If you read photography forums, you are probably aware that toddlers are supposed to be a photographers nightmare.
They don’t listen to instructions, move all the time, run away from you whenever they can, drive their parents crazy, throw your props away and will probably hate all of the brilliant ideas that you had carefully prepared when you planned the shoot.
I have to admit that every single thing in this list is true (and can be even worse in real life).
But I am going to say something and I will say it out loud: toddlers are my favorite subject to photograph. They make my heart sing, truly and deeply. They are wild, full of energy, their personality is blooming… and they are authentic and natural because they don’t know anything else. What a dream!
And you now what? I truly believe that you could learn to love those sessions too with very simple adjustments. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Revise your expectations
When discussing with other photographers who are tearing their hair out after a toddler session, I tend to notice how their frustration often comes from unrealistic expectations.
If you start a shoot with a list of perfectly posed shots, like kid-sitting-down-with-perfect-backlighting-and-gorgeous-smile-looking-at-the-camera, you will probably be disappointed (and this is an understatement). Maybe you will get that shot in the end, but probably not when you expect it.
And what is more annoying is that while desperately trying to get that shot (and getting tired and frustrated), you will probably be loosing much better shots: the true-to-life, full of personality ones.
So why not embrace the essence of that age instead? Follow the movement. Don’t be obsessed by eye contact. This is an age where energy and personality are what you want to capture.
2. Shutter speed is key
I won’t lie, a toddler session is technically challenging. There will be a lot of fast movement involved, often unexpected, so you have to be prepared.
If you don’t want to deal with motion blur, you need to use a high shutter speed. I never go under 1/250 with a toddler, and definitely bump to 1/500 whenever there is some running involved, or flying in the air with Mom or Dad!
3. The focusing challenge
During a toddler session, you might consider avoiding shooting wide open. Really.
Even if you love those dreamy blurred background, this is not the best option with a wild toddler. They move crazy fast, and all of those random movements make focusing really challenging if your depth of field is too shallow.
F/3.5 is the widest aperture I use during my toddler sessions, except in really tricky lighting situations. It really increases the number of keepers magically!
Another thing that helps me get consistently tack sharp images is using back button focusing. If you don’t use it already, I challenge you to try, you won’t regret it!
4. Prepare yourself
The more you prepare your session, the more relaxed you will be. I always come up with a list of actions/activities/poses that I want to do during a session.
The list is way longer than what I actually need for one single session so if something doesn’t work or if I don’t feel it, I can skip it and go to the next one.
It often happens that what I do during the session is 90% different from what was written on my list. Not a problem. The main goal of this list is my peace of mind!
A toddler session can be physically challenging, too. You need to be fast, aware, flexible, funny, reassuring…all at the same time. So be sure to arrive to the session with a full tank of energy.
I always go to bed early before a toddler session, and I never schedule two sessions in a row. During the session, I have a snack in my bag in case I need some quick sugar, and a bottle of water because moving that much makes me thirsty!
5. Team up with parents
I’ve often heard that photographers like to work with toddlers alone, asking their parents to leave the room or go for a walk while they interact with the child. I tend to have the opposite approach.
During a toddler session, parents are my TEAM. They are the key to a successful session.
This is a subject that I could talk about for hours because it’s really the best secret to work with toddlers: it’s all about their parents. How they feel about the session (and how you prepare it with them), how relaxed they are about their child not being “perfect” in front of you, how involved they are in the session itself… believe me, it will change your world.
Here is an easy tip that can really change the mood of a session: give them a role to play!
Don’t let them be a passive viewer (this is typically when they start to freak out because they feel like their kid is getting out of control, or because they feel ashamed of their kid not “behaving” in front of the photographer).
Even when you are photographing the toddler alone, tell them how they can help you (by being goofy to make them laugh, or just calling their name from the right angle at the right moment… there is always something to be done).
And don’t forget to include the parents in the frame as much as you can. Make them play with their kid, and let the magic happen! Parent/child interaction are always my favorite images, and creates treasured memories for the whole family.