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Unlocking Authentic Expressions From Kids in Your Family Sessions
Let’s be honest: Family pictures can be STRESSFUL for the entire family. We’ve all been there, on the other side of the lens. As the parent, you’ve spent hours picking out the perfect coordinating outfits, you’ve stressed about the weather and location, you’ve scoured Pinterest for ideas and you’re so desperate to capture just ONE. GOOD. SHOT.
And for the kids, they’ve been given tons of new boundaries and sharp orders to follow, when they just want to have fun! Have you ever barked a bunch of instructions at your kids to “move here, stand there, hand down, quit hitting your brother!” and then desperately begged, “Smile!” only to find a LOT to be desired in the resulting photo? (Guilty as charged!) As a photographer, if you’re going to have any chance of capturing happy, genuine expressions in your family sessions, especially from the kids, your first order of business is to diffuse the stress and create some buy-in.
My goal for family sessions is for the entire family to walk away HAPPY and relaxed. This will only happen when, as a photographer, we realize that our job is about much more than taking photos. Here are a few tips for creating an environment where everyone is comfortable, bringing out genuine expressions and personality from the kids you’re working with!
Take interest in them. I always make it a priority to talk with the kids before I ever get out my camera. Let them tell you how old they are, tell them you’re glad they’re there, and that you’re going to have a lot of FUN today! This is usually different than what they’ve heard about the day’s plans (“You have to smile! Listen! Do whatever she says! March-two-three-four!”), and always perks them up.
Get the parents relaxed. Right away, I run through a short plan of action with mom and dad, not because it’s anything elaborate, but because talking and knowing what to expect reduces stress. If the parents are stressed out, the kids will be too. I also let them know that their number one job is to enjoy this time and to let me give the orders. I usually say something along the lines of “You are here to enjoy your family! Let me give you a break and do the work of getting the kids where they need to go and get them to smile.”
Give the kids a job. The kids love to be involved in the running of the session, and when they are into it, you’re bound to get better cooperation (and therefore better photos). It’s not uncommon for me to let them help me “clean my lens.” Bust out that LensPen and let them brush away! The kids love this! Another one that seems to be a favorite is telling them that it’s their job to get mom/dad/sibling to smile. I typically start out with one set of family pictures and then move into individuals of the kids and then shots of mom and dad before going back to family shots. These individual times are great for getting one of the kids behind me with the “job” of trying to get the others to smile. And frankly, it works like a charm EVERY TIME. I get authentic smiles from the one in front of the lens, and I get excitement and buy-in from the one working their “job.” Win!
Work in small increments. Kids get tired of pictures pretty fast. I don’t go too long before giving a quick break—I usually say something silly like, “Your face must be SO TIRED from all that smiling! Let’s stop smiling and make some sad faces now!” And for a minute, the camera is down and everyone is just being goofy. (And then I usually pick the camera back up again when no one is noticing and get some candid shots of the silliness!)
Never stop talking. Talk to them while you're shooting. Talk to them while walking from one spot to the next. This continues your rapport with them, and also gets them expressing their little personalities more and more. You might observe that one child is super outgoing and silly, and another is more reserved and quiet in nature. This gives you valuable clues for how to photograph them!
Give them something to do. Have them make a fort for bugs out of twigs and rocks, draw a treasure map in the dirt with a stick, or maybe pick some flowers for mom. This is a great way to get candid or detail shots that capture their personality.
When all else fails, don’t be afraid to be silly. Put things on your head and let them fall off. If you have an assistant or someone who’s not in the frame at the moment, have them walk behind you and pretend to fall down. Let them name an animal and you make the animal sound in as dramatic of a way as possible. Use a farting app on your phone. Whatever it takes! I am generally pretty silly when I’m working with kids, but I don’t jump right into these tactics from the get-go. Some kids see right through it, and sometimes you have a better angle just being you and truly trying to engage them before “putting on a show.” Silliness is a great way to get smiles, but remember that you’re looking for authentic expression, too. Keep that in mind as you find what works for you!
The biggest compliment I get is when we’re packing up to leave and I hear mom or dad or one of the kids say “That was fun!” Because I’m not just selling photos to a client. I’m trying to create an experience for them: an experience where they can come together and have fun as a family. Being present in the midst of their joy allows me to snap away and capture their truest connections.
What other ways have you found to get buy-in from kids and unlock genuine expressions in your sessions? Let us know in the comments below!
Betsy Davis is a wife, mom, and portrait photographer living in northwestern Missouri. She is the owner and principle photographer of Betsy Davis Photography. Her love of photography was born out of a lifelong passion for documenting memories, and is rivaled by an (almost) equal love for good coffee and sunny weather. Stay connected with Betsy through her website, Facebook and Instagram pages!