Whether you’re a seasoned pro photographer or simply a proud parent with a cell phone cam, if you’ve tried to photograph toddlers you know that the experience can be challenging, frustrating and immensely rewarding, all at the same time.
When my own daughter was a baby, she used to drive me up the wall when I tried to photograph her. She had a way of turning her back to me whenever I had my camera out, as if she were somehow warding off evil spirits. It didn’t matter if I tried to be sneaky about it – I’d catch her in the middle of doing something cute and I would try to be as inconspicuous as possible as I grabbed my camera. Next thing I knew, she had her back to me. Still doing whatever cute thing it was that I thought ought to be captured on film in the first place – just blocking my view, that’s all. And if I tried to move around her to catch her from the front, she’d just scoot around on her little butt until she was turned away again.
One day I gave up and just took a shot of her from behind. Today, even though it’s not a very good photograph, it’s one of my favorites because it reminds me of those little things she could do as a baby to drive me nuts. And she loves to hear me tell the story to those who browse through her baby book.
My daughter taught me quite a bit about photographing toddlers, and I try to apply those principles to my business when photographing young children today.
Have a plan, but don’t be tied down with it. It’s always a good idea to have an idea of how you want to approach shooting a toddler, but ultimately the child’s personality, behavior and attitude will determine how and what you end up shooting. Having a plan prepares you for the best possible scenario, but having flexibility allows you to have a successful shoot.
Plan for “accidents”. Most parents are good about coming prepared, but it’s always a good idea to remind them before the shoot to bring several changes of clothes for their toddler; you don’t want to have to cut a shoot short because of an untimely “accident”. Kids also like to have a choice in what they’re going to wear, and they’re much more likely to be willing participants in their portrait sitting if they feel comfortable with what they’re wearing.
Comfort Items. Does the child have a favorite toy, or doll or blanket? Have them bring it along and include it in the photograph if it helps put them at ease. Not only will it give them a sense of assurance and comfort, it will also be a token in the portrait to later remind them of their childhood.
Expect the unexpected, and be ready to capture those priceless moments that will serve as treasured reminders of their youth for years to come. Kids will often try to play it up to the camera, but often the best shots are taken when they aren’t aware that they’re being photographed – when they’re just being themselves.
Let the personality come through. Don’t let your ideas of how a child should look determine what you shoot. I often tried to get traditional looks from my daughter when I photographed her, but looking back now on her many photographs, the images I enjoy the most are the ones in which she’s just being herself: playful, sassy, silly, and sometimes stubborn. The traditional shots are nice to look at, but the images in which her personality comes through are the ones that take me back in time and make me smile. As often as not, my favorite images of her are the least technically sound – and I’m okay with that.
If possible, plan the shoot around their schedule, not yours. Before settling on a shoot time, I always try to find out about the child’s eating and nap times and ask what times the child is most likely to be in a good mood. My daughter was always in her best form about an hour after she woke up from a nap. If she was too tired or had just come up from a nap, I was only going to get a grumpy little girl if I tried to put her in front of the camera. I did make sure to capture some of those less than pleasant moods, if only to hold over her head at a later date.
Relax. If you’re stressed out about the shoot, the child is going to pick up on it and it’ll come through in the final images. Showing that you’re calm and in control puts the child – as well as the parents – at ease and makes it easier to work with them. Play soothing music and talk calmly and quietly to them, as well as to the parents. The experience of having their portrait taken should be pleasant and even fun, so do things to create that environment for them.
Take as many shots as you can, particularly if there is more than one family member in the photograph. The chances of capturing everyone in the photo with their eyes open seems to go down exponentially in relation to the number of bodies in the viewfinder, and it’s surprising how many hands can end up where they’re not supposed to be. Add in the fact that small children move remarkably fast and the number of “keepers” may be remarkably low; the more photos you take, the more good images the parents will have to choose from when you’re all done. With digital photography being the mainstream, it no longer makes sense to be frugal with the number of frames captured during a session, and I’d rather increase my odds of having some “keepers” by shooting in bursts whenever possible and practical.
Have fun. These are fleeting moments that you’re capturing; have fun with the shoot and allow the child to have fun, as well. The results are well worth it, and who knows – maybe they’ll want to do it again!