Some might say that I’m obsessed with photographing joy and laughter, and this is probably true. I guess every photographer has a topic that he or she can photograph over and over again without ever getting tired of it. This is how I feel about laughter and carefreeness. Capturing joy feeds my soul, and makes me a happier person.
This is probably why I’ve become a children’s photographer in the first place; there is something about kids’ giggles and belly laughs that is simply irresistible to me. And even more so, capturing the joy that parents and kids share when they burst into laughter together… I have butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, being obsessed with joyful expressions and happy faces is not enough to make it happen on command. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked the same question on the CM forums, ‘what is your secret to get so much laughter and happiness in your family sessions?’ I’ve tried to answer by bits and pieces, but the reality is that it’s not as simple as being goofy or cracking jokes. Creating the conditions for family images full of happiness requires quite a lot of efforts, a good dose of energy, and a fine understanding of human psychology. As a photographer, you really need to put your own heart into it.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Set the mood
If you are shooting clients, it’s very likely that you’ve never met them before the shoot, or maybe only once for a pre-consultation. You are basically a stranger to them. Winning their trust in a few minutes in order to get relaxed and joyful faces is not an easy task. You won’t get a carefree expression from a nervous person. So what can you do to set the mood? There is a lot you can do during the session, but I truly believe that 90% of the work has to be done before. If your subject is tense at the beginning of the session it will require a lot of energy to break the ice, but if they are already excited about the time you are going to spend together, then there is very little to be done.
You can spread the message beforehand in many ways:
- Show plenty of joyful images in your website galleries. People will think “a session with her looks like so much fun! We are going to have an amazing time”. And they’ll arrive to the session already smiling.
- If you blog, don’t be afraid to use a light, cheerful tone. The way you tell anecdotes about your sessions when you blog them will say a lot about the atmosphere of the shooting itself. Make sure your readers feel how happy the moment was for everybody.
- Anticipate your client’s fears and anxieties; even if you don’t meet your clients in-person before the session, make sure you have at least a phone consult to address anything that could make them tense. My favorite topic to discuss before the session is kid’s behaviour. I want to be sure that parents won’t get nervous if their kids don’t follow directions, or refuse to participate at some point. Your clients should feel that you don’t expect anything special from their children except being their own little funny self. Otherwise, they will try to control or discipline them, and you don’t get happy expressions when there is a battle going on between family members.
If you are shooting your own family, it’s not very different either. You need to prepare the moment to ensure that your kids are already feeling happy even before you grab your camera. Find something fun to do together, something they really love, and catch their expressions of pleasure and excitement. It doesn’t have to be big, it can be as simple as eating ice cream, jumping in the pool, or getting an extra dose of bubbles in the bath. As long as it screams FUN to them!
2. Find your own joy
People are more likely to express their emotions in front of you if you express yours, authentically. It’s difficult to be relaxed and happy in front of a tense, emotionless photographer. You need to give before receiving. But what if I’m not feeling joyful, you might say? Your job is to find what will make you feel joyful, and prepare the session with that in mind. Is there a specific image you’ve always wanted to capture? Make it happen. A location that makes your heart sing? Go for it! As far as I am concerned, I know that movement and energy makes me smile. There is something about the blissful face of a jumping child that always makes me happy. So I tend to start all of my family sessions like this – asking the kids to run for me as fast as they can, or jump like crazy frogs, or asking parents to throw their toddler in the air… anything that will make me laugh as much as them, if not more.
Hearing my laughter, seeing me smile is like a validation; it means that I’m happy with what is going on, and that the session is a success. The whole family will instantly relax and dive into the rest of the shooting with a happy mood. This is also very true if you are photographing your own kids; they are most likely to be smiling if they feel and see that you are pleased and amused with what you are asking them do. Which leads us to the 3rd tip!
3. Create a perfect circle
You have probably heard expressions like “an infectious laughter” or “a contagious smile” a thousand times. This is so true. Joy can spread incredibly quickly, especially if it comes from someone you love. No parent can resist the sound of their child’s laughter. Every kid will start to smile if they hear their parents laugh, even if they don’t know what they are laughing about. As a photographer seeking joyful images, this is your perfect circle. The only thing you need is to get it started, and it will get rolling on its own.
Just ask the parents what makes their kids laugh: tickling, running after them to catch them, making funny faces. Then ask them to do it, and be ready to catch:
- The kid’s wide smile.
- The parent’s bliss when they watch their kid’s expression of joy.
- Their connection, when seeing each other’s joyful face.
You will create memories for a lifetime!
If you are a hobbyist, use your partner or a family member to do this. Or use a tripod, and get in the frame with your child! After all, who knows better than you how to make him or her smile?