June 10, 2020

If you are the parent of a small child, I probably don’t have to tell you by now how difficult it is to take a half-decent photograph of them.

There’s just something about wafting a phone or a camera in the general direction of a toddler that seems to induce a transformation akin to Mogwai when they get wet (if you’re younger than 40, Google Gremlins).

Now, I get that this isn’t every child – Maybe you’ve been blessed with one who looks picture perfect in every shot?

Understand that this is rare.

I have one child who the camera loves.  From only a few months old, every single camera she saw induced a smile worthy of an Oscar nomination.  And wait for it …..  As she got grew older, the novelty didn’t wear off.  In fact, she actually asks to have her photo taken.

Crazy right?

If this is you, then congratulations!  You have many years of Instagram Mummy moments ahead of you.

But bear in mind that she is just one of my children.  I have five.  Going by my family alone, I personally wouldn’t get your hopes up.  That’s really not great odds.

For most parents out there, this is how a typical family photo session usually goes down:

  • It’s a month before Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Grandma’s birthday, Christmas, or some other vitally important family occasion that requires a photo-card, photo-mug, photo-canvas for the wall or (shudder), a photo book – that requires a minimum of 26 photos.
  • The day starts out well. You’re up and out early (before they have a chance to get tired), it’s not raining, they’ve been fed, they’re in their nicest coordinated clothes and you’ve come out armed with drinks and a variety of their snacks – you’re prepared!  What could possibly go wrong?
  • They decide they do not want to take photographs. The park is too inviting, chasing after other random children is too much fun, there are dogs to look at, and unfortunately, you seriously underestimated how many snacks you’d need – they lasted less than 20 minutes.
  • Your precious bundle isn’t exactly being naughty – but none of your shots are amazing either. They’re a combination of not-smiling, not-really-cooperating, and looking in totally the wrong direction.   They pull many, many, many strange, awkward faces.
  • 2 hours later you head off home a little frayed around the edges only to find that you have approximately eleventy-billion photographs on your phone – 5 of which are remotely usable.
  • Not enough for the 26-page photobook.
  • Once home, you spend roughly more 40 hours trawling through the photos again because surely there’s more than 5??
  • You admit defeat. Give up on your original plan of creating the beautiful photo-book filled with dazzlingly gorgeous photographs.  You use your 5 good photos to buy a photo-card from Moonpig, Funky Pigeon or other, and buy *Mummy *Daddy *Grandma *Grandad a nice box of chocolates and a bottle of something instead.
  • EVERY * SINGLE * TIME

The good news is this a pretty universal small child thing - it doesn’t only happen to you. 

Professional photographers get consistently good results most of the time because they’re so experienced.  They know what poses and props work best and they’re masters of distraction – but even professional photographers don’t have perfect photoshoots every time.

I’ll tell you a story…..

I have a photograph here of my daughter age 2.  It’s part of a set, one for each of the children.

It was early May.  We’d gone to a local nature reserve for some family photos and, in the photograph she’s wearing a beautiful white, broderie anglaise dress and her hair is fastened in two pretty pig tails.
The sun is shining, her ringlets are cascading down the side of her face and she’s being held by her Daddy who’s wearing a freshly pressed shirt, looking at her with a smile.

A perfect photograph of a beautiful moment no?

No. 

That day, for some unknown reason, she decided she was going to morph into a toddler - tantrums and all, and we realised almost immediately that she was not going to tolerate having her photo taken under any circumstances. 
Nothing we did (in sheer desperation) seemed to help and I still have no idea to this day, how we ended up with not just one perfect photograph, but a whole set of them. 

Smiling, laughing, running around with her siblings.  Cheeky grins and bashful glances – All optical illusions achieved via stealth.

So is it possible to take professional-looking shots yourself …..

The short answer is Yes.  

While you might decide that you want to invest in professional family portraits every now and then, you can’t exactly call up a photographer every time you want a cute photo of your little one drawing, playing or reading a book.

You really can take good photographs yourself - even if you have the most camera-adverse child.

And you don’t need an expensive DSLR or editing software.

You just need to remember a few tips and tricks.

21 Tips for photographing small children

Over the last 14 years of parenting small humans, I’ve had a fair bit practice at taking photographs of small children (and not-so-small too). 

Photobooks and photo gifts have become something of a default gift.  Personal, thoughtful, and beautifully presented.

They also solve the age-old problem of “What on earth do we buy them this time”?

Especially if you have Grandparents who have no particular interests and are really tricky to buy for.

They’re not the quickest or easiest present to give though.   Photobooks do take way more time and effort than you think, but still, they always seem to be appreciated.

Just remember that natural is always better.  Don’t tell them to stand and look directly at the camera and smile, unless you’re aiming for strange frozen grins and awkward expressions.

So here’s 21 photo hints, tips, tricks and ideas.  What have I missed?  I’d love to know.

