll often get a "NO!", but if you pretend that you wanted the chair first and they're not allowed in it, you'll find that they're SO excited to be there. This age is all about independence ("I do it myself!" is the most common thing you'll hear) so making them think that something is their idea is the best route. Put a chair down and they'll sit in it. Put a blanket down and they might hide under it. Throw a ball and they'll go get it. Bring out a hat and they'll put it on. Blow bubbles and they'll run around to pop them.
I also play a lot of a special game I call 'keep your hands where I put them'. I always say, "Okay, we're going to play a little game. I'm going to put your hands where I want them, and it's your job to keep them there. Think you can do that?" The reply is always "Yeah!” This works thrillingly well with siblings because I will wrap their arms around each other, back up and shoot the picture and they're still keeping their hands right where I put them! For stiff or nervous kids, I preface the shot I want with some silly places, like hands on head or fingers up noses. They always remember it is their job to keep them there, and it sure does get some good giggles.
Preschoolers: 3-5 Years
3 years - Three-year-olds are busy exploring, so often I let them do whatever they want to do (within reason) and just follow them around. We do a lot of talking about what they see: Squirrels, birds, bugs. I also often use a chair to contain, but sitting them down and doing silly things like throwing grass at them is always good for a laugh. This age still does a lot of running, so be prepared for a nice chase for photos. Often times running away can become a game, so make sure you're in a relatively safe place and not anywhere they can get into traffic or fall over a wall. One of the points I make for parents of kids this age is never bring new shoes to a session because that unsteadiness will often end in a fall and a pair of skinned knees.
Tip: If you find this age lacking in attention, you can show them a few pictures on the back of the camera to keep them interested in being in front of you. Do use this as a last resort though, because these kids will get up after every single shot to run over and take a look.
4 years - For this age I tend to do a LOT of talking: Talk about their friends, their clothes, their favorite TV shows, etc. Bodily functions and 'toilet humor' are also quite funny to this crowd, so don't be too uptight to talk about boogers, farts, poo, wee, underwear, etc.
One of my fail-safe conversations is: "What did you have for breakfast today? .... Cereal? What kind? .... Frosted flakes? Really? Were they booger flavored?" This usually gets a good natural laugh as they think about boogers for breakfast. Learn some stupid knock-knock jokes, but keep them pretty simple. I also tend to hide my mouth with the camera and make fart noises when I squat down and then act all embarrassed and shocked.
5 years - At this age, I may still ask posing questions (Can you be on your belly?), but I can add in a lot more direct questions: "Can you tip your head to the right a little?", or, "Can you tilt your chin to me a bit?" I also play a 'taking-turns' game where I pick a location and direct them for some poses or talk to them about their day, and then the child picks a location. This puts them in control a little bit and makes the whole time a bit more fun, but it also keeps me on my toes creatively by forcing me to come up with interesting things to do at a perhaps less than ideal locations or lighting situations. Also, some of the locations that kids come up with end up being really cool. I've had kids decide they will use their turns to climb a tree, jump in a puddle, do cartwheels or hang upside-down off of a bench. Switch things up by taking a change of clothes or bring some furniture outside.
Older Kids: 6+ Years
6-10 - These kids are old enough and cognitive enough to nearly be treated like miniature adults. They often get babied by other adults, and treating them more like an equal tends to make them behave a little more cooperatively. I still ask the posing questions, in this case because older kids feel better being asked to do something rather than being told to do it. I also play the 'taking-turns' game mentioned above for this age because they can really come up with some awesome ideas, and they know what they like doing. These kids have a more sophisticated sense of humor and can get more mature jokes (so make sure to learn a few: "What do you call a cow with two right legs? Lean beef!"), but keep up with the toilet humor, which is still funny to these kids.
11-13 - This age and older can get quite nervous or fake, so you're going to have to do a lot of talking with some preteens to loosen up and get rid of the unusable 'cheeeeese' grins. Be careful to avoid posing these girls in ways that are too mature or too suggestive for their ages (if they try those types of poses on their own, gently redirect to a different acticity or position). Often, this age is used to being very active, so when you sit them down, they tend to fidget a little. One of the ways I get around that is to have them jump up and down. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone, adult or child, to jump and NOT have a smile on their face during and when they’re done jumping. This is also a good way to get the nervous ones to be a little less nervous. Jumping is fun!
14-18 – Unfortunately, jumping doesn’t work well with this age. It does make them smile, but it also makes them feel awkward and childish, which is really the last thing you want at this point. Treat them like you’d treat an equal, and be prepared to do a lot of talking. You may even want to do a little research with the parents about what their teenager is into, or just read up on general teen topics beforehand, because nothing will make you look more stupid to this age group than calling an actor, band, or brand of clothing by the wrong name. I also dress more casually for these sessions because it makes me seem a bit younger and closer in age to them, even though I’m not!
In short, the best way to get great photos of your children is to think like a child, whatever their age. Be close to the ground, watch the world around you, and be happy. If you’re having fun, then so are your kids, and the photos will show that!
Heather Lickliter is a children's and 'fairytale' photographer in Athens, GA. Her photos have graced the covers and articles of several newspapers and magazines as well as the walls of her clients. To see more of her work, visit her website: Stylized Portraiture.
The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.
All images are copyright Heather Lickliter
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