The 5-Minute “Perfect Smiling Child” Shot
Most people can take a great candid shot of a child, but how do you get the perfect close up shot of their faces that their parents always want?
It’s got very little to do with your camera, and everything to do with how you talk and react to children when you first meet them, and how you deal with them throughout the shoot. Allow about an hour of preparation and then all it takes is 5 minutes!
Photographing people is 90% psychology and 10% technology – especially with children!
Everything can be perfect – lighting, weather, clothes, background and you may have the world’s greatest camera – but if the kid is shy, bored or refusing to actually be in the shot, then no amount of technical skill will get you a great photo.
Getting children to co-operate on a shoot, starts BEFORE you pick up your camera. Check out the video below and then read the tips which explain how to do it.
You’ll notice on the video it doesn’t look like I am doing a lot to get a reaction from the children. This is deliberate – it’s how I like to work. I like to start off by positioning them, and then talking to them gently as I watch through my lens and press the shutter when I see the expression I want – they often look more natural when I do this, rather than trying to get rid of cheesy grins, by asking them to smile. It depends totally on the way you like to work and also the reaction of the children, but here I sensed that I needed to keep calm, and not get the children too hyper at the beginning of this shoot.
1. How you react to a child in the first 5 minutes of meeting them will set the scene for the rest of the shoot.
I tend to let them set the pace. I don’t “coochy-coo” at them, even if they are very young. If you give them lots of attention as soon as you arrive, this can backfire. They are often slightly apprehensive when they first meet you, and if you are too in their face, it can be difficult to get them to relate to you.
A gentle “hello” to them as you walk in is usually fine, then I just chat to their parents and wait for the child to come to me. Curiosity always gets the better of them! If you give them lots of attention without them asking for it, they soon get bored. You need to get them wanting your attention, and the best way to do this is to carry on as normal, and wait for them to come to you.
There are lots of things to arrange before I get the cameras out of the car (looking at clothes, backgrounds, etc.), and this provides lots of opportunities for the children to help you and get involved.
Always remember, that you don’t know what’s been going on just before you get there – they may have been told, “you’ve got to behave for the photographer,” which often puts them in a bad mood! They may have decided they don’t like you before you get through the door, just because they associate you with having to behave. If you push them too much at the beginning, then you are just prolonging that process – acknowledging them and quietly going about your job, makes them want to come to you, because they are not expecting that.
If a child is very shy, you need to keep your distance at first, and make sure you don’t invade their space – again, let them come to you. They may only appear shy because they’ve just woken up, and they need time to come round. Getting too close will frighten them right from the start. If, on the other hand, they are very confident and loud, then talk quietly to them, so that they come down from the ceiling!
2. Let them wear whatever they want at first.
I often find when I arrive that there is an argument going on over who wears what. If the child is very young they often refuse to wear the things their parents want them to wear. I stop this straight away by whispering to Mom that we can change them later, but right now, let’s just allow them to choose what they want to wear, and keep them happy!
What I am doing here, is building up a relationship with the children, and getting them on my side. I am giving them a little bit of control, and showing them we’re going to have fun.
Once you’ve let them put on the outfit they like, then ask them to show you their other favourite clothes, and toys – and choose things together. This makes them part of the process, and they love it.
3. Check out your locations with the children if possible.
I often say, “Now, I need someone very clever to show me the garden… who could that be?” And invariably the children will put their hands up and say, “me!” Once you’ve chosen clothes together, young children are very keen to show you the garden/playhouse, etc. – this really helps to get the kids involved, and start to see that something interesting is happening. Kids are naturally curious, so if you can make things more intriguing they often want to help.
They also often have preconceived ideas – the last time they had their photos taken, it may have been a boring experience, or they are too used to being constantly asked to “smile” every time their parents get the camera out. Often when I turn up at someone’s home, the children automatically think it’s going to be boring! Which is why I tend to acknowledge them, then ignore them, and let them come to me when they want to join in.
So I need something to do while I am waiting for them to get used to me – which is why I include choosing the clothes and locations as part of the experience (and don’t plan it the day before for example) – all this preparation really brings dividends in the end!
4. Set up a scene.
Let the children help you to arrange a place to take your 5-minute “perfect child” shots. This works best in top shade, where the lighting is soft and even, so that if the children move around, it won’t matter – the exposure will be the same. Check out: HOW TO: Find beautiful light on your doorstep.
