I am a mom of five kids. Which means that I am a bit of an expert in wrangling groups of children.
But even with my experience in keeping the kids in line, photographing them can be a real challenge. They move, they wiggle, they don’t want their pictures taken, they are easily distracted. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the struggles behind the camera!
After years of photographing my own kids and my clients’ kids, I have some learned some valuable lessons to help me get the pictures I want without (too much) stress. Today I am sharing these lessons with you so that you can get those photos of all the kids that mean so much.
Be a little bossy
The kids I photograph are not professional models. They are kids. And when I aim my big camera at them, they often don’t really know what to do.
A big way to help them get comfortable while also helping you get the photos you want is to tell them exactly what to do. Show them the precise spot where they should stand. Tell them to put one hand in a pocket or a hand on a hip. Have them look here, then look there, then smile, then no smile.
While you may feel like you are just rattling off orders, you are actually creating an environment where your kid subjects can feel confident. By giving a direction and then letting them succeed, you are showing them that they can succeed in this photo mission.
Even more, being a little bossy creates some boundaries that will keep your subjects engaged and (somewhat) behaved as you shoot. I love a little innocent rebelliousness in the form of giggles and tickles, but I don’t want there to be chaos in front of the camera. Being direct in what I need the kids to do makes me a (friendly) authoritative figure. It gives me the chance to control what is happening so that I can get the results that I want.
Choose your camera settings wisely
There are some technical considerations to make when photographing any large group. The biggest challenge with groups of kids is ensuring that they are all in focus.
You will want to close down your aperture (have a larger f-stop number than you might usually have). This will give you a larger depth of field so that more people in the group will be in focus even if they are not in a perfect line.
You will also want to have a fast shutter speed. Even when kids are sitting still, they are wiggling. I never let my shutter speed go below 1/125 second and that’s when I have a super cooperative subject. If you are anticipating any movement that is more dynamic, you will want to make that shutter speed faster. I like to stay at 1/800 for walking, and even faster if I am wanting to capture jumping, running, skipping, or twirling.
As such, I am always willing to sacrifice ISO or add some extra light to accommodate these settings. Proper exposure and focus are possible with a group of kids, but you have to plan for it!
When I was a kid, there was nothing worse than being prepped for a boring activity where I had to behave myself. Sitting for forever while the adults drone on about adult things and having to just sit still and follow orders is the worst!
So if you want a group of kids to be on board for a photo session, you aren’t going to want to make it a chore. Instead, make it a game!
If you want everyone to be sitting still, have a contest to see who can keep their feet glued to the spot longest. If you are like me and love a lot of movement in your shot, have a race or see who can jump the highest. Even a simple prompt like, “Everyone look at the kid who is most likely to toot at the dinner table!” can turn boring picture day into a fun/funny event.
Having a playful personality yourself and making it so that the kids can be in their natural state of play. And when your subjects are in their natural state, you are going to have happy, relaxed subjects who will give you the shots you want.
Know the dynamics
Every group has its own interpersonal dynamics. You will want to take the time to ask about and observe the dynamics in the group of kids you are photographing. This ensures that you are working with your subjects rather than against them.
In my own family, I know that if I put the nine-year-old next to the twelve-year-old, I am asking for trouble. However, if I put the fifteen-year-old next to the four-year-old I have a match made in heaven. When I am placing all my kids in their spots for a photo, I know that if I don’t keep these dynamics in mind that I will have a much harder time getting everyone to cooperate for the shot.
When photographing kids with whom you are not as familiar, you will want to be sure that you are watching for cues to see who gets along and who doesn’t as much. Ask mom and dad who plays together the most. Observe who naturally gravitates toward each other as you work through a session. Be on the lookout for any bickering, pestering, or side eyeing.
And as much as this is for you to be able to navigate setting up the photo with ease, this is also about capturing the kids as they really are. If there are certain kids within the group who are more likely to be together than others, it makes sense to show that in your photos! Embrace this as an opportunity to illustrate the kids as they are rather than as a hurtle to overcome.
Get comfortable with the head swap
With any group of people, you are going to have that one perfect shot. Everyone is smiling and happy. The posing is perfect. The light is gorgeous.
And then there is that one guy who has his eyes closed!
This is just the nature of adding more variables to the situation. The more people you add, the less likely it is that you will get everyone picture-perfect in the same shot.
Luckily, we photographers have a little magic on our side called Photoshop. While editing can seem overwhelming and scary at times, there are some tricks that are absolute lifesavers when photographing groups of kids. The head swap is for sure one of these tricks.
This just means that you take a face from one photo in a similar setting and light situation and place it onto another photo where the other people in the frame look their best. The trick is to blend it into the photo (using layer masks and super soft brushes) so that no one can tell that it wasn’t perfect from the start. Like a lot of things in photography, it takes practice…but it’s a skill worth practicing!
With social media showing us “perfect” images all the time, it’s easy to think that our less-than-perfect photos aren’t worthy. And chances are, when you have a group of kids in the frame, “perfection” is going to be nearly impossible to find.
But the truth is, perfection is a myth. And if you ask me, one of the things that makes kids great is their carefree nature. They don’t feel the pressure to be perfect. They just are. That in and of itself is pretty perfect.
So when photographing a group of kids, let go of the idea of perfection and allow your subjects to be who they are. Don’t judge the final shots by how perfect everyone looks and instead seek out the moments and expressions that speak to the moment. These are the photos that really matter and when you embrace them, you will find yourself so much more motivated to reach for your camera.
There’s no doubt about it: photographing groups of kids is a challenge! But as the mom of a bunch of kids myself, I can say with confidence that having photos of all my kids together is what makes my mama-photographer heart most happy. And I know it’s what makes my clients most happy, too.
I can’t wait to hear how you use this advice for your next photo shoot with the kids. And if you have any tips or tricks for all of us trying to wrangle the kids in front of the camera, share it in the comments below!