Anyone who has ever tried to take pictures of children knows that it's quite challenging. They don't have attention spans, they don't listen, and they switch from happy to grumpy within seconds for seemingly no reason. As a professional family portrait photographer, I've picked up a few tricks over the years to get good photos with uncooperative kids. Below are all my secrets for working with children and creating a successful photo shoot with children and families.
Camera and Setup
Take a lot of photos - Children's expressions change in an instant. Sometimes I take upwards of 30 photos for the same pose. If there are multiple kids, pay attention to each kid and make sure you get an expression you like from everyone. You can always composite the photos later (see next tip).
Composites - With multiple people in the same photo, it's sometimes really hard to get a usable expression from everyone. If you follow the above tip to take lots of photos and get at least one usable photo of everyone, then you should be able to make a composite in Photoshop. If the photos are from the same pose in the same lighting conditions, a composite should only take a few minutes once you know what you're doing.
Use a zoom lens - I absolutely love the quality of prime lenses. Unfortunately, they just don't work for me on family sessions. Changing lenses slows the session down way too much, and I don't want to use multiple cameras because I'm constantly moving around. I personally use a 24-70 on most of my sessions. The 70mm end gives me some depth (and compression) and the 24mm end allows me to get those wide angle shots, like standing above.
Choose the right focus mode - I use single point focus 95% of the time, but sometimes kids move way too quickly for me to focus and recompose. In those instances, I either use all of the focus points and let the camera choose for me, or use the 3D tracking mode.
Pay attention to the lighting - Photography is all about light. Pay attention to the direction of the light, the color of the light, the hardness of the light, etc. Small adjustments like the direction the child is facing can make a big difference.
Time of day - If you're shooting outdoors, the ideal time to shoot is during the golden hour. If you're shooting inside, pay attention to the time of day that the room or location gets the best light.
Shade - The best light for portraits is diffused light. If you're shooting in direct sunlight, find a nice shady spot to shoot in.
Befriend them first, get down on their level - Don't just show up to the session, jam a massive lens in their face and start clicking away. Kneel down, introduce yourself, give them a high-five, and chat with them a bit before you start shooting.
Start quickly, shoot quickly - Kids have a short attention span. I find that I usually get the best posed photos during the first 15 minutes of the session. I try to work quickly and get those done.
Don't you smile - This one is simple, just tell the kids not to smile, and if they do, make a big fuss about it. The important part of this trick is to have fun with it and be animated.
Laughter - Sometimes I tell the kids to give me a big belly-laugh (and demonstrate for them). Usually the fake laugh isn't very photogenic, but they'll have a big natural smile afterward.
Have helpers stand behind you - Sometimes I'll have helpers for the session (or photo), like parents or grandparents. When I do, I'll usually instruct them to stand directly behind me and put their faces as close to the lens as possible so the child is looking right into the lens.
Bribes - I'll usually leave this one to the parents, but bribes work wonders (for children around 2 1/2 years old and above). I've had parents use bribes like candy, new toys, and trips to a special place like the playground.
Look into the lens, can you see my eye - Sometimes if I want a serious / quizzical look, I'll ask the child if they can see my eye through my lens. I find this works well with shots from above.
Peek-a-boo - With very young kids, a game of peek-a-boo behind the camera works wonders.
Have older siblings help - Sometimes I'll task the older siblings with helping the younger siblings. It gives them a job and a sense of control over the session.
Dress appropriately in cold weather - This one might seem obvious, but I'm always amazed by how many parents show up to a fall session on a 40-degree windy day with their kids dressed in a "cute" light shirt. Unsurprisingly, cold kids are usually miserable and it shows in the photos.
Have patience - Kids are going to be kids. They are going to want to run around, they are going to have meltdowns, and they are going to need breaks. Sometimes you have to take a break and let kids be kids. Usually I try to keep shooting during these breaks and sometimes end up with great candid shots.
Do what they like to do, don't try to control everything. - Sometimes kids are especially stubborn. They won't pose, they won't sit still, and they just want to play. In those instances, let them play. Be creative and get some interesting shots of them playing.
Be goofy - Don't be afraid to act like a total goofball, make funny noises, jump up and down, etc... Whatever it takes to get them to crack a smile.
Move beyond "Cheese" - Don't just tell them to say cheese. Be creative, think of things that will make them smile. Say stuff like, "daddy smells", or "stinky feet".
Include other people, but focus on the child. - If you're having a hard time getting the child to pose, try letting them interact with someone else while you focus in on the child.
The "I'm going to get you" game - You know the game... The one where you say "I'm going to get you!", then go tickle the kid for a second, back up, then do it all over again. I will tickle the kids once, back up, focus, fake another attack, and take a few photos when they giggle. As a bonus, you get a great workout running around.
Tickling - I love using tickling as a tool to get the child to laugh. Have the parents tickle the children and look at them and laugh along with them. You'll get super natural looking family photos.
End with the fun shots - Save the fun photos for the end when the kids have no attention span left. Photos like throwing kids in the air or lifting them up by their arms always get a smile, no matter how cranky they are.