As with all great pictures of people, taking good photos of children means making sure they’re at ease, and preferably not gurning too much. The two go hand in hand, really – nobody looks their best after holding a grin for 3 minutes while the photographer figures out how to focus.
Children typically have good, naturally relaxed posture, but they are also prone to becoming spontaneously grumpy and uncomfortable. So whether you’re planning to have a professional family portrait taken, or you just want to make some nice photo books for Christmas presents, it’s worth making sure the process is relaxed and worthwhile.
Keep clothing simple
Unless it’s a fancy dress party, if you’re the one responsible for what these kids are wearing, make sure it’s comfortable and easy to move around in. Avoid itchy labels or lambswool cuffs, tight waistbands, annoying headbands with massive flowers on them, too-hot jumpers – anything that will make them fidget, try to get undressed, or sit awkwardly.
Put them in a well-lit place
Imagine you’re babysitting. The ideal scenario will be a garden, park or room – preferably devoid of serious hazards – where you can supervise play without having to scurry after the perma-curious child as s/he potters from each intriguing phenomena to the next. Your ideal child photography set-up is the same, but with added necessity of good lighting throughout, so you can take successful photos wherever they amble. It’s also worth finding backdrops that aren’t too visually “busy”, so that your child can be the centre of attention.
Nature often offers an excellent well-lit setting, and is usually devoid of overflowing laundry baskets, but has a greater risk of interruption or of children legging it beyond the extent of your zoom. The child’s bedroom makes for cute backdrops with ready-made distractions and objects to ask questions about, while the parents’ bedroom is full of funny dressing-up and over-sized props.
Camera settings and technique
Your best photos may not involve the child staying in one place, and you may be moving around too. Also, you’ll want to keep the photoshoot as short as you can, to avoid boredom, so it’s worth keeping the technical side of things fairly simple, and don’t mess about with different lenses unless you know what you’re doing.
Put your ISO at 200 (lower if the light is very bright). Natural light is so much better than using the built-in flash, and if you must use artificial lighting it should be bounced off a pale surface rather than shone straight at your subject.
There’s always room for creative license, especially if it captures a spontaneous moment, but you’ll usually want to get in quite close, and make sure your frame is filled with child, or you may end up with a nice landscape featuring a child in it… somewhere. Try to focus the camera on the child’s eyes, if they’re visible, or face if they’re a little further away. If you’re going to get these photos printed you’ll want to shoot at high resolution, too.
Give them something to think about
For younger kids this can be a puzzle or musical instrument, food, or something “grown-up” that belongs to their parents. Alternatively, you can ask them questions, providing they’re old enough to understand. Remember that it’s not all about smiles for the camera – that furrowed brow of concentration while they figure out which shape fits in the hole is authentic and unarguably cute. Even tears or a shout can make a great photo that captures a child’s spontaneous thoughts (or current phase) more accurately than a forced smile. If they’re not engaged in a task, ask them questions about their family, friends, pets, favourite toys or pictures on the wall – and ask their opinions about stuff, to give them something to ponder.
If they have a skill, ask them to show it off
Ideally in the official performance outfit, and in a place where they wouldn’t normally practise – the beach, say, or a nearby dusty track.
Make yourself smaller
This is a respectful thing to do just when you’re talking to kids, but it can also make for superb photos that show the world from the child’s perspective instead of a towering adult’s. Kneel, sit or even lie on the ground, and shoot pictures of them at “eye-level” or towering over you instead. To emphasise how tiny and adorable they are, however, try standing right over the kids so they’re right below you, looking up.
Take a lot of pictures
Everybody knows that for each “perfect” fashion shot there are dozens that didn’t make the cut, and the same goes for a family photo shoot – you’re more likely to get a photo that works if you take a lot of photos. This is much easier with digital photography – anyone into lomography or still having fun with a 35mm SLR will know that getting film photos processed and printed can be costly. Digital photographers should make sure their camera has plenty of free memory, and may want to bring a spare card. Shooting at a high resolution will fill up your memory card faster than the default settings.
Use an assistant
It can help to ask someone behind you to make suggestions, engage the child in conversation, or demonstrate poses, while you get on with capturing the results on camera.
Try a sing-a-long
It might be best to avoid having music playing – this can be distracting and over-energising – but having the kids sing a few of their favourite songs can lead to relaxed, naturally cheerful faces and gestures.
Go with the flow
Perhaps the most crucial piece of advice is to avoid forcing the situation. You might have some grand creative idea about how these photos should be, but you can’t force that on the kids – you can guide them, set them up to cover themselves in lipstick, teach them how to pose like Jagger, but they might just do something else. Ultimately these are photos of the kids, who shouldn’t be treated like actors for your ideal scenario. Let them set the pace, and you’re far more likely to send up with good photos.