Babies, Toddlers, Children and even Teenagers can all be unpredictable during your photo session and their mood can quickly turn sour throwing a wrench in your plans. You know this already from the many times you have pulled out your camera or your phone in an attempt to get “just one nice picture” of everyone looking at the camera and MAYBE everyone is going to smile this time. Often this is followed by some pleading, some firm voices and maybe some bribery or threats. No judgement here! I have been there with my own kids many times. Sometimes these things help but more often than not all efforts to strong arm an unwilling child into cooperating for photos just doesn’t work.
Maybe you have been wanting family photos for a while now but you have had many bad experiences with your attempts to photograph your children and so you are worried or even embarrassed for how they might behave during your session. It is true that you can’t control how they will act but there are some things we can do to help them through their session and there are a few things to avoid.
- Manage Expectations .First off we have to step back and manage our expectations. Our 2 or 3 year old who doesn’t want photos is not being naughty, they genuinely see no reason to sit completely still while a camera clicks in their face. 2 minutes feels like 20 to them and they get fed up really quickly. Your 5 year old has a longer attention span but doesn’t smile easily for strangers or maybe they have learned the strange forced smile that they all seem to do. And your teenager wants nothing to do with all the touchy feely posing and they would rather be anywhere else. It’s important that we start off with this in mind. Family photos are very important to us and one day these images will be priceless to them but right now, in this moment, they don’t see the point and they don’t have a lot of patience.
- Have them Rested. Make sure everyone is in bed early the night before so they are rested. Tired children are unhappy children.
- Fed and gone to the bathroom. Make sure they are full. All kids newborn – 19 need to eat before their session. Heck, throw dad on that list too. Make sure they are fed and full before you leave the house. Make sure they have used the washroom before they leave the house- this one is self explanatory.
- Don’t call them. I know parents want to help and so we want to call to our kids to get them to look up at the camera but when you call them they look at you and not at your photographer.
- Dress at home. Make sure they are dressed and ready to go. This one is not so obvious. You might want to make sure they keep their nice clothes clean and put them on at the last minute to avoid messes. Good in theory but young kids are notoriously stubborn when it comes to wardrobe changes and this is even more pronounced when stress levels are up. Save yourself the battle and dress them at home before you leave.
- Don’t be too firm. I know you have high expectations for your session and you feel the pressure for everything to be perfect but today is not the day to come down hard. Yes we want them to behave appropriately but taking a calm approach and letting your photographer take the lead can go a long way. Being overly stern usually causes children to be grumpy and more resistant.
- Don’t tell them to smile. Yes I want to get a smile from them and I will do everything I can to get that smile but nothing creates a grump faster than a frustrated parent demanding a smile. First let them warm up to your photographer who will work to elicit a genuine smile. Let your photographer engage with your children during their portraits. When I photograph toddlers and young children I get my camera out right away and start snapping. (I do this for all portraits actually.) I do this to desensitize them to the sound and act of me photographing them. They soon become used to the camera and forget about it. I don’t start with any instructions except a general area I want them to stand or sit and then I just chat with them. I ask questions and get to know a bit about their day to day life, fun things they are doing and favourite activities. While they chat with me they get caught up in what they are telling me and they relax. From there I make small adjustments and give some instructions but I don’t ask them to smile. 9 times out of 10 they will smile naturally and this is what I want. I don’t want a forced smile, I want a genuine smile as they tell me something that makes them happy. For that 1 in 10 times the smile doesn’t come I will have to work harder but it’s a very rare occasion that I don’t get at least one smile. But of all the children I have photographed I can tell you that sternly instructing a child to smile never results in a genuinely happy face.
- Incentives are more powerful than consequences. You could argue this is true as a general rule when working with kids and it’s certainly true for photos. Why? We don’t just want your children to comply we want them to be willing participants. The goal is to capture the loving and happy bond between family members and this is oh so hard when one or more of your children are miserable. So if you rarely use incentives today might be a great exception. Incentives can be special time later that evening, a special snack or a special toy. Without going into the debate on bribery I will say incentives work better when they are immediate, meaning the promise of a reward tomorrow or later in the week is not as powerful as the promise of a reward immediately after their photos.
- They might not smile. Be prepared for the chance that your child will not participate or may not smile. As disappointing as that can be it will be OK.
- Imperfectly perfect. Remember that the hard part is getting them to be in the photo at all. I know you want them to look perfect, with hair neat and tidy, bows straight, clothes smoothed. Photographers love perfection too so I feel the urge. But resist that urge and allow them to be imperfect if they are happy and cooperative that is a win! And 5, 10, 20 years from now you will not care if the socks don’t match or if they are wearing 3 different shades of white.
If for some reason your child is having a totally off day we can talk about a rescheduling. With newborn portraits in particular there are so many changes happening in their world. The whole family dynamic has shifted, everyone has a new role to play, everyone is tired and everyone is emotional. Siblings that have just welcomed a newborn have just had their entire universe flipped upside down and it will take them some time to adjust. Considering I see many families just days after they welcome their new baby I know that the adjustment phase is not over I know that your children are not their usual selves. I understand! Sometimes it’s just too much for big sister or big brother and they just aren’t able to participate. I understand. It’s just as important to me that we get gorgeous photos that you love, as it is for you. I want you to relax, have fun and know that whatever happens you are capturing your family as they are in this moment.
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