Posted on December 9, 2011
I often get asked how I get such natural (and many times very happy) expressions from my little ones (and those of clients). To start with, I’d like to dispel the rumor that my girls are never surly or just awkward in front of the camera. My five year old will frequently groan, give me a big ol’ grumpy face and even run in the opposite direction when the camera comes out. However, it’s rare that I don’t walk away with at least a few good shots if I’m really trying. I think getting down on a kid’s level – both literally and figuratively with the way we talk and interact with them – is very important. So is respecting their feelings on the matter if they don’t want to have their photo taken. When I began photography I made it a rule that I would never coerce a child – whether my own or a client’s – into letting me take their photo. The number one reason is because I think little people deserve the same respect as anyone else and if they are saying no, then I respect that. We play, get silly, do other things to make them comfortable and then I can come back around and ask again if they might be up for a few shots once they’re having fun. And the number two reason is because a child who is made to sit in front of the camera for photos is never going to give you a nice, natural expression … well, that is unless you are going for naturally grumpy and ticked off (I’ve seen plenty of “real” expressions that convey nothing but frustration at the person taking their photo … that’s not something I want to record forever and hang on my wall). :)
We were not in the mood for photos … and I respectfully backed off and grabbed her up for some cuddle and play time after this attempt. Forcing it would have resulted in some pretty surly looking photos and more importantly, I would’ve been disrespectful to her feelings. If nothing else this is bad because she’ll want to have photos taken less and less every time I ignore her feelings on the matter … but most importantly to me as her mama, I want her to know what she feels matters. I do have to admit this image makes me giggle though!
NO CHEESE PLEASE
I also never, ever, ever tell kids to smile … most especially the little ones. And, please – PLEASE – don’t ask anyone to say cheese! Both of these things are going to give you nothing but … well, cheese. A cheesy grin that is fake and doesn’t reach the eyes. It’s forced and you can see that the eyes are not sparkling with amusement like a real smile would do.
The forced smile is never one that lights up the eyes and makes the viewer get a glimpse of the subject’s true personality. Most pros know this, but telling someone to smile or worse, “Say cheese,” is one of the worst things you can do for a natural expression. And if you have a resistant child demanding a smile, no matter how nicely you ask, usually just makes them more adamant about not giving it (now, saying, “DO NOT SMILE!! No matter what you do, I don’t want to see any smiles or giggling going on here today …” will result in some true grins in all but the toughest of cases). Some kids are “trained” to give a smile when the camera comes out … these children are sometimes even tougher than the ones that are having a hard time warming up because you have to work to get them relaxed and forgetting about performing and doing what they think is expected.
If you need to have the kiddos say something, try a big “Yeeesssss!!” … it creates a more natural curve to the lips and doesn’t have them clenching their jaw like say “cheese” can do. One way I do it is by asking the child, “Everyone who would love a treat when we’re done say – yeeessssss!!”
This one, although an obvious forced grin, does happen to be absolutely hilarious – and is fun because it’s a playful shoot. However, you probably wouldn’t want an entire shoot of the big, cheesy grin plastered on.
COMFORT FIRST, CAMERA LATER
When working with kids other than my own, and sometimes with my own as well, I never bring the camera out right away. This is especially important with kids that are shy and having a hard time warming up to you. It’s also a good idea in this situation, to take photos of the child and parent(s) together first so that they can get more comfortable with you and the camera while mom and dad are in there with them. This helps you build trust between you and the child(ren).
This little gal didn’t want to let go of her mommy … so we did lots of fun shots with her mom first. After awhile we were able to have some one on one time and she came out of her shell once her parents had stepped away.
Let kids get silly if they are feeling that way – and get silly with them. This may not get you the best shots of the day, but letting them perform for you and be a goofball can help them to get some energy out and again get more comfortable with the camera. And many times the silly shots end up being both mine and the parents’ most favorite shots of the session. I do the fairy in the lens trick to get my daughter to look right into the camera … it still mysteriously works, even though she knows after five years that there is absolutely no fairy or purple polar bear living inside my lens – but she still thinks it’s a fun game to look inside my lens and tell me what color the fairy is wearing. I also use a lens pet and ask what color the little owl’s feet are, or tell them sometimes little lambs play on top of my camera if children pay close attention and keep an eye on the camera. Then I turn around and stick a little plastic animal on top of my lens with tacky putty to get fabulous looks of surprise and wonder. Sometimes I’ll take a little squeaker whistle that is so tiny you can’t see it and keep it between my teeth, blowing it and then asking what on earth that noise was coming from when they look up surprised. Keep in mind all these tricks work only temporarily … so, building your connection with them and getting them to have fun is the most important point. And though it’s been written about many times, instructing them that there is a strict rule about NO SMILING WHATSOEVER is almost a sure fire way to get them giggling and enable you to capture some real expressions. “Come on, I’m serious … do NOT smile!! Stop it … stop it right now!!”
It’s also a wonderful thing to get family and siblings interacting with each other … have them give hugs, tell secrets, tickle each other, etc. … what may be a little awkward at the beginning almost always turns into genuine, fun interaction that is a beautiful thing to capture in photographs. Look at these two twins who couldn’t stop hugging each other!
And this session I was pretty much invisible … just clicking away and capturing the pure joy of a little girl twirling on the beach.
