Let’s start with a very important thing: getting kids to look at the camera is NOT my first priority during a photo session. My favorite images are rarely the ones where the child is actually looking at me.
You can’t deny the emotional impact of an image where a young kid is grinning at Mom with sparkling eyes while she smiles back at him adoringly. For me, this will always be stronger to me than a looking-at-the-camera portrait. The authenticity of a candid shot where you can feel that the child is blissfully unaware of the photographer’s presence is pretty much unbeatable.
That being said, when delivering a full gallery to my clients I always aim at incorporating several shots with direct eye contact. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that as cliché as it may sound, the saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul” is true! A portrait with deep, strong eye contact will give you a glimpse at a child’s true self and it’s something I love to capture.
The second reason for including this kind of portrait in a gallery is that eye contact is a powerful visual invitation. It pulls the viewers in like nothing else does. You look at the picture and you feel like the subject of the image is looking right at you. This creates a strong connection that every photographer wants her audience to feel.
As a kids photographer, the most important viewer to your images is the parent of this child. The parents will connect even more deeply with the gaze of their little loved one. This is why portrait photographers often refer to those eye-contact portraits as the “money shots.” They are pretty much irresistible to the parents!
Most of the time, those looking-at-the-camera portraits will happen organically during the session. You shouldn’t have to force it too much.
However, if you feel that the end of the session is coming fast and you don’t have the eye-contact shots you are dreaming of, here are a few tips to make them happen.
Do your homework
You don’t want to underestimate how important it is to know your little clients before meeting them. During my pre-session consult I always ask questions about the children’s personality. I ask about their interests, favorite characters, games or sports.
A family session doesn’t last long. Everything you can do to help you connect with your little subjects as soon as you meet them will be priceless for the rest of the session. If the child feels that you genuinely want to be his friend, he is much more likely to interact with you and look at you during your time together.
When kids are old enough to talk and have a real conversation with you, asking questions is your best chance to get them engaged.
This is where your pre-session homework is going to be helpful. Ask questions about those things you know they love and they will be unstoppable! The more passionate they are about a given subject, the cuter the expressions you are going to capture.
You can also spice things up by throwing silly questions into the mix (“Does Dad wear diapers too?!”). I love the giggles you can get by being a little creative with your questionnaire!
When photographing babies, talking to them will usually work to get good eye contact. But when you make fun, unexpected noises you will hold their attention even more.
Some noises might make the baby look at you with a weird puzzled expression. Be sure to get creative and experiment with lots of noises to find the one that will make the baby smile! Don’t hesitate to ask the baby’s parents for advice. They will know which noises/songs make their baby happy!
With toddlers and older kids, changing your tone is a great trick to get their attention. Be super loud, or whisper as low as you can. The change of tone will surprise them enough to look at you and check out what’s going on!
This very simple trick works with pretty much any age! Toddlers absolutely love it, but even older kids won’t resist if you ask them to hide themselves behind a tree (or wall, door… you name it!) and peek. I will never tire of the irresistible smiles that this activity brings!
With younger kids, being silly yourself will go a long way. I love putting a random object on my head (a sock is my silly go-to) and pretending I’m not seeing it. Then being loudly surprised when it falls off on the floor.
Making a fool of yourself is a great (and fun) way to keep the kid’s attention on you!
Be the goal of the race
Another simple but effective trick is to challenge your subjects to a race. Have them run as fast as they can towards you. If you are the goal of their race, they will naturally keep their eyes on you while they run. This will allow you to capture fun images filled with movement, happiness and eye contact!
Have a helper behind your shoulder
Sometimes with young, fast-moving kids you need a helper to keep their eye contact. Ask Mom or Dad to do silly things behind your shoulder. This will catch their attention and draw their gaze in the right direction!
I owe this gleeful smile to the Mom who was playing peekaboo behind my back:
A countdown will usually do the trick too as long as what is happening at the end of the countdown is irresistibly fun.
I often ask parents to hold their kid’s hands to make him swing. I tell the child, “Be ready! At the count of 3 you will fly in the air! Oooooooone… Twooooooo…”
Be prepared to snap during the countdown, the child will most likely keep his eyes on you with the cutest look of anticipation on his face!
Be the master of the game
Kids love to play more than anything else, so use that to your advantage! Any game will do as long as YOU are the judge deciding who wins or lose.
As soon as you start the game, the kids will keep an eye on you to be sure they are doing well and see if they won or not. These are perfect occasions for you to get eye contact portraits!
I love playing Simon Says during my photo sessions. Not only is it an opportunity to create fun images (“Simon says: Hug your sister real tight! Simon says: Everybody upside down!”), but it’s also the perfect way to have them look at the camera every time they are waiting for the next instruction!
The dinosaur living in my lens
This trick can only be used once during a session, so use it well! I always joke about the dinosaur (or ladybug, or whoever is more likely to raise the child’s curiosity) living in my lens. Then I ask the child if she can see it.
I love the fact that even if the kids don’t believe me (which is the case most of the time!) they can’t resist taking a peek anyway, just in case!
Look at me
If you want the kids to look at you, the easiest way to do it is simply to invent a game where looking at you is one of the rules!
I play this game all the time: I will ask the child to lay down on the bed while I stand overhead. Someone (usually Mom or Dad) will surprise them with a tickle on the feet, and they should NOT laugh. There is only ONE important rule to this game: they have to keep their eyes on ME at all times to prevent them from checking if Mom or Dad is coming.
I owe most of my favorite portraits to this game. The expressions of anticipation are usually priceless, and the crazy giggles after the tickling attack are a must!
Some photographers use little toys like lens pets, whistles or finger puppets to pull the child’s attention towards the lens. I owe this fabulous moment to a cute plush snake tied around my lens (who was badly misbehaving, as you can tell!).
I have to admit that I stopped using those toys several years ago after a couple sessions during which the toy became a source of frustration. Instead of looking at the toy the kids wanted to touch or hold it and were pretty upset about not being able to keep it in their hands for the whole session! So be aware that those tricks won’t work all the time with all kids.
Now it’s your turn! Share your favorite tricks to get kids to look at the camera in the comments of this article so that we can inspire each other!