If you can use something high like a box, or table, it will act as an anchor point. If you just sit the kids on the floor – often they will move around or get up and walk away. A box, or something similar, creates a point of focus for them and they tend to stay on it longer! (Particularly very young children.) Note in the pictures below, you can’t actually see the box – its just there as a place for them to stay still. If it’s a very little child, make sure a parent is just out of shot, but able to reach them in case they jump/fall off!
Let the children help you arrange the set, so they feel part of the process – they will be intrigued to know what’s going on, and be more likely to co-operate if you make them feel special. It’s all about working together! In this case, Grayson, 8, wasn’t really interested in the photo shoot, because car racing was on the TV! So I let him carry on watching it, and told him I would call him when I was ready – again this means I give him a little bit of control, and don’t force him to do something he doesn’t want – I’ve made a deal with him – I leave him alone, and he smiles on a few shots when I’m ready! (This is an unsaid understanding between us that has happened because I’ve not forced the issue.) Standing around waiting for me to create a set is only going to result in him getting bored. But Piper, being only 4, is naturally curious and wants to be part of what I’m doing – I also find girls love being photographed and are only too keen to be the centre of attention!
5. Position and direct.
Place the children together so you can ask them to lean their heads together – direct them with clear instructions. Note in the video, how I ask Piper to put her hands down (picture 2 above) – but she doesn’t want to, so I don’t push it, I take the shots as she is, and then move her later. If I insist on her taking her hands down, she is likely to get upset and I have no chance of getting the shot then.
Once I have positioned them, I then try to make them smile or laugh. Try asking their parents to stand directly behind you and pull silly faces – make sure they are very close to and at the same level as you, so the kids are effectively looking at your camera.
If you do these things first, it will allow you to get some “safety shots” – by this I mean that I try and get the perfect faces of the children – before they are let loose on the beach or other location. Once they get to an uncontrolled environment, anything can happen – and it can be very difficult to get a child to sit still and pose for a photo at that stage, as they often just want to run around and play. Running around allows you to get great candid shots, but in my experience sometimes it is impossible to get the “perfect smiling face” shot once they’re doing their own thing.
It’s also much easier to get a photo of several children together, when you can control the situation – as they are much more co-operative at the beginning of the shoot, because everything is still new.
Start with both children together unless one is very young and not co-operating at this stage – then start with the older child, and let the younger one come into the picture (which often happens if you ignore the young one – they will want the attention!).
6. Don’t ask them to smile!
If you ask children to smile, you will invariably get a really fake grin. You need to make them laugh naturally so you get a natural smile.
All photographers have different ways of doing this; it all depends on how you feel comfortable, and the age of the children. I often ask the parents to do silly things behind me – like jumping out, or tickling each other – anything which the children genuinely find funny. I never ask them to say “cheese” as this results in a really fake smile. Saying “sausages” or “smelly socks” usually makes them laugh – and gives you the natural expression you’re looking for. I also lead on to things like, “is your Daddy a smelly sausage?” Ridiculous as it sounds, they often love being able to say this because normally they wouldn’t be allowed to! (You may need to apologise to the parents – and explain if they want a great shot, they need to go along with it!)
And don’t forget to take shots where they are not smiling at all – just looking wistful and calm – this often really shows off their eyes, as they are not wrinkling up, which they often do when they laugh!
7. Use a long zoom lens.
Using a long zoom lens can really help you to get a better expression, because you can stand further away and zoom in. If you use a short fixed lens you need to be closer and that can be much more intimidating for children. I find the 70-200 is the perfect lens for capturing close up shots of children. Use it at F4 to get the background out of focus, and place more emphasis on the child’s face. If you have more than one child in the shot you need to use F5.6 and keep their faces close together, otherwise if one is behind the other, one of them will be out of focus. But shooting at F8 will mean your background will also be in focus. Shooting at F8 will solve this but it also means the background will be in focus, which I don’t want. Shooting at F2.8 is risky, because young children may move, and then one of their eyes may be out of focus at this aperture. The further you are away, and the wider the shot, it will not matter – but on close ups like this, it does.So stick to F5.6 and make sure their heads are in the same plane for the safety shots.
Taking these few safety shots, will ensure the “candid”, more fun pictures will be even better on location, because you’ve already got your “perfect smiling face” shots; the kids have a much better relationship with you, and are therefore more likely to let you do all sorts of different shots later.
Check out the location part of this shoot on the blog: Piper and the Pelicans.
Check out these blogs for more tips on photographing children:
- HOW TO: Photograph children in winter
- HOW TO: Photograph children of different ages
- 10 top tips for getting great photographs of children
- Too cool for school!
Video: Jeff Leap / Editing: James Robinson