Sometimes I’ll tell the child to give me a big fake laugh and lead it myself with big, knee slapping guffaws – turning myself into a total dork. Their giggles may start out as fake, but I’ve yet to see a kid that can’t resist breaking into real giggles when I do this, especially if I’m making a fool of myself first. Yes, there is a running theme of making a fool of yourself (luckily, this comes easy to me!). :)
You can see I’m a big advocate for being silly … here we were playing like we were tigers in the grass.
STICK THEM IN PLACE
With very small toddlers, and especially those who are newly mobile and just want to scoot and wander everywhere it can be hard to keep them still for more than a second. I think the majority of my pictures of my daughter at one and two years old are of the back of her as she ran the other way. A couple tricks to get them to sit still for more than a second are getting them to sit in a chair – it will usually get them to sit still for at least a couple shots, and if you’re lucky a few more. Sometimes you can get them to stand up and look at you over the back of the chair as climbing satisfies their urge to explore. The other trick I use is sticking either a piece of clear tape to their finger or hand, or even a little cute sticker on the inside of their hand where you can’t see it in photos. They’ll be so interested in what’s going on with their hand that they’ll sit still for a minute, and you can do something silly to catch their eye while they’re still.
Nobody has any clue (until now!) that she’s sitting so still here because she’s dumbfounded at the piece of scotch tape around her little finger.
MAKE THEM CREATIVE DIRECTOR
One thing I do with my own daughter, especially when she’s feeling resistant to having photos taken, is give her more control of the session. She gets to pick the outfit, the props, the location … and at five this can be very empowering. I have some really fun images from the times when my daughter played creative director for the session. Little clients always have fun perusing the prop selection I have as well. This control gives them some of the power back and it becomes less of a battle – making it a fun adventure instead. This is just vital especially when shooting your own kids because you never want them to groan every time they see your camera come out … because it will get worse and worse for them. And the resulting images will reflect that attitude – they will give you a grumpy pout and snarl all the way through the photos, and worse, they’ll always associate having their photos taken as something unpleasant. Things can get a bit out of hand sometimes and not always result in the “perfect” images – but that’s not the point. The point is to give them a reason to love having their photo taken, and then after they are loving it you can move in with the ideas you have and hopefully find they are much more receptive to everything once they’ve been given a bit more control back.
If you don’t want to (or can’t because it’s a paid session and you’re short on time) give up that much control just simply giving them a choice makes a HUGE difference. Something as simple as, “Do you want to wear the red dress or the jeans and sweater?” or “Would you like to hold the bucket of flowers or this cute, vintage camera?”
This is *not* the shot I was hoping for … but after she was able to get all her creative ideas out we were able to change into the pretty dress I had picked out and step outside for some pretty shots in the field. She felt important and felt like she was a part of the process.
Bribes – I really hate the word, in both parenting and photography. I only very sparingly use them for sessions. But I try to do so very, very rarely. And when I do bring them out it’s in a fun manner so they can aid in bringing out real expressions versus an “I’m giving her a fake smile in order to get the candy and then I’m outta here,” or worse, “I’ll sit here and glare at you, but I will not like it,” look. Instead I might mention very casually mention I love sharing special goodies after we have fun with pictures and maybe say something like, “But your mommy told me you don’t like sweet stuff – is that true??” I don’t make the photos all about the candy – I interact with them and get silly and make it fun. You can’t be self conscious here – you’ve gotta let all your inner child goofiness spill out and be genuine and upbeat with them, and most of them will open right up with you. And always inquire ahead of time with parents … we were a no sugar, no exceptions kind of family with my first little girl and I totally respect parents who don’t want treats brought out. And, in the end, I still don’t like using bribes – it feels like cheating and a little bit “icky” to me. ;)
MAKE IT AN ADVENTURE AND DITCH THE PARENTS
When working with clients’ kids I often times will pull the kiddos away to have an “adventure” with just me (as long as they aren’t the “hugging mommy’s leg” type). If there was a battle or some conflict about photos going on between the parents and kids, this can turn things back around. Often times I’ll have clients arrive all stressed out, and I imagine most of the morning was all about arguing (no, you have to wear that outfit … yes, you have to brush your hair … hurry, we’re going to be late … don’t touch the camera equipment … remember to look at the photographer and smile and be “good” … etc.). This ends up leaving me with some pretty resistant and angry kids to photograph and it takes some time to get them back on my side.
This little gal’s mom had told me that she loves running and playing “Ready, Set, GO!” So, I whispered to her that I knew a good spot to run really fast and asked if she’d like to come with me to play a little game. We raced and raced and then I captured some amazing photos of her being herself and doing what she loves (and away from mommy is when she really came out of her shell).
CATCH THEIR EYE AND CONNECT
Sometimes getting eye contact is paramount. My baby is especially this way – from the time she could lift her head, I could get smiles and all kinds of amazing expressions, but as soon as mommy’s face disappeared behind the camera her expression would go blank or she’d lose interest and look away. So, I became a master at peek-a-book behind the lens … this can be a little difficult when working with a shallow depth of field since just a slight change of position can throw off my focus point, but in order to get them engaged, it’s sometimes vital (and you may want to switch to dynamic focus versus single point focus, which I usually use, when “shooting blind” like this).
A little peek-a-boo earned me one of the most real and silly smiles ever here.
So, hopefully, that gives you a couple new tricks or some insight to help you while capturing children and their unique, amazing little personalities. This is part one in the series … the other half will be posted soon! I always appreciate it if you would be so kind to share the post with others if you found it helpful or of interest!