  1. If you’re inside and they’re busily engrossed in an activity, then let them carry on.
    It really doesn’t matter if they’re not looking at the camera.  Some of the nicest photographs I have of my children have been taken while they were doing their homework at the kitchen table, cuddled up on the sofa watching a movie with a blanket, reading a book with a sibling and putting together Lego blocks or a puzzle on the floor.
    If you need some shots asap and don’t have weeks to wait for perfect moments, then set something up that they need to focus on and will hold their attention.  Painting, drawing and building blocks are all good, as well as playdough and easy kitchen-science experiments (Google is your friend).
  1. If you have a garden then let them out and snap them running around, playing. Garden toys like sidewalk chalks, water tables, playhouses, and balls can make getting interesting shots a lot easier, but they’re not necessary.  If it’s warm, letting them play with a garden hose can create the most amazing shots – just don’t get your camera soaked in the process.

    If you don’t have a garden (or even of you do), parks and nature reserves are just made for perfect childhood photographs.
    Often filled with play equipment, wooden bridges, interesting sticks, pine cones, streams and avenues of trees, you’ll be spoiled for choice.

    Let them climb trees, find treasures, explore and have fun!  Ask them to stop every now and then to look at you.  They’re almost guaranteed to be smiling without you even having to ask.
  1. Cuddles! It doesn’t matter whether it’s a brother, sister, a grandparent, your family pet, a doll, or a favourite teddy.  If they’re busy hugging someone or something, they won’t be trying to pose.  These photographs can be incredibly beautiful and filled with love.
  2. If you have more than one child, ask them sit down and look each other. It’s about the simplest way to avoid strange faces and weird wandering arms and legs.  They will either look lovingly each other, smile at each other or most likely, laugh.  If it still not quite working, get them to try and make each other laugh.  Telling jokes, tickling each other’s sides, seriously, whatever works, and makes them smile.
    If you’re taking photographs of one child, or if you ‘really’ need everyone to look towards the camera,  you can try and make them laugh yourself with silly games or a toy that makes a noise.  This is much easier if you have a second person available to make silly faces and say silly things behind your back.  Just be warned that you probably won’t have a lot of time to take a million photos.  They will get bored relatively quickly.
  1. Let them put on a play or a show for you. I’m not sure about you, but my children are always asking me to stop what I’m doing to come and watch a show.
    Even better, they will expect and actually want you to be taking photographs of them.  You don’t have to give them a script of anything, but giving them a few characters, props, and plot ideas might be a good idea, especially if it looks like the ‘show’ looks like it’s going to last no longer than 3 minutes.  Alternatively, their show could be dancing, gymnastics, or showing off their best sports skills.
  1. Go on a long walk or a nature hunt. Children are curious by nature and love having a chance to slow down and explore.  They will naturally stop every now and then to admire pretty flowers or examine interesting looking rocks.
    Ask them to try and spot things along the way.  Anything from different trees, coloured flowers, and leaves, to birds and insects.  You could even give them a little, child-safe magnifying glass.
    During summer and autumn, you might be lucky enough to find foods and to forage and other things to collect.  Anything from elderflower in June, woodland strawberries in July, to blackberries and apples in August, and of course there will be conkers and prickly beech nuts in September – just don’t eat those.
    ** Make sure you’re allowed to forage – you might need permission.  Wash everything before you eat it.  Avoid picking from places animals can pee. Only ever pick things that you 100% know are edible – make sure children always ask first.
  1. Costumes and props can make getting good photographs so much easier. Pretend play makes for perfect, easy fun-filled shots.  Of course, this idea completely depends on if you want photographs of your child dressed up as a doctor / Batman / Goldilocks.
    If you don’t really want to go for full-on costumes, how about crowns or accessories?  Or let them have a picnic or a tea party on the floor (indoors or outside).
  1. Children in action! Take them out on a bike or a scooter.  They’ll be having fun, so you’re sure to get happy smiles here and there.  You might have trouble taking action photos if they’re traveling too fast.  Get them to stop and look back at you, or take photos as they cycle or scoot towards you.  You can also get some lovely shots with things like kites.
  1. Now it goes without saying that although water can be a lot of fun and it can definitely make for unique, spectacular shots, SAFETY FIRST ALWAYS!! 
    I only ever let my children paddle in streams with clear, clean, slow trickling water.  Always in good weather and always with welly boots on – you never know what sharp nasties might be lurking on the riverbed.  I never let them go deeper than their knees and I make sure I can always reach them easily at all times.  I never let them paddle in deeper while I’m standing on the side of the bank.  Steams can suddenly become deeper in places and water can run faster with no warning.  Luckily, I now have 2 lifeguards amongst my not-so-tiny tribe, but I still don’t take it for granted that we’re totally safe.
    Having said all that (and terrified you in the process) – There’s just something so very sweet about capturing photographs of children splashing and squealing with delight, fishing with toy nets, playing with toy boats (newspaper) and hunting for swimming grass snakes (yes they swim – freaky but harmless).
  1. Go for interesting angles. Ask them to look out of a window or a patio door.  Ask them to reach up to get something, or reach down, so they’re looking towards their feet. 
