Most parents will enjoy a professional family portrait experience a handful of times throughout their families growth, really treating themselves to something super special to hang on their walls… but what about the rest of the time?
This post is about how your approach, attitude and philosophy to photographing your own children could help you capture better photos of them on a day to day basis, it’s certainly not an instruction manual on how to operate your camera or beautifully light a portrait.
Although technical competence is certainly important, indeed crucial when earning a living as we do from professional portraiture, it is not however technical mastery that solely counts when photographing young kids, especially when confronted with a stroppy control freak who just wants to run around with their pants on their head screaming… and that’s just Dad!
As parents ourselves, great portraits are the ones that capture real personality and expression. Forget the photograph that’s beautifully composed and artfully lit but sadly lacking in character… style over content rarely impresses. This isn’t to say that every portrait needs to capture a humungous smile or massive ecstatic bout of laughter. Often these extreme and loud expressions are the ones we crave the most although actually the more subtle micro expressions can be the most meaningful and therefore rewarding. Every child will have a series of “looks” that maybe only you as parents will recognise.
Boring fact alert!!! There are around 43 muscles in the face, each one capable of contracting or expanding by minute amounts in almost infinite combination, giving us a mind boggling array of unique expressions. We use our expressions to communicate with others both basic and also complex information including our feelings, emotions, mood, health and personality.
As adults we learn to control these expressions a little (we’ve all practised our flirty smile in the mirror or sexy pout for Instagram), or even hide them to protect our true feelings… think poker face. Even though children learn to communicate through facial expressions long before they’re able to effectively communicate verbally, what we adore about photographing children is that they are primitive emotional divas… making fascinating subjects to study and photograph. You may well know when your 2 year old is happy, but you’ll certainly know when a 2 year old is unhappy!
So now we understand what really makes a meaningful children’s portrait, that is character and expression not technical perfection, how do we actually go about capturing these naturally expressive images? Well, other than resorting to good old fashioned bribery, here are the 5 basic rules that we’ve learn’t though years of professional practise. Hopefully these simple rules will help you achieve better results when photographing your own little people:
1. Tired, poorly or hungry kids will not play ball.
Try to show some empathy here as the last thing you want when you’re feeling tired or under the weather is to have someone taking photos of you. This is why we rarely book after school shoots, unless with older children, and prefer photographing very young children early to mid morning. Equally, fed children are normally happy children… and the same goes for most of us adults too!
2. Stop asking them to perform.
Ask a child to smile or worse still, “say cheese” and that’s is exactly what you’ll get… a whopping great big slab of cheddar. The smile is one of the first expressions a baby will learn, at around 6 weeks from experience, as it normally results in a reward of some description, either of the emotional or edible type. This awkward and insincere switch on smile isn’t really what you’re aiming to capture here.
3. Engage with them.
If you want gorgeous natural grins and belly laughter then you need to earn it, don’t just ask them for it. Create situations that induce spontaneous laughter or smiles. You soon learn to loose your inhibitions as a children’s photographer, we’re not afraid to blow raspberries, moo like a demented cow or pull daft faces if it means we get those killer shots.
4. Mood and emotions are contagious.
If you’re happy and relaxed then there’s a fair chance your child will be too. If you’re stressed and tetchy then guess what… they’ll be ratty too. This is particularly true with children because they look to parents for emotional cues. The first thing we try to do when a family walks through the studio door is help the parents feel relaxed and comfortable as this feeling of well-being will rub off on the children. If a parent is anxious or stressed then the child will often exhibit similar emotion.
5. Observe quietly.
Knowing when to take a back seat and simply observe is one of the hardest parts of being a portrait photographer. Very often the most natural and powerful images captured from a shoot are the ones where the child has almost forgotten we exist and is happily distracted by a toy, sibling or parent. It’s a bit of a contradiction but they’re kind of planned candid shots. Blending into the background can be a wonderful way of capturing natural portraits of your children, although it’s pretty hard when you’ve got a dirty great big camera and zoom lens pointing at their face.
There are a 101 things to consider when photographing children. It’s important to remember that every child is unique and at a different stage of personal development, so will therefore will respond differently to various techniques. You wouldn’t expect a 13 year old boy to laugh at a game of peek-a-boo but he might well become super engaged when discussing the latest game for the x-box or his favourite football team.
Finally, the one thing that you’ll need in abundance if you want to capture gorgeous images of your children at any age is bags and bags of patience. Clients will often presume after watching us work in the studio that we have endless amounts of this mythical ability… “You must have the patience of a saint!”. This may well be true with their children, in a professional capacity at least, although our own family will be the first to protest!