Making beautiful photos of children can be especially difficult as our models are not as compliant as consenting adults. Posing is not a natural thing! Children move around a lot and keeping up with them is not easy.
This is one of the reasons why we can get a lot of blurry or messy shots.
You can easily remedy this and get lively pictures.
From the child’s point of view, everything is about play. So you need to have a playful approach if you want to get lively and beautiful photos of children.
I have been photographing children for years (especially my own). Sometimes I ask them to pose for portraits, more often I work under documentary conditions by observing them at play.
A successful photo is not just correctly exposed and framed, it is much more than that! It is above all an image that reflects the child’s personality at a particular moment.
Here are the most important things to take into account when taking good photos of children.
1 Have the right attitude
Take time to get to know your subject, the child and his/her reactions. You need to photograph them as they are, not as you first imagined them to be. Unlike adults who often behave as expected, children do not cheat on their emotions or on the image they project of themselves.
Listen and be ready to capture those moments of grace when they laugh or play in their natural environment.
2 Choose the right location and timing
The location is crucial for successful images. Working outdoors often provides various backgrounds and optimal light. You can also take advantage of your travels to take pictures of your children on the beach or in the mountains. Indoors, you can create a more cosy atmosphere, but at the cost of less light and therefore longer exposure times. Photographing at home is often more reassuring for children and will give them confidence, which is essential in order to make beautiful photos of children.
The timing is also essential. Don’t forget that children have a different rhythm to adults. Younger children take naps and have set meal times. If you plan a session with a toddler at rest time, he or she may be in a very bad mood!
3 Let yourself be forgotten
Don’t lose sight of your objective: to take lively photos. The child must be at ease to be natural, without thinking about your presence. The first moments of the session should therefore be used to establish a bond through dialogue. If you have time, try to get to know the child before the session. Find out what they like, look for common ground between you, be their friend and not an adult telling them what to do.
Once the bond is established, you will be like a wildlife photographer on the lookout. Try to make yourself forgotten. Disappear, blend into the background and… observe!
4 Make sure the mother is not far away
At any moment, the child may feel tired, or be impressed by the photographer with his camera in his hand. Feeling the mother close by is essential to calm the anxieties of the youngest.
You will be able to capture the maternal relationship, before taking photos of the child, alone, once the child’s grief has passed.
The simple presence of the mother in the surroundings is enough to put a child in confidence. Don’t start a session without a parent around, especially if you don’t have a long-standing relationship with the child who is your model!
5 Put yourself on the child’s level
Literally and figuratively, you have to get to the level of the person you are photographing. If you take pictures of children from your adult height without bending down, the images will be far away and will crush the subject.
Bend your knees! Your camera should be level with your model’s face. The portraits will be well balanced, without distortion, but also closer and more direct. This allows you to enter the world of the person you are portraying and not be a distant observer.
You should also put yourself on their level figuratively, thinking like them and behaving like them. Be a child again! Match their level of innocence, playfulness, embrace their energy and make them laugh by clowning around. This is the best way to be accepted in their games and to release those gestures and attitudes that you want to photograph.
6 Get some accessories
Being in front of a stranger, especially with a camera, is not very comfortable for children or adults. We have already mentioned how important it is to create a bond with your model so that he or she is relaxed. Give them something to play with, something to distract them from the special situation they are in. Parents know best what is a reassuring blanket. You, the photographer, should be the one to give the object to the child and comfort them.
7 Do not force the child to smile
There is no need to ask the child to smile, or even to direct him/her. You risk ending up with bland, artificial images. Let the child play to be as natural as possible. It is up to you to wait for the right moment, possibly the moment when he smiles. We have all been brought up in this culture of the posed family photo where parents and their children smile with all their teeth. This is an outdated model and we try as much as possible to get to the essence of who we are photographing. Don’t be disappointed if you come back without a picture of your model smiling. Often a pensive attitude or even tears will make a better picture than a bright smile. It is the sincerity of a feeling that will make all the difference. Be on the lookout for those small, unexpected moments, rather than the all-too-predictable classics.