    Ask them to lie on a rug or the grass and look straight up at you.  Or lie on their tummies, to drawing a picture on the ground (chalk outside or paper inside) so that you can take a photo looking straight down on them.  You might not always get faces, but you’ll get some great shots of them.
  1. Food glorious food. Get them to eat or drink something.  Children are infinitely distracted by food and you can actually get some really sweet shots with ice lollies, big strawberries, slices of watermelon, and drinks in cute bottles (think those re-usable mini vintage milk bottles that have been around everywhere for the past few years). 
    Just be careful not to feed them anything too messy.  Ice cream cone and chocolate cake shots look amazing – for the first 10 seconds, after which, you’re just dealing with a mess.
  1. Rain, rain don’t go away. As long as you don’t mind the rain, your child almost certainly won’t.  Rain shots are best taken, bizarrely, when it’s not actually raining, but straight afterward.  Your phone or camera probably appreciate getting wet, so this is a good thing.
    If the sky is too dark and the light isn’t great, you might struggle, but rain shots are definitely worth trying.  Small children always look cute with brightly coloured wellies, raincoats, and umbrellas and they get the chance to jump up and down in puddles – win, win.  Even if they aren’t cute anymore, the welly, raincoat, umbrella combination works for anyone, including teenagers.
  1. Ask them to walk away from you or walk towards you.  You’ll need to stand quite a way back from them, so it might not work if you’re taking a photograph of one very young child on their own unless you’re in a totally safe environment.  No cars or other hazards.  This works well if you can get them to walk down a narrow pathway.  If you’ve got some greenery or a nice looking wall either side, even better.
    Bluebell woods in late April / Early May (UK) are perfect for this, but nature reserves are usually full of tree-lined corridors that work well too.
  1. Get them to help you bake something. Baking seems to children from toddlers to teens busy for quite some time and there’s something quite magical about shots full of sticky fingers. flour flying everywhere, pizza toppings, cookie cutters, cupcake cases, and of course icing and sprinkles.
    Set them up on a table where you can pass them things and help with weighing, measuring, and clearing up.  A kitchen counter / worktop can also work really well, you just have to be slightly careful if they need to climb up using a chair.
  1. Ask them to hold something and look down at it. We go strawberry and raspberry picking every year and this works so well with baskets of fruit, but can also work with a flower, a dandelion clock, or a favourite old teddy or rabbit.  For my website, I took a beautiful photograph of my eldest daughter holding a lantern. 
    Just one thing to bear in mind – If you have more than one child in the shot, don’t get them all to hold something individually and look down.  It looks a bit odd.  In this case, get one child to hold something and look down, then get the other children to look across at whatever basket or furry friend the first child is holding.   It looks a lot more natural.
  1. Fences and gates. Don’t ask me why, but this works.
    If you have children that are old enough to climb, ask them to climb up a wooden fence or gate, so they can look over the top.  Teenagers and adults who are tall enough to look over without climbing can just stand, leaning over the top.  Younger children can be held.
    Ask them to look over towards you or look at each other.  This is great for individuals or large family groups and works as a distraction for small people, but you won’t have ‘that long’ before the boredom sets in.  Try to be quick.
  1. Seasonal shots. Bluebell woods, Lavender picking, sunflower picking, pick-your-own fruit, small-animal petting farms – or anything tame involving animals, fields full of wheat (stick to public footpaths and don’t trample anything), the seaside – rockpools and sandcastles, Easter egg hunts, pumpkin picking, and carving, Christmas Trees (and sparkly fairy lights), snow (if you’re lucky).
    This list will grow as I think of more.  There are probably loads of things that I’ve missed.
  1. Being silly. Silly faces aren’t actually a bad thing if they’re intentionally silly, rather than the kind of face you pull when the camera has captured you off-guard before you’re ready.
    Intentionally silly faces and silly poses can be really funny and very effective.  
  1. Bubbles and balloons, preferably helium balloons that float on a weighted string, but any balloons will do.
    It’s the simplest things that bring the most joy and bubbles and balloons provide endless joy and are excellent in every way. ** Take care of young children with balloons on strings as strings can be hazardous.  Never leave unattended.
  1. Bath photographs. For babies and toddlers, sink-bath photos and bath-tub shots can be very cute.  Add bubbles, milk and even flowers to the water.
  1. Dreamtime photographs. Finally, the easiest, no need to pose, no risk of weird expressions photographs ever! 
    Sleeping-child photographs only really work with small children (Not so much teenagers - there’s a point where it crosses over from cute to odd).
    Small children have an innate ability to fall asleep almost anywhere and in the strangest of positions, which can be very funny.  My children have at various times, fallen asleep sitting up, eating and straight on top of their toys.
    The sweetest photographs of all though, are when they’ve fallen asleep in your arms or they’re fast asleep in their beds.   In tiny sleepsuits or pyjamas, having happy, sleepy dreams.
    You will need at least some light, not least because bright glaring flash photography won’t be the look you’re going for and your camera will probably struggle in low light. So it’s best to aim for early morning light or their daytime nap time.
    and obviously, if you have a babe in arms, you’ll need someone else to take the photograph.
    Try not to be too noisy and make sure they’re asleep ‘enough’ and you’ll be sure to get some utterly adorable photographs that you will treasure forever. 

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