I recall the early days with my first DSLR camera, excited and inspired to capture what I hoped would be timelessly beautiful photographs of my children. Initially, my young muses were quite helpful; smiling gamely for the camera if asked, willing to try different things and visit different places with a camera pointed in their direction. Somehow, along the way, I became a better photographer and they became America's Least Willing Models.
Even the simplest of shoots began with pouting and ended in tears. No chore was as dreaded by all parties involved as the Holiday Card Photo, where fights would break out faster than my camera's shutter set on continuous shooting mode. I'd finally buy the kids off with promises of elaborate Lego sets the price of a car payment, Happy Meals, and a trip to the zoo if they would just keep their hands to themselves, look somewhat pleasant, and hold still for 10 seconds.
The begging, bribes, and threats eventually paid off and I finally managed to get just that: one single shot where they weren't behaving as if they'd been possessed by demons for the Holiday card. What I failed to notice at the time was the 1,000 mile stare on my husband's face that seemed to tell a story of hard years of forced labor at a Siberian prison camp. I consoled myself with the notion that at least the cards were just going out to the closest of friends and family.
I'll be honest, moments like this were depressing, I felt like a bad photographer and worse, a bad parent. I am stubborn though, and refused to give up on the dream that taking nice photos of my kids didn't have to be painful. Since my methods weren't working, I retooled my approach to photographing my children. I won't try to tell you that we don't have our bad days, but on the whole, things go so much better. So, if you're struggling like I was to take good family photos without the drama, here are some tips to try when photographing the most desired and difficult models on the planet: your own kids.
Photographing your own kids – 12 tips
- Treat them as a professional.
- I am a portrait photographer and I use images of my children in my portfolio. While I want beautiful shots of them as any parent does, I ask for a lot more than the typical parent snapping a few shots. My kids perform household chores without an allowance, so I made this different: Not a chore, but an opportunity. I reasoned that if they understood that they were an important part of my business and were being compensated for their professionalism, attitudes would improve – and they did.
- Set a stop watch.
- When I decided to change things for the better in my photographic relationship with my kids, I had to recognize my own faults. My boys have been burned more than a few times by me promising, “Okay, just one more shot…” only to have it be a lie. It's not that I was trying to be deceptive, I was just in the moment, having fun, I'd see another possibility and wouldn't want to stop. This created a real lack of trust. We now set a timer on my phone. 15 minutes is REALLY 15 minutes. If they have upheld their end of the bargain (no fights, no pouting, following direction, etc.) then I make sure I'm honoring my word, no matter what.
- Invite your kids to help you scout locations.
- Explain to them what you are looking for, and why you might be apt to pick one spot over another. Bring snacks and drinks and make sure to allow time to just run around. Kids will explore a location in ways you would never expect and it can have fascinating results.
- Buy props they will love.
- Do your kids love bubbles, balloons, or kites? Engage them with props that get their imaginations racing, so they're excited to go participate.
- Buy wardrobe they will love.
- My youngest had a blast when I brought him a slicker and rain boots and told him he could play in the puddles.
- If you have a concept for your shoot, provide them with a narrative.
- Pretending is fun, regardless of your age and even my tween will actively participate in setting up a scene for a shoot. For example, when I've done vintage-inspired sessions with my boys, I've shared information with them about what was going on in the world at the time we're depicting, or the historical significance of a location, or even trivia about the plant and animal life around them.
- Use poses that will engage, not bore them.
- Pose them in ways that will naturally engage them, such as playing with a pet, discovering nature, or showing off their dance moves. Kids enjoy posing for photos if they are immersed in doing the things they love.
- Let them take pictures of each other – or you!
- The process can be a lot more fun when roles are reversed, even if only for a few minutes. If you have children who are responsible and interested, it can be a great way to introduce them to a new art form. And the more kids understand something, the more invested they will be in it.
- Let them be themselves.
- Sometimes we get so caught up in having the perfect shot, perfect pose, perfect wardrobe, and perfect location that we forget to just photograph our kids, in the moment, being themselves. Go under their radar and force yourself to bite your tongue when you feel tempted to start “improving”.
- Ask your kids if there is photo they'd like to “star” in.
- When my youngest was playing with plastic swords and dragon toys one day, I asked him if he'd like for me to make a photo of him fighting a dragon. He was thrilled with the result and the canvas now hangs in his bedroom.
- Let them show off.
- You'd be surprised how quickly those reluctant models can become the most demanding art directors, willing to take and retake shots to get the perfect image when it's something they believe is truly photo-worthy. My youngest would run behind me after every take and critique the back of the camera image in an effort to capture the perfect shot of him making a diving catch.
- Last, make sure to allow them adequate time off.
- Don't take your camera everywhere with the intention of documenting all of their adventures. Yes, you will miss some stuff, but as much as you want to remember everything, your family also wants to remember YOU without a camera in front of your face. Your kids want to know that you know how to balance life with photography, and they want you participating fully. There is a lot of pressure on photographers to create a personal mythology of perfect families on social media, and to show it off on the biz page or blog. I think it's great to do once in a while, but in this case, less is more. Pick your moments and don't burn out your family.
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About Jessica Drossin
Jessica is an internationally-published, self-taught, fine art portrait photographer based in Los Angeles. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art (Painting), and has worked for video game companies such as Blizzard Entertainment. A professional photographer for six years, she has won numerous awards, including the 2013 Emerging Professional Fine Art Photographer from Digital Photo Pro Magazine.
Her projects range from documenting a scoring session for the film, “Red Tails” in Prague to creating book cover art worldwide. Her work has been featured in issues of Digital Photo Pro, Digital SLR, Wedding Nouveau, and Practical Photography magazines among others. She shoots with a Canon 5D Mark III, and specializes in capturing and retouching portraits with natural light and enhances them using her own Photoshop actions, overlays and textures.