8 Take lots of photographs
Waiting for the right moment is essential, but don’t limit yourself to just these pictures! Shoot as much as you can, change the angle, take more pictures. This may allow you to capture a moment you hadn’t anticipated! At the end of the session, you will have dozens, maybe hundreds of photos. There will still be time to select the ones you want to keep.
This advice is also valid if you use a film camera (but to a lesser extent).
9 Be quick, don’t lag
Children get bored quickly. Watch for signs that your model is getting tired. Once a certain point has been reached, they will no longer want to play the game of the photo shoot. Do everything you can to avoid reaching that point of fatigue. Time is precious when taking photos of children, so don’t waste it looking at your photos during the session. Photograph, again and again! This is one of the reasons why you need to know your equipment (and a minimum of technique) in order to concentrate on the shoot.
10 Use daylight
There is nothing like beautiful natural daylight. Photo studios are dark and very intimidating for children. The use of flashes, whether in the studio or on location, is not recommended either. Moreover, the flash will flatten the image, but above all, will make the session more formal. The flashes will grab the child and constantly remind him of your presence. Remember that daylight is beautiful at the end of the day, but also at the beginning of the day. The worst time is still midday, when the light is harshest. Good news for those who live in northern countries (like me in Brussels): cloudy weather gives a nice light well diffused by the clouds. Don’t wait until it’s sunny to get your camera out and make beautiful photos of your children!
11 Work with high-aperture lenses
Do you want to take sharp pictures despite the lack of light (and without using a flash)? The best way to achieve this is to use bright lenses, which have high apertures (2.8, 2, 1.4…). The smaller the number, the larger your aperture! That’s right. The larger the aperture, the more light can enter. So now you can take sharp pictures of moving children without needing much light. Moreover, opening the lens will give you a shallow depth of field! This means you can isolate the subject from the background perfectly. A portrait with a blurred background is beautiful, isn’t it?
12 Photograph your children and your friends’ children
If you want to make it your profession, or improve your skills, be prepared to invest some time. Practice with your friends’ and neighbours’ children… The world of childhood is a world apart and many adults have forgotten it. You have to dive back into it and be available to speak to the youngest again, to see with their eyes. We were all children once. What if you could recapture some of that carefree spirit?
13 Try black and white
For me, black and white is an easy choice.
As a professional, I work mainly with this type of film in my analogue cameras. If you shoot digitally, you can always convert the images afterwards on your computer.
Shooting in black and white gives a timeless style to portraits. In addition, you can shoot indoors under electric lights without the photo turning blue or orange.
Black and white should be an aesthetic choice, rather than a fallback when the light is not good. For me, this choice allows me to focus on what really matters: the attitude, the look … more than the color of your model’s clothes for example.
Take black and white photos of your children next time, you’ll be amazed at the result and the comments of your friends and family!
14 Image processing and retouching
The most important step after the session is the editing, especially if you work digitally and have recorded hundreds of images. You can quickly find yourself drowning under a mountain of photos if you don’t take the time to make a strict selection. At the beginning, you are so committed to each picture you take that the idea of losing them is unbearable. Force yourself to keep only the best ones. Only show what you think is great and keep the average results in your archives. Failed photos can be permanently deleted.
14.2 Image editing and retouching
Once the selection has been made, it is time to move on to colorimetry. The raw photo, straight from your camera, is only a starting point. Before showing the result to clients or your family, take the time to properly balance each image. Check the exposure, white balance, contrast, or crop them. When you have adjusted the settings of the photos, you can share them on the internet or print them.
15 Have fun !
If you are genuinely enjoying yourself, the children will be in a positive mood and it will show in the photos. There’s no secret: you have to enjoy spending time with them to make beautiful photos of children. Besides, what’s the point of doing things you don’t really enjoy? If you like children’s photography, I hope you will enjoy it by following these guidelines!
Once you have studied the 15 tips I have given you, all you have to do is put them into practice.
Taking beautiful photos of children is both technical and exciting on a human level. During a session, you’ re like a toddler playing with his peers. So grab your camera and jump into the fountain of youth!