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12 Tips for Photographing Your Own Kids – the World’s Toughest Models

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.

The Face of Mutiny
The Face of Mutiny

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.

Jake Truck

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.

Fence

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.

B W Leaf

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.

Vintage Baseball

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.

Rain Splash

Leaf Inspection

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.

Orphan Train

Vintage Jake

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.

Logan + Claire

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”.

Playing Cars

Video Games

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.

Logan and Dragon

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.

Logan Catch 1

Logan Catch 2

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.

L Leaf Image

Jake Sunset

signature

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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.

MefbHer 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.

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  • Saurav Dhyani

    Very nice and different article.. before reading it i thought this would have same old shots but I was wrong.. loved all your shots….

    • They’re really refreshing hey?!

      • Saurav Dhyani

        Is tht question mark in error?

        • No. It was a question, and the exclamation mark adds emphasis.

          • Saurav Dhyani

            Yes, I really liked most of them, boy sitting on car, boy with a dog (I feel best of all), boy jumping on water are my favourites. Refreshing might not be right word, but I feel they r different from those portraits clicked at some park or bed room. Thus found them interesting n different.

  • Melanie Black

    GREAT ARTICLE!
    I found the information to be right on and rang true for me as well when i photo my kids. I Liked the timer idea! Def will help keep me accountable and not let the time fly by and my kids get angry at me for pushing the limits. I appreciate you posting this!

    And BEAUTIFUL SHOTS BTW!!!!
    Youre an inspiration! <3 <3 <3

  • Saurav Dhyani

    Here is one,of my recent shots.. My daughter is a great poser n makes excellent contact with the lens.. Hope u like these shots….

  • Beautiful sets of images, Jessica. Loved them all. Really impressive. πŸ™‚

  • Helen Curtis

    These are gorgeous! I love working with my kids….well, most days πŸ™‚ I recently invited them to the studio where i’m studying and out of 40-60 images I got a few “good” ones! It was a massive learning curve, the biggest point being don’t try and work with kids at 7pm! What was I thinking?! This is my favourite image from the session; not perfect, but it captures the boys so well. Gotta love them! Thanks for the pointers, I’ll be refering back to this a lot from now on!

  • Karina

    Thank you for sharing these tips! My husband just bought me my first dslr camera and the thought of learning by capturing my family was so exciting! Boy, was I wrong. I have 3 boys and the last thing that want to do is pose for any picture. I have resulted to just candid photography. Every now and then they will cooperate, but those times are few and far between. I can’t wait to apply you advice! Here are some of the few shots I was fortunate enough to capture….

    What do you think? !

    • these are great, love the upside down kid!

    • Helen Curtis

      I hear you Karina! We have 3 boys, individually they are little posers, but put them together and it’s like a wrestling match! I love your pics, they are so much fun. Enjoy your dslr and your boys!!

  • Melanywilson

    Your pictures are so beautiful and I’ve always admired your work. Such cute pictures! I don’t have kids, but can use these tips with my nieces and nephews and I add Digital signatures on all my images.

  • Here is the photo I took of my daughter recently. Any suggestions on how to improve are appreciated. I really like all your suggestions and photos. Thanks for sharing. I think my favorite is the kid playing in the puddle of water. Reminds me of me when I was that age… πŸ™‚

  • James Mondry

    This is a great set of images, and excellent tips. The number one thing I’ve had to learn with my daughter (I’m sure this is true with many kids) is that once she has done something, I can’t ask her to do it again – so keep your camera close and with settings that will support a quick shot. I can’t say how many good photos I’ve missed out on, because I’m in the middle of fiddling with settings (because I left it in an odd configuration last time I used it), or trying to wake my camera up.

    Also, sometimes its worth it to miss the shot so that you can create a memory with your kid, rather than it always being about you getting your shot.

    All the best.

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