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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Her work has arguably changed the face of baby photography ever since she put her first baby in a flowerpot back in 1991.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A year later, in what was likely an even more difficult shoot, she photographed the quads on the same stump—all miraculously sound asleep.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.