New babies are small and snuggly. Toddlers are adventurous and adorable. Little kids are fun and cute. Preteens and teens…well, they are moody and kind of difficult. 

I have noticed a trend among photographers. The trend is that we stop documenting the kids when they get ‘too big’. The years of easily taking darling pictures comes to an end. Chubby fingers are replaced by awkward, lanky limbs. 

And beyond the challenge of waning “cuteness,” we will likely find ourselves battling for photos in the first place! I can promise you that at some point, your child is going to roll her eyes and groan, “Don’t take my picture!” Or your teen could be like my son and say, “Don’t put that on the internet.” And you are often going to have to respect those boundaries. 

But moments worth documenting don’t stop when our kids no longer need us to tie their shoe laces. The teenage years come with plenty of photo-worthy milestones and as a mom and photographer, I don’t want to miss them!

So, we have to figure out how to balance all of the challenges of photographing this age group. How do we honor their wishes while still capturing what matters? How do we create work we love when our subjects aren’t twirling in fields or wildflowers or blowing bubbles? And most importantly, how do we honor all of the amazingness that is this time in our kids’ lives with our photos?

As I navigate photographing my own older kids, I have learned some lessons for keeping boundaries while still documenting my family in a way that is true to me. Today I am sharing these lessons with you so that you, too, can photograph your teenagers with the love they deserve.

teenager sleeping on couch with cat kristina mccaleb

Which moments should you document?

I have found that carefully choosing the moments in which I bring out my camera makes all the difference in documenting my older kids. It allows me to minimize how often I am putting the camera in their faces while also forcing me to be intentional about the shots I want to take.

This doesn’t mean that I only take photos on special occasions. Sometimes I just want to capture my kids lounging in the house! Choosing the moments I want to document simply means that I think about who they are and what matters to them, which means that I am able to better capture what makes them special at this stage.

These are some of the can’t miss moments to document.

teenager at breakfast table kristina mccaleb

The everyday

Do you remember when your little toddler would eat breakfast and it was just so cute that you had to take a picture of it? Well, your teen still eats breakfast too. And while there might not be an adorable mess, it can still be worth capturing.

Look for when beautiful light enters the rooms in which you live the most. Think about the parts of your routine that are likely going to change in a few years. Consider the habits your teen has now that are unique to your teenager.

Members-only forum tutorial: The top 3 tips for photographing teenagers

Our school day often starts before the sun comes up. If I want to capture his morning routine, I need to get my photo of the day before 6:00 am. With no natural light available, I sometimes will place my Ice Light in the corners of the room to boost the light in the room. Photographing the everyday sometimes requires you to think outside of the box, but that’s a good thing!

high school football field and marching band kristina mccaleb

School activities

When documenting your teen’s school activities, don’t forget to get the whole scene in the frame. Capture the whole team, the entire field, and all of what makes the high school experience unique.

My son is in his high school band and on the school swim team. At first I thought I would need to get some giant telephoto lens that is usually reserved for wildlife. I imagined have to keep my distance and hope to find him from the bleachers.

Thankfully that isn’t how his first season went at all! I still stay back and out of the way. But with my 24mm or my 24-70mm on my camera, I have the range and width capture the entire scene.

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As much as I want those nice close-ups of him, I also love documenting the whole group doing what they all work hard for. Even more, this is a better representation of who he is in this activity. He is part of the group and they work together. My pictures get to capture that for him.

When I do want to highlight just him in the midst of the action, I am able to use a telephoto lens to zoom in on just him. When you want to isolate your kid in a school activity, try using a wider aperture to blur everyone else except for your teen. I love the 70-200 f/2.8 for this.

School is a major part of a teenager’s life. It’s important as parents and photographers to capture our teens’ unique school experiences.

teenager driving car black and white photo kristina mccaleb

The moments that only happen once

This year my son turned 15. And the biggest rite of passage for him was getting his learner’s permit.

Of course that was a long day of waiting in line with tons of people. Documenting that moment would have been a little intruding to the other people and likely not allowed in the office.

But then he got to drive for the first time. We took him out to a neighborhood that hasn’t been developed yet and let him drive us around.. And that moment I realized how thankful I was that I am documenting this time in his life. I can look back and feel those first moments of excitement and the exact moment he grew up a little more.

There are not shortage of special occasions in the teenage years. First days of school, first dances, awards ceremonies, and games.

There are also a lot of lasts to capture. These bittersweet moments only happen once and while you might get an eye roll or two, it’s worth it to have your camera ready for them.

trombone players in school marching band kristina mccaleb

Have the right tools

Just like any shooting situation, I have found that documenting my older kids requires me to plan the gear I need to get the shots I want. These are the tools I have found to be most helpful as I navigate photographing my teenager.

teenager looking at phone kristina mccaleb

A wide lens

I tend to keep my 24mm lens on my camera at all times. Its wide aperture allows me to work in low light situations with ease.

I can also capture everything that is going on around the scene. I can document him while he practices his band instrument or while working on the little bit of childhood that he is holding on to with his Legos.

For those of you who prefer zoom lenses, the 24-70mm f/2.8 is universally loved for its versatility and performance.

swimmer preparing to dive kristina mccaleb

A telephoto lens

When I can’t be close, a telephoto lens is a must. The zoom allows you to look as though you are in the middle of the action without encroaching upon your teenager’s space.

I actually didn’t have one until the summer before he started high school. I knew that I needed that reach and zoom for his school activities.

For me, the 70-200mm is perfect. I can stay out of the way and still get the close up shots that I want without potentially embarrassing my teen with my big camera.

teenager playing with legos kristina mccaleb

Artificial light

While it might not seem necessary at first, I have found that having an artificial light source is super helpful as teenagers are active at all times of day. With my Ice Light, it is so easy to sit in the corner and add just the amount of light I need. I also have portable flashes that are great for when I am outdoors or in an area that I need to bounce the flash for a pop of light.

Don’t be scared of adding light! It doesn’t need to look fake or flashy and it doesn’t need to take up a ton of room in your bag. A simple speed light with a bounce card can do the trick and will allow you to capture memories that would otherwise be left in the dark.

teenager smiling at candles kristina mccaleb

A camera in the purse

Have you ever heard the saying that the best camera is the one you have with you? It’s true! Whether you are hauling your big DSLR and lenses or using your phone camera, don’t hesitate to take a picture when inspiration strikes.

I have a camera bag insert that I can put in any bag to protect my camera. This lets me carry my Canon 6d and my Sigma 24mm lens everywhere and with any bag that goes with my outfit. 

However, my kids are sometimes embarrassed when I bring out my “big” camera at their activities and I am trying to tread lightly. I recently purchased a mirrorless camera for moments like this when I want more control than a point-and-shoot yet don’t want to look like a paparazzi. 

It is so light and portable and people hardly notice as I snap away. The quality of the images is astounding and I am finding myself reaching for it more and more for my everyday shooting.

black and white photo of teenager driving kristina mccaleb

The key is to find what works for you and your teenagers. Don’t stop documenting your kids just because they aren’t toddling around the house in diapers.

Instead, see them for the amazing people you have been working so hard to raise. These teenage years come with the unique challenges of hormones and hectic schedules, but they are just as fleeting as those early years. And they are just as important to capture.