Working with Children

Posted on November 10, 2011


In a previous blog entry, there has been a lot of reaction to being a child model. This entry is written for the photographer rather than the model (or their parents).

The first thing that needs to be said is that there are laws on what you can and can’t do. Know that there are lots of prosecutions of parents and grand mothers for photographing their little on in bathtubs, sinks, and the like. As a general policy of mine, all young children (less than 2 years) must wear a minimum of a diaper; all older to 18 years must be clothed in a minimum of a bathing suit. There are some areas that allow less, but you really don’t want to invite that kind of trouble. You will lose time, money, reputation, jail time, and worst of all, be labeled as a child molester. My advice to you: DON”T EVEN GO THERE. In today’s society, you are going to lose.

With that out of the way, let’s get on to what you actually wanted to know about: working with children. The first thing to realize is that a child is a young person. If you work with adults and teens, you know that you have to first establish some kind of connection with them. Smaller people are no different. You have to play with them a short bit, and even try talking with them. If you don’t, you are just a stranger and someone who is temporary in their life. I need to say that you job isn’t to annoy the child but connect with them enough to get them to pay attention to you for short bursts of time. If you have ever been to a mass portrait studio, you know what I mean about annoying the child. There is a second reason for this: you get to learn what their normal looks are, and what you will be capable of shooting with them. On a side note here, you will want to ask the parent with the child to bring a few of the child’s favorite toys – let them know you may be shooting them in the images, and that you may need them for just keeping some attention.

The second thing is that all your camera gear and lighting need to be set up _before_ you start shooting. While you are shooting them isn’t the time to make the changes – if you do, you will lose their attention, and possibly lose quite a few really good images. I work in sets with kids. Typically, lighting is set up for a specific idea or concept, then I work with the child, then start taking pictures. Once I am done with the set, then I move to the next set and start the process over. You do not want to be changing setups in mid sets.

When working with really young children that don’t speak, I usually will position them in a general way, and then play a little with them. If you need to shoot them from a different angle, you need to move – not the child. They will typically follow you with their movements. This lets them take a normal posture and appearance. In some cases, their parent or parents are there and will hold them in a natural position for them. Either way, you need to let the child relax and take a shape they are comfortable. If you don’t, they look awkward and frequently start crying. If this happens, bring one of their favorite toys in to them and let them play with it. Frequently this will take less than five minutes to get them to relax again, but sometimes has been longer (usually coincides with their nap time). Remember that your posing is just to put them in a flattering direction. That is all. The rest comes from letting them be themselves and playing. This may mean you capture them sucking their thumb or blanket, maybe crying because they dropped their toy. The key is that you need to get them to play and be natural for themselves, and often in action. Unlike bigger kids, you can’t direct them to put a finger this way or an arm that way walk from here to there. You will find yourself with more images that the parents like when you just let the child play and you capture those images. If you need to play with the child, a release is essential (use a radio release such as your flash meter – the optical releases are cheap, but end up being a pain to use and frequently show up in the image). Some natural poses are them sitting on the ground with legs in front of them, on their belly on the ground (maybe with their legs up in the air), and sitting with them hugging their knees.

Something that is key to children photography is where you shoot the image. For most images, you want that to be at their eye level. This will mean getting on the ground and rolling around while you shoot the images. This is key. Once you get the basics down, the next thing you want to do is show them as bigger than life by scrunching tightly to the ground and shooting up to them. When you do this, you need to be careful you don’t over exaggerate the effect. Very rarely will you shoot the child from above their eye level unless if it 90 degrees above them.

If there are more than one person in the picture, think about the relationship and emotions you want to convey. The reason I say this is that most people always want people looking at the camera. That may not be the best image with a child. Gazes between the mother or father and the child can be especially powerful. If with other siblings, those interactions of them playing together can also provide some very strong images. If you are shooting an image with the parents and the child, always remember the inverted triangle with their heads. If there are other siblings, too, try a diamond posing of people. Both bring out the unity and sense of family. Always evaluate the distance between the people in the image – with children, it tends to be much closer than just adults. I frequently will have siblings hugging one another or their parents. You never want the child more than about a foot from whomever you are shooting them in the image.

If you shoot outdoors, always shoot in the shade and fill with off camera flash. You will find that shooting in the shade eliminates the high contrast issues you run into during the day, and it will also allow you some kind of control over how the images will look. I will frequently shoot with a white umbrella with a back cover or as a shoot through without. The best position is about 45 degrees from the surface pointing down at the child. This will allow some shadows and provides some detail to the child’s face and features. The rest of the positions of the lights is up to you as an artist.

This should give you some food for thought the next time you take children images. Have fun, and always remember to play with your subject so they have fun, too.

Edit: I have received a few comments asking about family pets in the images. I would encourage them, especially with dogs.