Every parent with a camera and artistic ambitions has been there. You have all the technical details down, a great setting, perfect light, and your 5-year-old decides that taking a picture isn’t something he’s willing to fit into his jam-packed schedule today. How does next Tuesday (but in reality ‘It ain’t never-gonna-happen-pops!’) work for you? Getting the kiddos in a more photogenic mood can be a sticky wicket, but with some of these tips you just might come out ahead in this particular battle of wills.
Get them in action
For most children, one of the worst things you can do is announce, “Hey, let’s stop what we’re doing to take a picture!” You might as well tell them you’re about to serve up a steamin’ pile of brussel sprouts followed by a rousing discussion of what you just watched on C-SPAN. Here’s the math in their eyes (You + Camera = Stoppage of Fun) is equal to (You = Bad). I was never good at math, let alone algebra, so I try to stay away from that equation by becoming part of their fun, not stopping it.
You get the best shots when you’re getting in on the action and just pulling out your camera every once in awhile. If you’re afraid of over-enthusiastic tots ruining your gear, just sit on the sidelines at a distance and observe while they run around and have a blast and the shots will come.
Give em’ a prop
Nothing livens up a stagnant photo session filled with forced, “can we get this over with already” grimaces more than giving a kid something to play with. Whether it be a ball, a stuffed animal, or your $800 flash unit… no, wait a minute… scratch that last one. Anyway, getting the kid interacting with something else and not thinking about the camera shoved in their face tends to bring out the true-to-life, natural smiles you’re looking for. Just watch out for those bats, lest you wind up on America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Trade a silly shot for a nice one
If your kid is truly intent on giving you nothing but silly faces to capture in all their glory, and you’re equally resolved to catch that elusive, sweet, angelic look, why not indulge them first? I make a deal with my kids. They get to have a series of shots making funny faces (which they of course want to review immediately on the LCD screen) and then I get to take at least 2 shots where they smile nicely for me. It’s a win/win because with digital photography there’s no downside to taking extra shots, and a lot of times you end up liking some of the silly frames better anyway!
Always have you camera close at hand
Kids are unpredictable, sometimes in bad ways and sometimes in wonderful ways. You never know when they’re going to do something in the latter category (like hug their brother willingly) or just do your run-of-the-mill cute kid type thing. Having your camera prepped and close at hand is a must to catch some of these spontaneous moments. I generally like to have my 50mm lens on the camera around the house, a ready-to-go memory card, and at least a partially charged battery at all times. I also like to keep my camera mode on (P) on my Canon camera in these types of situations. P (or Program mode) automatically picks the best exposure while still allowing you to override the settings if you need to.
Do pictures FIRST
Kids have grandparents. Grandparents love kids. Grandparents want pictures of kids. You think something so simple would be stress-free to execute, right? Unfortunately, after 3 hours at Grandma’s house your offspring are either:
A. Too wired from all the hard candies that come flying out of grandma’s purse to sit still for two seconds.
B. Too cranky and tired to effectively cooperate in anything other than what appears to be a UFC main event while getting them into their car seats to hasten your way out of town.
That’s why if you know the expectation is to take family pictures at an event with kids, get them out of the way first. Hugs, kisses, hellos, photos. This way, not only will you give yourself the best chance at some reasonable shots, you (the photographer) can relax and maybe squeeze in a few candids throughout the day without the black cloud of ‘needed pictures’ hanging over your head.
It’s all about stealth
This usually works better outside, but if you can keep your distance and blend into the background, sometimes that’s the best way to catch kids being themselves. Usually, you’ll need a longer lens to be a passive participant in the shoot, but don’t think that you necessarily have to spend big bucks to get some great shots for your family album. For the first few years of my photography life I shot with an old 70-210mm f/4 lens. I’ve seen them on eBay for anywhere between 75-150 dollars. I took some of my favorite shots of the kids with that lens. Of course, if you have the scratch to drop, go ahead and buy the fastest sharpest piece of glass you can get. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t make a difference, it does. But if you’re just starting out, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised what you can do a cheaper mid-range lens.