Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Photographing Children: Do's and Don'ts

Without any doubt I am raising photogenic kids. My son is 4 and my daughter is 3, but beyond them I have photographed children of all ages and cultural backgrounds. I have also a keen love of developmental psychology and while I am no expert, I have read a number of books on the subject. So much so that I could probably write my own book about the underlying psychology that makes some kids love to be photographed and ham it up for strangers, and others shy away and withdraw whenever a flash goes off. Believe me it's not as simple as you might think, in fact the parents who always have their camera out ready to snap photos are the first to complain "I don't know why my son/daughter is freaking out in your studio, they love to have pictures taken at home."

Today's blog includes helpful tips for photographers and parents alike in how you can make your portrait session a better experience for everyone. Let's start with the parents since they are the ones with the highest stress level.

1. Do not demand, expect, or even consider perfection out of your child. Remember that you are taking them to a strange place with a lot different people requesting them to do things they most likely don't want to do. The best approach? Enter without expectations- it will limit your disappointment and when a great shot does come, you'll be able to say what wonderful cooperative children you have and reward them for good behavior instead of bribing them to avoid bad behavior. As a note: bribery seldom works for more then a few minutes. After several threats to take away the promised reward you kids stop caring and just do what they want to do in the first place.

2. Talk to your child about what will happen so they are not confused and overwhelmed when they get to the studio. This is a common problem for 2-3 year olds. A little prework can provide a solid foundation and remove the chance of a meltdown. If they are old enough to be able to reason with you go over the process, what you want them to do, what the photographer will do, and how good behavior on their part will make this a fun trip for everyone. Also talk about what you do not want them to do in kind non-threatening words. 

3. Schedule your session around your child's habits. Do not plan on a photography session near nap time, meal time, or any other time that your child might have other needs to be met. Then as as safety precaution, bring food, diapers, changes of clothes, and favorite toys from home to help thwart any impending tantrums. I cannot count the number of times a parent has turned and said to me amidst the screams of their child, "It's her/his nap time."

4. When your child starts to cry, doesn't want to cooperate, or acts out in the most embarrassing fashion imaginable, keep one thing in mind: 65% of children act exactly the same way in a photography studio and salvaging the rest of the session depends on you keeping your cool. Parents that become angry with their children, threaten, and verbally or physically abuse (and yes, I have seen this happen) are the biggest problem. By keeping cool and showing your child there is nothing to be upset about there is a chance they will follow your lead.

5. Know when to reschedule. If  Murphy Law is in play, it's best to know when to cut your losses and try again another time. With this strategy I have seen kids that were a terrible mess the first time in the studio, turn into the star of the show. Yes, it means more time, possibly more frustration, and a few more aspirin, but if the goal is great pictures of your kid, it is often the best option.

These tips are to help parents prepare and minimize a worst case scenario. Chances are your could bring your kid in for photos and everything will be hassle free. Many of my sessions are easy and the photos look great.

Now photographers; listen up. Here are tips for you that will improve your sessions with kids of all ages.

1. Take time to get to know the child. Ask questions, get them to talk to you and feel comfortable prior to shooting or requesting they do anything you say. I like to introduce myself, ask the child a few questions and then explain what we are going to do. If the parents have also prepared their child in the same matter, it will be reassuring to him/her to hear you explain the process again. This is especially true for that 2-3 age range.

2. Anticipate the movements of your subject, and be prepared for them to smile when you least expect it. For me I always use fast shutter speed with kids (especially 6 and younger). Good depth of field is essential too, just in case they decide to move at the last second. For the shot above my exposure was 1/250 @f 5.6 . I wanted to isolate them from the background and in my studio apertures such between 5.6 to 11 work great with little kids while keeping the background out of focus. The speed of the shutter is a must since all kids, even those raised by photographers, just can't hold still for even a fraction of a second. I have learned that kids will smile better many times after a flash is fired, so I keep ever at the ready for the "shot after" that will make my client's day. (This is also true of a lot of adults, first a fake smile, then a real one.)

3. Do listen to suggestions of the parents and do your best to try to include them in the process. I always ask parents about what their child likes and dislikes are and then I give them a job. This may be as simple as standing behind me so their 6 month old looks the right way, or on occasion I've handed a parent a reflector to hold. By giving a parent a way of helping it will reduce their anxiety and remove any glimer of helplessness they may feel.

4. Know when to take a break. Look for signs of a child on the breaking point and choose those moments to switch backgrounds, props, and give the kids some space. Key indicators with small children are:
  • Frightened looks- wide eyes, quivering lips, panic of any variety.
  • Inability to sit still or trying to hide behind parents.
  • Crying whenever a parent is out their line of site or no longer at the child's side.
  • Cannot be distracted or entertained by toys or games.
You can't see if an infant is hungry, tired, or has a dirty diaper, but they'll tell you. When the tears come, immediately ask the parent to hold the child and suggest they take the time necessary to "solve" the infant's problem.

5. Suggest a reschedule if you can see the session has taken a turn for the worse, but always respect the parents wishes if they want you to "try just one more time." Do try again, and then if the situation continues to degrade, suggest to reschedule one more time.

Most of all it's important for parents and photographers to work as a team to help make the portrait session fun and enjoyable for everyone. Not all of us can raise our kids in a portrait studio, but by working to avoid some of these common mistakes I mentioned above, your kids will love the camera as much as mine.

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