People are often amazed at those of us who work with kids – like how on earth do we get them to cooperate or look at the camera, or smile for that matter??? Surely we must drug them with Benadryl or something? I’m sure we have days where we wish we could do that, but most of us have a gift for working with little ones. There are lots of different types of kids, so as a child photographer you have to wear many different hats. Sensitivity, intuition, and patience have been my compass for navigating the many personality types of children and how they respond and engage, but I’ve also learned some old standby tricks that would be useful to any photographer or parent desiring to capture great photographs. I thought I’d share some tips for interacting with kids that have helped me along the way, and hopefully they will prove useful to you as well!
1. Let Mom & Dad Off the Hook
In my experience, the majority of children engage and take instruction better if their parents aren’t in the room. I am not a mom yet, so I don’t know why this happens. It’s just a psychological principle of nature! Kids transform from a whiny basketcase, into totally cooperative, enthusiastic participants when their parents step out of the room. A great way to start the photo session is to explain that kids give more eye contact and take direction better when they do not have a parental audience, and that you prefer to work with kids one on one if everyone is comfortable with that. For a lot of parents this actually lets them off the hook. They are happy to let you do your job without stressing about the behavior of their kids. If parents really want to watch the whole experience, suggest they stand at a distance or look out the window if you are in the yard. I’m telling you, in some situations this makes all the difference in the world between an average session and you capturing your best work!
2. Play “Simon Says”
This game is my favorite technique for engaging kids and getting them into awesome poses without boring them to death. Using a cheerful, high energy voice, I do the poses with them so that they can mirror what I’m doing (especially the little ones who aren’t as familiar with the game). I start out with silly commands, “Simon says stick out your tongue! Simon says, put your tongue away.” Then I get sneaky and start posing them, “Simon says turn sideways! Simon says put your hands in your pockets. Simon says tilt your head this way.” And voila! They are now facing the right direction with the perfect pose. Be sure to throw lots of fun things in the mix, like jumping up and down, shaking their tummy, putting their arms out…things you may not even want to photograph but that keep it fun for the kids so they don’t catch on to you!
3. Make Obnoxious Animal Noises (Ages 2-6)
I am very serious when I say OBNOXIOUS. It amuses them to hear me being so loud and goofy and often sends them into hysterics. I’ve successfully mastered the howling hound dog, the yapping poodle, the LOUDEST bawking chicken you have ever heard, and a horse neigh that puts Mr. Ed to shame. I like to build up the hype about how cool my animal noises are and ask if they want to hear them. They usually do want to hear, so this bribes them into the perfect pose, and then I say, “Ready? Okay! Which one do you want to hear (I list available choices).” They like to continue directing me as to which obnoxious noise I make next. I feel sorry for the neighbors.
4. Compliment Them
Kids are no different than adults – they love compliments. Who doesn’t love to be told they are amazing? I want kids to love my attention and love being in front of the camera. I want the experience to boost their self esteem, making them excited for the next time I come to take their picture! It’s fun to see the sparkle in their eyes as I let them know they are doing a terrific job or tease them with praise. “You are a great poser! Are you a professional model? How do you know how to do this so well? I loooove your outfit! You have the bluest eyes I have ever seen. Are you the coolest kid at school? I bet you have so many friends. Are you a princess? Do you live in a castle? You are sooo cute! That was such a great face! I love these photos! You are doing such a great job! Your mom is going to love these!”
5. Capture the In-between Moments
Sometimes we’ll make a ton of funny faces, and although I may not want a photo of funny faces, I’ll wait until they are all done with the hideousness and then when they bust up laughing about it, I’ll bring my camera to my face and snap. Or maybe I’ll have them twirl or run to get them excited and then I’ll yell FREEZE! and snap a few. I’ll ask them to tell me a joke (and kids always laugh at their own jokes), and then when they are done I’ll get a photo of them laughing at their own cleverness. I’ll use anything I can to get reactions from kids and then photograph their expressions.
6. Play the “Take a Bath In” Game
For some reason, kids love to think of disgusting things to take a bath in. We take turns yelling out something gross to take a bath in, laughing all the while. I like to start the game this way, “Hey, I have an idea! How about you have to take a bath in Peanut butter! Gross!!!!!!! Shall we go do that? Okay, well how about you have to take a bath in MUD!!” The list goes on and on, from worms to jelly to maple syrup. You are bound to get a ton of smiles. Encourage them to come up with their own grody ideas.
7. Sing Songs
Kids love music, so I’ll sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, The wheels on the bus, etc.. But best of all I like to get on YouTube and learn the intro theme songs to the most popular kids shows. I save it for that perfect moment, and right when I need killer eye contact to match the perfect composition I start singing Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Train or The Back Yardigans. This tactic will stop a child dead in their tracks and make them look straight at your camera!
Maybe you can work a few of these tricks into your arsenal if you aren’t using them already. Or if you are a Mom wanting a good shot, hopefully these will give you something better to pull from than the old, “Say Cheese!” Happy Benadryl-free shooting!