There’s nothing more unnatural than the crusty position of a child’s mouth while he groans “cheeeeese” for the 18th time in a row. The moments most worth capturing are ones that have a breath of reality, spontaneity, and whimsy to them. There are a couple simple techniques, way better than yelling cheese, for capturing that spontaneity in our images.
As a commercial photographer for going on 13 years now, I’ve photographed hundreds of different types of people in countless settings, so of course I have a trick or two up my sleeve for directing the moment I’m going for. But I’m also the mother of two squirming, now both running-away-from-me, toddlers. I get it – I’m sleep deprived and often grabbing for the smartphone in my butt pocket to snap a quick pic as easily as possible. Whether you’re using a medium format film camera or last year’s iPhone, the quality of your photograph is only as high as the quality of the moment you capture. Here are a couple of things I keep in mind when photographing children, either for commercial shoots in the studio or for snaps of my own two littles at home:
Shoot kids in their “natural habitat.” I always say that photographing children is a lot like wildlife photography – the point is to find them in their natural setting and catch the moment as it happens. Overly posed children look like stuffed raccoons (do people stuff raccoons? I’m not up on my taxidermy). Give them something real to do – something they like, that occupies their hands and attention. It makes your job easiest if the activity is something that also keeps them still- try coloring; decorating ice cream sundaes; building blocks; or eating something iconic, like a big slice of watermelon or messy ice cream cone. I often direct kids simply to daydream – you’d be surprised by how readily a child will sit still for a minute to imagine something, if you just give them the idea to. Ask him to think about the best dream he’s ever had, ask her to name the 5 best players on her soccer team, tell them to think about birthday wish lists, unicorns, pirate stories, etc., all the while clicking your shutter, of course.
Please, please don’t ever ask them to say cheese! Back to that cheese issue…“hey” or “yay” are much better words to tell people to shout, as those words open the mouth in a natural smile-ish position. But even better- you do the work to get a genuine, natural reaction out of them. Make a silly noise, say something surprising, throw something in the air. Be SILLY. Tell them to give each other a quick, tight squeeze, or to jump in the air. Whether you snap the photo at that moment or not, making a kid truly giggle is one of the most satisfying things you can do in your day, so it’s always worth it. Once a month or so, when the afternoon light is pretty in my bedroom, I’ve been grabbing my camera and encouraging my kids to jump on my bed. They jump and flop, they tackle each other, they hide under the covers, and I play dance party music and snap away. They’ve been some of our most fun afternoons together…and the photos I’ve gotten are some of my favorite family snaps yet.
Find your method of post-production. You can edit your snaps on your phone, with a photo-enhancing app, or process RAW files on your desktop computer in Lightroom or Photoshop – one way or another, it helps to learn how to process your photos after the fact, to bring them to their full potential. I do all my post processing in Photoshop. On the photo below, I enhanced the back-lit look of the image by using the “solar_bokeh01 screen” overlay from the Sunshine Overlays bundle (incidentally, created by my father, Tom Grill – talk about a real family photo!)
Most importantly, have fun. If you’re enjoying yourself, your subject will, too, and those happy, candid moments will appear. Happy shooting!