How to take better pictures of children

How to take better pictures of children

Photographing children – is it extreme action or portrait photography? I don’t know, but here are some ideas for you who like to photograph children.

I have one portrait from when I was a child. It’s a black and white image of me standing in strange clothes, looking a bit afraid and shy, wondering what’s happening.

Back then parents took their children to the photographer for a take in the studio. The images were often of great quality and lasted very well, compared to amateur images from the time. But parents of today are not likely satisfied with those constrained poses and artificial images of their kids.

When doing research for this article I have found that there are basically as many tips as there are photographers out there, so here is my version.

The setting is chosen. (Click in any image for larger size).

The setting is chosen. (Click in any image for larger size).

Before the take

Ask the parents to use clothes that the children are comfortable with. Bringing a favourite toy may also be clever. It’s also better to choose not so colourful clothes, if possible. After all, it’s the children we want to photograph.

If possible, outdoor surroundings are preferred and especially if you can find a beautiful environment where the children are comfortable. But you may prefer an indoor setting if the children need winter clothes and beanie for the shoot.

Explore the surroundings for the shoot. Try to find a set where the background is calm and not disturbing. This should be done before the children and parents are ready for the take. Letting children wait is not a good start for a session.

I like plenty of light. An on camera flash is however not a good choice. Not even grown ups are very comfortable with flashes in the eyes. For the indoor taking in this post I first set the flashes as for a normal portrait take. Big mistake! One second the children is where I want, the next in a totally other corner of the room. As a photographer it’s my job to adapt to the motive, not the other way around. I used two portable strobes in two corners of the room. I took of the umbrella on one and pointed it to the roof and lowered the other, in order to get a lot of indirect light in the entire room.

It is hard to know where the best image will be taken. Use lots of indirect light for the entire room if possible.

It is hard to know where the best image will be taken. Use lots of indirect light for the entire room if possible.

Another advantage with lots of light is that you can use shorter exposures. This is useful in order to get sharp images when the kids are playing. That kind of images are often the best.

If the shoot is outside it’s preferable to use the warm low light in the morning or eventing. Use a reflector if you have someone to assist you (perhaps a parent?) or even better, flashes on stands. One is often enough.

The sun is your main light, but avoid shooting with the sun in your back. Grownups can maybe adapt and avoid peering for a short moment on command, but children? Better then to use the sun for backlight or from the side and to use flash or reflector to lighten the shadows.

Many photographers prefer not to have the parents present, since they can become stressed and disturb the shooting. I however prefer them to be there. But you may want to take some time to explain what you have in mind and what mood you seek during the session. Having the parents present may also contribute in making especially the smaller children more comfortable.

Ask the parent to check that the children are clean and nice so you’ll not get extra editing afterwards. It’s better to remove snot in real life than in Photoshop.

Start easy. It can be difficult later on if the children are more exaggerated in the beginning of the shoot. I took all the photos lying down in the slope, to get the sky as background and a good perspective on the children.

Start easy. It can be difficult later on if the children are more exaggerated in the beginning of the shoot. I took all the photos lying down in the slope, to get the sky as background and a good perspective on the children.

The camera

One way of featuring the children is by using a short telephoto lens (90 – 135 mm) and a large aperture setting (1,4 – 4) in order to get a short depth of field. You may want to use the camera mode for aperture priority. Watch out so that the shutter speed doesn’t gets to long. I want at least 1/100 s to avoid blur when the kids are moving.

With spot metering it is easier to control exactly where you want the sharpness to be. Especially with a telephoto lens you may find it useful. Remember, the children may be moving around a lot.

The photo session

Take a deep breath and relax. Take your time. As with all photography, patience and calm is important. Even when the kids are going on turbo speed and you are having a hard time keeping up with them, your own mood is fundamental. You may otherwise even affect the children.

Children have no patience. If they are not doing anything for a moment they may quickly engage them selves in other things or loose their temper. A play of some kind that will keep them in the same place may then be useful. Perhaps that will allow them to sometimes stand, sometimes sit?

Give them something to hold. A stick or flower may doo. But avoid things that may make them dirty and of course objects that may be dangerous, for instance if swallowed. Too large or colourful toys may also take over the motive.

A game of some kind that will allow them to sometimes stand, sometimes sit, may be useful and keep them where you want them. For these images I used a 100 - 400 telephoto zoom on 100 - 150 mm and a portable strobe on a stand.

A game of some kind that will allow them to sometimes stand, sometimes sit, may be useful and keep them where you want them. For these images I used a 100 – 400 telephoto zoom on 100 – 150 mm and a portable strobe on a stand.

Two children may be easier to photograph than one. They will have the opportunity to play with each other and then you may get some fabulous images. Four children? Well, you can be happy if they are all in the same place and they all look normal at the same time. It can be okey, but it will certainly also be a challenge.

Giving instructions to children is another problem. You can explain what you want to an adult and expect cooperation. But if you for example want a child to look happy you can try by asking it to think about his or her favourite dessert. To just say “look happy” will probably result in a face of great confusion. Instead of saying, “look into the camera”, you can try funny noises or use similar tricks to achieve what you want.

Showing you images in the camera can also be good. Even small children will understand that the camera is not dangerous, just making mages.

Things can happen very quickly. Be ready for changes.

Take pictures lying down or in level with the child’s eyes.

Don’t take your finest clothes to the shoot. You may want to get down in the sandbox for the best image.

Don’t forget to go close sometimes, but not too much. I would be afraid myself if an ugly big man came too close.

Don’t forget to go close sometimes, but not too much. I would be afraid myself if an ugly big man came too close.

After the session

I always prefer editing in raw. You can do so much more. In the examples for this post I increased sharpness and decreased clarity. The latter I did for better skin tones. I sometimes also paint blur on parts of the image.

Children are often perfect as they are and have beautiful skin. But sometimes you’ll need to remove some dirt or snot. Applying blur to parts of the image may also be nice. For those tasks I prefer Photoshop.

Be respectful

Always make contact when photographing people you don’t know. Explain what you are doing and how you intend to use or publish the images, when shooting other peoples children.

You’ll be very happy if you get an image of four children looking their best and watching into the camera at the same time, but maybe that don’t matter so much?

You’ll be very happy if you get an image of four children looking their best and watching into the camera at the same time, but maybe that don’t matter so much?