I have decided to share my top 10 tips for keeping kids happy and engaged during a photoshoot.
We can’t expect kids to magically pose beautifully in front a camera for the duration of a photoshoot, can we? Every now and then, it does actually happen. But I would have to say that this is rare. In the other 99% of cases involving children and a camera, a few tricks need to be employed to keep children engaged and willing during a photoshoot.
Just like adults, most children feel uneasy when placed in a new situation, especially one that involves a big light and a camera aimed directly at them. Just like some adults, some children take a little bit of time to warm up and feel comfortable and relaxed.
Whenever I am photographing anyone, no matter how old they are, I obviously want them to feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible. When people are at ease and feel that they can be themselves, you will get beautiful photographs of them with genuine expressions.
However helping children feel comfortable and at ease can require quite a different approach to the one I would use when working with adults. For a start, it involves a lot more silly-ness. It sometimes involves some terrible jokes, some singing, some dancing, you get the drift. So here are my top ten ways that I keep children happy during a photoshoot.
1. Get to know them
This is pretty obvious and should go without saying. But it needs to be said because it is still often a forgotten step. Whether you need to ask the parents to tell you a bit about their children before the photoshoot, or whether you ask them yourself, it is a great way of breaking the ice. If you are talking to the kids yourself, refrain from asking a set of closed questions like you are reading off a check list. This can come across like you are cross examining them and it’s too formal. Some kids will clam up with too many questions all at once. Starting with a very simple “how are you today or what have you been doing today”. This will open up some topics for conversation. Keep it casual. Use bits of information to explore new topics and keep the questions as open as possible as that encourages more conversation.
2. Show them your camera
Remember that to a child, you are a strange grown up person pointing a big black piece of metal at them. It can be pretty weird for lots of kids, especially toddlers. Most kids are curious and they might want to see what that big black metal thing looks like up close. It has lots of buttons and it’s pretty interesting. I almost always ask the kids if they want to look at the camera and they always say yes. Once you have talked about the camera and what it does, this can be a great opening for you to ask them to stand in front of you so you can test the camera to see if its working today. You could also ask them if they can see your eyes through the camera. This is a sneaky way of getting them to look directly into the lens.
3. Ask them to be your assistant
This is one of my most used techniques. I use it at least once a week if not more. Sometimes the reasons for kids not being engaged in a photoshoot is that they are simply bored. Most kids love to feel useful and by getting them to “help” you they will feel pretty special. I have found that this technique can work really well with kids aged roughly between 4 to 12. You can ask the older kids to help you by moving props around or ask for their advice on whether they think it looks good. For the younger children, they can help you “test” your camera by standing in front of it. For the older children, they can help you test the “lighting”. You can casually engage them in conversation during this and get some lovely natural shots of them on the sly.
4. Ask them what their favourite song is
A great way of engaging with kids of all ages, from 3 up to the teen years. Most teenagers love talking about music they like. It is a fairly neutral topic and it is non threatening. However I will issue a warning on this topic when asking this question of toddlers – once they have told you their favourite song you will most likely be required to sing it. I have photographed children while singing nearly every nursery rhyme I know. The kids usually laugh, as do the parents. Some children will obviously want to sing it for you and others will absolutely not want to sing it themselves.
5. Compliment them
Everyone likes to be complimented. If you think they have nice hair / shoes or a nice shirt or a lovely smile, tell them. Be generous and fourth coming with compliments to help both adults and kids feel good about themselves. It is important to keep it genuine though. There is nothing worse than knowing someone is “fake complimenting” you when they don’t really mean it.
6. Ask them to do some “silly poses”
This is a good one to get the kids moving when things get too serious. It is also a great way to engage hyperactive kids. A silly pose could be as simple as getting them to stand on one leg, pull some funny faces, or lie down and pretend to go to sleep. The beauty with digital cameras is that you can take some of these silly shots and they never need to see the light of day. Although you will of course get some kids who then want to actually see the silly poses. And the great by product of this technique is that you can get some fun shots of the kids doing more unusual things.
7. Use reverse psychology
If I am photographing a child who really really does not want a bar of it, then I pay them as little attention as possible for as long as I can. I don’t ignore them, but I don’t make a fuss over them. I don’t ask them continuously if they are ready or if they want to get involved. With kids like this, it can be helpful to let the parents in on your tactic and ask them to initially refrain from asking their kids to be involved also. In these cases I will start taking photographs of other children or family members without the child who isn’t interested. Of course sometimes you will be taking shots that you know will not see the light of day as they are missing a sibling, but this is merely an effective way of getting that other child involved in a more timely manner. Usually when they realise that no one really cares, they stop resisting being involved as no one is reacting to them. Eventually their natural curiosity gives way and they start engaging with me and asking me lots of questions. To me, this behaviour means – I am ready to be involved and want you to pay attention to me now. But maybe still go gently. There is a bit of a fine art in mastering reverse psychology effectively, especially when you have only met the child five minutes ago. When it comes to most toddlers however, they just love doing the opposite of what they are told so it can be a no brainer! Countless times I have told a toddler that its ok – I don’t want to photograph them, I only want one of their baby sister…only to have that toddler appear front and centre within a few seconds with their most photogenic pose on!
8. Counting games
Most younger kids are very proud of their ability to count to 10 or 20 and having them stand or sit down to show you is a great way of getting them to stay in one position for a while. The proud smile at the end of their counting is always a winner. With primary school aged kids, counting in multiples, such as counting in 2’s or 5’s can be a skill they are very proud of. When I am counting with younger kids I will sometimes say a wrong number so they can correct me and laugh at me.
9. Say ridiculous things
Such as “everyone say chocolate spaghetti” or “I ate worms for breakfast”. If its ok with the parents, you can throw in the occasional poo joke as this gets huge laughs and shock value from kids and parents a like. For example “everybody say poo cupcakes”. Yes, I resort to toilet humour sometimes!
10. Use props
I have put this tactic as the last tip because this is what I use as a last resort. When I say last resort, I just mean that once you have introduced some hilarious props like stuffed toys who jump around and say ridiculous things or throw themselves in the air, it is hard to top this. You are now peaking in your hilarity and getting lots of giggles. But anything that you do after this, will not be as fun. So leave it to the end, otherwise you are going to have to maintain a comedy act for the next 40 minutes which can be tough. I have a few stuffed toys that can sit on my head or on my camera lens. I have cars, balls, bubbles, even pretend cameras that they can play with.
So as you can see, keeping children happy and amused during a photoshoot is not rocket science. All it involves is adopting a different mindset and being creative. To me, it is also just as much about honouring each individual child. Finding out what makes them tick. Respecting their boundaries or limitations and not pushing them. It also often involves talking to their parents prior to the photoshoot to help you out. This might mean asking them to refrain from telling their child to stand still or smile, or to “behave”. Once it becomes a chore, it is not fun for anyone and the photos will probably reflect this. Keeping it fun and light means the kids will enjoy the experience and the parents will love the photos.