How to photograph children: 9 practical tips from professionals to help you get started

Audrey Carpio
Audrey Carpio

Kids...they grow up so fast. And parents just want something precious to hold on to—a preserved moment of the innocence, silliness, and glory of youth.

Photo by Annie Spratt

There are different styles of child photography. Some photographers specialize in classic studio portraiture where the intent is to create something beautiful, while others practice documentary photography where the intent is to create something truthful.

Photo by Cristian Newman

Falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is lifestyle photography, which takes a more natural approach yet is still guided by art direction. Though different in look and feel, these approaches all seek to capture a single moment in time for our future selves to look back on, hoping to find both beauty and truth.

Photo by Mi Pham

The advice offered here touches upon the different genres with practical, child-related tips to get you started, as well as general photography suggestions to help you find your style.

01. Set up in advance

Children can be unpredictable, so try to have everything in place before your child photography session. This includes all the lighting, backdrops, and props you will be using. Plan out the wardrobe if you are going for a particular look or theme. If the kids are coming in their own clothes, coordinate with the parents and keep the clothing simple, classic, and preferably with no loud branding.   

Photo by Anne Geddes

Possibly the most famous photographer of her kind today, Anne Geddes is known for her whimsical, nature-inspired set designs that take several days to create.

Photo by Anne Geddes

Her work has arguably changed the face of baby photography ever since she put her first baby in a flowerpot back in 1991.

Photo by Anne Geddes

“I am always very organized prior to a shoot. Everything is prepared and rehearsed the day before, as once the babies arrive, everything needs to revolve around them,” she has said.

02. Have a shot list in your head

Sometimes you’re not just shooting one kid, you’re shooting the whole family. The more members there are, the more group combinations there will be, and you’ll need to keep track of your progress.

Photo by Sofia Genato

In the case of child photography, the client will usually expect you to get certain shots, such as the family group shot, solos, one with dad, one with mom, one of dad and mom. The order you follow can change, of course, as you go with the flow during a shoot.

Photo by Sofia Genato

Sofia Genato gives this tip: “Dad will appreciate you letting him know how long the shoot will take and what to expect, because most dads hate taking pictures.”

03. Be playful and engage your subjects

You need to have a playful personality to get the best out of children during a shoot. Sofia Genato plays with them, talks about popular toys and shows, sings songs, and does silly things. She also has funny games to play for outdoor sessions.

Photo by Pilar Trigo Bonnin

The photographer should be able to relate well with children, but that doesn’t mean they have to do everything on their own, particularly with very young children.

Photo by Pilar Trigo Bonnin

“It’s not an easy task,” says Pilar Trigo Bonnin, “The best bet is to have a handler right next to camera lens that will make the baby look at the right direction with toys or sounds that will make them smile, laugh, or look towards the camera.”

04. Have a lot of patience

Having professional portraits taken are, 99% of the time, the parents’ idea, so you can expect some of your young subjects to show up reluctant, reserved, or just not in the mood.

Photo by Brytny.com

Pilar Trigo Bonnin shares how she handled one challenging shoot with a baby who was very fussy. “It was obvious that the baby had colic or another sensitivity, so we decided to reshoot when the baby was older and just take simple documentary photographs of the parents holding their baby, and other details such as toes, fingers and such,” she says.

Photo by Alex Pasarelu

Her advice: “It’s not worth it to try to pose the baby and stress them.”

05. Safety first

It’s great if the kids are letting their hair down and expressing genuine joy, but you’ll also need to keep them from running all over the place, so they don’t trip over equipment or wires, or do anything that might get themselves hurt.

Photo by Eye for Ebony

Handling infants is a different matter altogether, and newborn photographers should be trained in newborn safety posing. A wrong pose can injure a baby, break a bone, or lead to asphyxiation.

Photo by Cass Vanhorn of Noelle Mirabella

When Cass Vanhorn photographed a set of naturally-conceived identical quadruplet newborns, she had five helpers on hand, one assistant for each of the babies, and one who attended to the props, costumes, and flowers.

Photo by Cass Vanhorn of Noelle Mirabella

A year later, in what was likely an even more difficult shoot, she photographed the quads on the same stump—all miraculously sound asleep.

Photo by Cass Vanhorn of Noelle Mirabella

06. Focus on the eyes

People are naturally drawn to the eyes in a photograph, so, as a rule, they should always be tack-sharp focal points. Visually, your subjects' eyes appear even more striking when they catch and reflect back light.

Photo by Paulina Duczman

“The eyes can tell a different story. For me, this is the way to touch and find their soul. Such a powerful connection is created between me and the subject if they look intensely into the camera,” Paulina Duczman tells Photography News.

Photo by Paulina Duczman

07. Go toward the light

When using natural light, you can’t always harness the evocative magic of golden hour, so knowing how to make the most of less-than-ideal lighting situations can transform some potentially bad pictures into incredible ones.

Photo by Shelly Reis

Documentary photographer Shelly Reis of My Captured Life makes use of light filtering in from windows to create moody, heavily contrasted side-lit photos. The harsh light of the midday sun usually makes for unflattering portraits, but hard light can also form interesting geometric shadows, adding a graphic element to photographs.

Photo by Shelly Reis

08. Look inside yourself and find what makes you unique

You’ll probably try to emulate your favorite photographer or mentor’s style when you start out, but as you become more technically proficient, it’s important to find your own voice.

Photo by Tati Itat

“Photography is more than a technical issue. It’s about the relationship with yourself and others,” says Tati Itat in an interview with Child Photo Competition. Her internship at a mental health institute changed the way she looked at the world, and helped her develop a deep sense of empathy for human beings.

Photo by Tati Itat

“The deeper you look into yourself will enable you to dive deeper into people’s universes, and this will enrich your life, your character, and ultimately the way you express it through your lenses.”   

09. Practice with your own kids

There’s nobody better to practice on than your own kids if you have them, but some photographers simply want to document their own family’s daily life.

Photo by Alain Laboile

Alain Laboile has turned his intimate family album into fine art, with black-and-white shots of his six children romping about their unconventional home in the French countryside.

Photo by Alain Laboile

His subjects, who are not posed, are so comfortable with the camera’s constant presence that their father is able to capture childhood as raw and unfiltered as possible.

Photo by Annie Spratt

Many factors come into play when photographing children—from setting up to finding your style. Ultimately, the most important things to remember are to keep them safe and happy during the session, and you’ll see everything else should fall into place.