The thought of an uncooperative child can strike fear into the heart of any family photographer. With some simple strategies, it’s easy enough to win over any child and to keep the portrait session running on track. In this guest post, award-winning family photographer Louise Downham takes us through some of her go-to tactics to engage children of all ages.
Prepare the parents
Discuss discipline with parents before the session. I always ask parents to go easy on discipline, reminding them that it can take a while for little ones to bounce back, and that’s all lost time for taking photographs! It’s much easier to keep a child engaged if they’re happy and feeling secure — if they know they’ve done something wrong or been in trouble, you lose that confidence and the mood of the session changes.
Show interest immediately
Show children that you’re interested in them right from the start. As soon as you see them, get down to their level, smile and tell them you like something they’re wearing or they’re holding. Make more of a fuss of the children than of the parents, and you’ll have the children on your side from the get-go.
Pay attention to the child’s mood. If they’re starting to show signs of getting bored, move on to something else. Suggest a new game, or moving to a different room or location. With toddlers who’ve had a full-on tantrum and are determined not to play ball, this can be a great time to head out to the park. A change of scene can work wonders with reengaging a child.
If children are clutching onto a favorite toy and showing no sign of giving it up, it can work well to ask if the toy can have a go taking the photograph. If the child agrees, you can hold the toy not only out of shot but also by the camera which creates eye contact from the child. Win-win!
With children determined to impress you with how well they can say “cheese,” I make a game of it. I get them to say cheese loudly and exaggeratedly and then tell them with a smile that we’re done with “saying cheese” now and they get to just have some fun.
If they’re still in “cheese” mode, it’s time to make a silly noise — blowing a raspberry is fail-safe. Once children see you’re enjoying them laugh and photographing that, they’ll let their guards down.
Siblings with newborns
When there’s a new baby in the house, siblings can take a little coaxing to get them to cooperate for photographs. The bond may have not fully developed yet, and they may be feeling a bit jealous or unsure of their role now that there’s another baby at home.
With uncertain siblings, I find it’s best to make it a game. Ask them if they can show you where the baby’s tummy button is, where its hand is. If you suggest they kiss the baby they may really not want to, and if you suggest they cuddle the baby they may well be too exuberant and squeeze the newborn too tightly.
Older children can take longer to loosen up. A great tactic is asking them to show you their bedroom (always take a parent with you) and to show you their things — when kids see you’re interested, they’ll relax and start to be themselves.
If you’re outside, surprise them by getting more involved than adults usually do. Wait right at the bottom of a slide, get inside the climbing frame — if they feel you’re really on their level, they’ll engage with you.
I aim to capture the excitement and fun, but then reign it in gently by suggesting a quiet and calm game when it feels like the time to change the mood. Boisterous children occasionally need to be calmed down a bit — if their mood goes full-bore into total excitement, they may burn out and result in a tantrum.
Young babies respond well to voices, and of course to the classic game of peek-a-boo. Talking to them will attract their attention and bag you the all-important eye contact for a close-up portrait.
It can also be worth swallowing your pride (for me anyway — I’m tone-deaf so singing in public is not something I enjoy!) and singing a song — “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” works very well. With toddlers, singing the theme tune from the popular TV shows of the moment will surprise them and keep their attention — it’s time to call up “Baby Shark!”
Group family shots
Bear in mind that these are really boring for children! I always aim to get this shot at the start of the session when it’s still new and exciting for the children — once they’ve got used to the camera and someone new, it’s much harder to get their attention for a posed photograph.
Parents can help
Remember also that parents can be a great help — they know their child best after all. Engaging children doesn’t have to come down entirely to the photographer. If a parent prances around behind you and it makes their child laugh, why not — whatever it takes!
Aim to schedule the session for when the child won’t be particularly tired. If that’s not possible, or the baby’s nap schedule has gone haywire that day, be sensitive to the baby’s energy levels. You may need to talk more quietly and encourage more cuddles and snuggles.
Remember also that photographs of parents holding their snoozing children can be really emotive, and that deliberately stepping back and not engaging the children can make for lovely photographs too.
Developing your own techniques
I hope these tips will help you through some challenging situations — and of course, you’ll develop lots of your own techniques as you photograph more and more children. The key for me is that babies and children are people too — pay attention to their mood and what makes them tick, and you’ll find it becomes easy to draw out their personalities and capture all those wonderful expressions.
See more of Louise’s photographs of children on her website, louiserosephotography.com.