Tips: Interacting With Your Child to Capture Better Candid Portraits

If you're a mama, like me, the subjects you most often photograph are your own children. And you probably know that there are many factors involved in making a good photo. (Yes, I used the term "making" a photo. Photography is an art, whether you're using a fancy camera or an iPhone.) Aside from the mechanics, lighting and all that jazz, interacting with your subject to capture an image of quality is just as important.  

More often than not, I can recall what my kids were saying when I snapped a certain image. When I look at a photo of my son staring off in the distance I can remember what he was gazing at. I know what he must have been thinking. These are the memories photos capture. Moments in time, emotions, quirks, personalities. Not just exactly what’s inside the four corners, but much more.

To me, the best portrait of a person is one that captures their true essence. My favorite photos of my own children are the ones in which they’re truly being themselves. Expressing their authentic personalities. I prefer candid, natural shots over more posed or forced images. With young children, it’s nearly impossible to get them to follow direction, sit still, smile and pose for the camera anyway. With older children, they’re likely trained to do so and their smiles are not genuine. I can't tell you how many times I've overheard a parent ask their child, posing for the camera, "where's your real smile?" I find that question to be confusing and somewhat negative.

Based on experience with both of my own two children and those of my clients, I’m happy to share my best advice for capturing quality, candid portraits of your kiddos:

1. Don’t make a big scene or fuss about using the camera. It builds too much pressure and anxiety. Compare it to not reacting excitedly or abruptly when they fall down. If you stay calm and collected, generally they will too, right?

2. Peek out from behind the camera and interact with your subject often. You are more engaging than a piece of equipment. Children respond to you and your energy, not the lens.

3. Let them get their wiggles out first. If you’re planning to photograph your kiddos somewhere away from home, like the pumpkin patch or park, allow them a little time to play and explore before shooting. Trust me, they’ll be more cooperative.

4. Be silly. Laugh, have fun, wave your arms around and make funny noises. You’ll get more genuine facial expressions than if you just plain ask them to smile.

5. Give them an activity to do or something to focus on. For example: if you’re at the playground, snap a few photos of them sliding down the slide or swinging. If you’re at home, take photos of them doing everyday activities like eating a snack or coloring with crayons. These are the fun things you’ll want to remember anyway. This is more natural than simply saying, “stand still right here and let me take your picture.”

6. Go with the flow and be patient. Let them go at their own pace and just be a gentle guiding presence. Don’t get frustrated if they’re not doing exactly what you’re hoping. It won’t help, they’ll just resist and avoid the camera more so. If they want to run, shoot a few frames of them running. It might just surprise you and turn out beautifully. I have a precious photo of my youngest son crying. It's raw and endearing... albeit funny. Life is full of emotional moments. Don't be afraid to capture them all.

7. Coach a little. For example: if you’re outside, you might say things like, “show me how high you can jump” or “give your brother a nice hug”. If they have something in their hands ask them to show you. Again, avoid being a drill sergeant. 

8. Engage to get them to relax. With older children, I find it helpful to ask questions and chat. I’ll ask if they know any good jokes or things like, “what did you do at school today?” or “what’s your favorite color?” This will take their mind off flashing a cheesy smile while helping them to loosen up and be themselves.

9. Think outside the box when it comes to angle and composition. It’s a great opportunity to try this when your child is acting bashful (that’s a nice way of saying resistant). He’s looking away? Snap anyway. He’s looking down? Snap anyway. He’s “over it?” Then, take a photo of his feet in his cute worn shoes or his hand holding a beloved toy. As a mom, I appreciate a child’s profile or an image of just their hair. Some people may not feel anything when they see what I like to call a “detail shot” of one of my kids. I do and that’s what matters.

10. If all else fails, go for the bribe. I’m not above negotiating. Small rations of mini m&m’s and smarties work for my toddler.