by Beverly Walden, M. Photog.Cr.
We have been photographing children for nearly three decades. I can remember only a handful of times we have had to re-shoot any children’s sessions because we always worked at getting what we needed the first time.
First of all, I believe the base of all great children’s portraiture is a genuine love of children. I always said we weren’t really good at this until we had our own children and realized the great love moms and dads have for their own children. If you don’t genuinely love to photograph children, it will show and you both will be very unhappy. I would suggest finding a photographer who does love children if you want your studio to pursue it or do another type of photography that you are passionate about.
The second most important thing we learned was while listening to a friend teach on a cruise ship. His name is Drake Busath and he runs a very successful studio in Salt Lake, Utah. What he said is both simple and profound.
He said, “To successfully photograph children, you must engage their minds.” Wow! That hit home with us. It is not enough to get a “camera” smile, but the expression must come through the eyes, the windows to the soul. Their little minds must be engaged! How do you do that?
One way we do it is through playing simple games and asking questions. The games I am talking about are not ultra silly, but they require the subjects to pay attention. For example, if the children are old enough, we hold up our hands and ask them, “How many fingers am I holding up?” Of course, most answer very quickly, so we say, “OK, you are too smart! Here is a harder one!” Then we get faster or use both hands and they must add the fingers together. The idea is to get their mind off of the camera and onto the game.
A game with younger children who may not know their numbers yet involves the photographer not knowing their animal sounds (wink wink)! We say, “Do you know what a cow says?” and before they can answer, we say, “Wait! Don’t say! Let me guess!” Then we say, “Oink, oink.” Well, that gets their mind going because they know a cow says “Moo.” So their mind is engaged trying to figure out why any adult would not know what a cow says. You must be animated when you play these games. If you are not, most children will lose interest. However, if your voice is strong and interesting, most young children will play right along and they all love this game!
Another popular game is the guessing game where we guess everything from “What is your favorite food?” to “What is your best friend’s name?” The trick here is to ask the question and then, very quickly, say, “No, don’t answer! Let me guess!” And say it with force! This keeps them very focused on you to see if you can guess the right answer! This is a very powerful tool and will keep their minds engaged for a fairly long time. You need to be prepared in your mind with things to ask about.
The third point is this; the trick with anything you try is that you must have INTENSITY, gusto, be a little loud and demand their attention. You cannot be timid and be a photographer (my opinion)!
Even if your personality is timid, you MUST change into a take charge person in the camera room. We compare it to acting. In the camera room, you are on stage! You are IT! You must take control of every situation; this creates comfort in your clients because they trust you know what you are doing. So, learn to change your personality if you need to and you will find doing photography of children to be much more successful.
Here are a few more crucial tips.
If we are dealing with a toddler, we keep their feet off of the ground. When they come in for the session, we ask mom or dad to come out of the dressing room holding them up in their arms until we are done if possible. If we need to let them get down, we will use stools of different heights, standing them on the stool with mom or dad wrapping arms around them, both for safety and to keep them in one place.
Have you heard the saying, “Oh, let them run for a minute so they can get rid of that energy.” IT NEVER HAPPENS! Once they are on the ground, it is very hard for parents to pick them back up. They don’t want to be restrained at this point; they want to keep running. In these cases, our sessions become much more candid and interactive. So we work very fast in the beginning when the children are in arms or on posing stools with parents holding them. Then, if for some reason, they get down, we have what we want and we shoot a more loose style to finish the session.
If you need to photograph a small (and moving) child without parents in the photograph, standing the child on a short, padded stool works wonders. The padding causes the child to wobble a bit or feel a little unsure of their footing which gives you a little more time to get what you need. What we want to do in this situation is to catch them “off balance” just for a few minutes to photograph them, but we don’t ever want them in danger of getting hurt, so we use the parents as “spotters.” The stool we use is only a foot off the ground. Even with 5 and 6 year olds who can’t seem to stand still for a second, this idea works
This brings up another point and that is some of our best “One Hour” sessions last fifteen minutes. We don’t promise we will spend an hour per session, we just tell our clients we have set aside up to an hour if we need it. Sometimes we do need it and sometimes not. It’s all about the wording you use, so be careful that you don’t promise one hour and then not use the entire time.
A final point is this. Children will mirror you, so if you want a crazy, silly and spontaneous session, you must be crazy and silly. If you want a controlled session, you must be quiet, quick and intense to engage a child’s mind quickly (our preference.) We rarely get toys out unless we cannot get the response we want. It is a last resort as children often reach for the toy and if we don’t give it to them, the situation can escalate pretty quickly. We would much prefer to use our communication skills to get the expressions we want. You must find out what pushes each child’s button.
It is your personality which will make or break each session. In fact, when we train others, we teach communication skills first before we ever teach anything else. It is that important!
Grab the ideas that you like here and use them to create beautiful portraits for your clients.
Tim and Beverly took over Walden’s Photography from Tim’s father in 1980, taking the studio in an entirely different direction when they developed their trademark “Relationship” Black and White Fine Art portraiture. Today, they run a high-end studio in Lexington, Kentucky, providing beautifully crafted portraits in an elegant studio with impeccable customer service. The Walden’s clientele know when they come to Walden’s Photography, they will leave with a masterpiece that celebrates their loved ones in the most beautiful way possible. As they have continued their journey of more than three decades in the photographic industry, their hearts delight in teaching other professional photographers, passing down their knowledge and experience through their online site, private workshops and teaching classes across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia.