I have a line in my wedding contract that states I will be present with my camera ready to record the day, but I cannot guarantee sunshine or smiles. While it's said tongue-in-cheek, it's an important reminder that there are all kinds of personalities in the world. The same is perhaps especially true of photographing toddlers, whose actions and moods are unpredictable and often unmanageable.
Toddlers come with unique challenges
Whether you are a parent or not, you have probably seen that exhausted parent opting to abandon their half-filled shopping cart and exiting the mall with an inconsolable tiny human flailing in their arms. If you've got older kids, you've been that parent, and if you are on your first newborn, rest assured – someday you will earn that badge.
I don't suppose it's often that one thinks about toddlers as being a separate group to photograph. It seems easier somehow to classify them as either older babies or younger children, but neither is terribly accurate. Infants and babies – even crawlers and early walkers – can usually be contained to one spot by making mobility a challenge (baby in a basket anyone?) while young children often have the communication skills to take a bit more direction than your typical 2-year old.
Toddlers (let's say from 18 months to almost but not quite 4 years old) are often referred to as being in the “terrible twos” or acting like “threenagers” for a good reason. Having gone through it with my own kids, I can say first hand that they present a unique set of challenges.
Toddler photography tips
So how do you wrangle a small person who is temperamental, yet unable to communicate using words we understand, and curious yet completely unaware of any potential danger and physical limitations? I'm going to give you some of my favorite tips and tricks for handling toddlers (and their parents) that will help you get great shots of them in their natural state – equal parts cuteness and chaos.
Prepare the parents
The first step is prepping the parents. I liberally distribute the following pre-session tip sheet to anyone bringing children in for a photo session. When you write your own tips for the parents, be sure to keep it light and explain why you're asking them to do these things.
#1 – Ask them to bring snacks
Ask them to bring snacks and drinks that wash up easily – raisins or apple slices, Cheerios, water, or apple juice are much easier to disguise than the stains from blue ring pops, raspberries, cheesy crackers, or grape Kool-Aid.
#2 – Bring baby wipes
Get the parents to bring baby wipes (I usually keep a stash with me, too, just in case!) and a change of clothes/underpants. Accidents can and will happen with toddlers.
#3 – Reassure them you'll do that hard work, with a bit of their help
Find a way to reassure the parents that you understand toddlers are rambunctious little characters and that you don't expect them to sit perfectly still or warm up to you right away.
This is a good time to let parents know they will be asked to help you get good expressions during the session. Explain that they know best what makes their child smile whether it's a song, a game, or a favorite stuffy. (Don't worry about the stuffy being in every picture – I have ways of making it work FOR you a little further down.)
#4 – Bribery is out
If the parents have a special treat planned for their child after the session, I ask them to please refrain from mentioning it during the session. It makes the kids think that you're the bad guy if they have to take it away and you need them to like you!
Kids getting alternately bribed or threatened with their “treat” stresses them (and me) out so I enforce this one even if it means reminding the parents (nicely) to stop bringing it up and trust me that I can get their children to go from this:
To this (without bribery):
#5 – Set realistic expectations
You can manage the parents' expectations by letting them know that while you will do everything in your power to ensure you get at least one perfect posed smiling shot, there are times their toddler isn't going to behave like the cover model for Today's Parent.
However, reassure them that the pictures you DO get will reflect their child's personality, whether that’s silly or shy. (Bonus tip: by including candid moments in your portfolio, you will already have demonstrated your competency!)
Preparing for the session
Now that the parents are geared up, let's get you prepared.
The right time
First, pick the right time for your session. During nap time, right before mealtime, or late at night – these are not good times to tackle a toddler. When you schedule the session, ask Mom or Dad when nap time is and schedule yourself accordingly.
The right location
Pick your location carefully. Generally, I won't schedule toddlers at a park unless the parents want nothing but candids of the kids playing on the equipment because as soon as they see the park, they won’t have any interest in me or my camera. If it's scorching hot outside and there is a fountain, pond, or sprinkler nearby, again, you may have regrets.
Toddlers are easily distracted so you will want to find someplace where there are minimal intrusions such as a secluded path or walking trail, a toddler-friendly indoor studio, or even their own home. If you're doing an in-home session, it's wise to choose an activity ahead of time. You want one that engages the child so they are less likely to run off to their bedroom or the TV. Going on a nature hunt, having a tea party, or making a potted plant are simple activities that work.
The right weather
Check the weather before you head out. While a puddle-jumping session might be cute for one toddler, a fear of thunder and lightning during a rain storm could turn the session on its head.
The same goes for falling temperatures. If the parents suggest that they will just take their kids' winter coats off for a few snaps, this is not only a recipe for cranky uncooperative kids but could pose a liability issue in sub-zero temperatures if wind-chill or frostbite is a risk. Reschedule or find an indoor spot if you need to – everyone will be much happier!
Make sure you have lots of light. Seriously, I cannot stress this point enough. Most toddlers will run, climb, jump, and wiggle, not sit still. So if you want to produce crisp, clear photos, then you MUST make sure you are shooting with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125th of a second, or you have strobes, off-camera flash, continuous lights, or flash available.
In a pinch, move the shoot beside the biggest window you can find, turn on every light in the house, or even take your session outside. This is what happens when you don't have enough light, and subsequently a fast enough shutter speed. You get blurry toddlers!
Limit their mobility
You might need to temporarily immobilize your subjects.
Bringing along a fun place to sit like a miniature chair, a sheepskin or rug, or a rocking horse (if it rocks, remember you will need lots of light to freeze the action) or (my favourite) a suitcase will give them a designated spot to plant their bum and hopefully give you a chance to earn their undivided attention.
Cute and unique props can help keep the kids hands busy while adding a nice touch to the photos. My vintage cameras show up in lots of photos!
But my number one favorite trick for immobilizing kids is letting them take their own picture using a tethered cable release. It puts the child the perfect distance from my lens for a great headshot AND acts like a short leash. I would hazard a guess that at least 50% of my successful toddler headshots were taken by the kids themselves.
Give the toddler your undivided attention
Even if they have older or younger siblings at the session, winning the toddler over is your key to success because frankly, I've never met a toddler who doesn't genuinely believe they are the center of the universe.
Be responsive to their actions. Appear extra surprised when they jump out from behind a hiding spot. Feign shock when they let out a fart or burp, pretend you're sad when they're sad, and smile and clap in response if they clap first. They will quickly learn that you are paying attention to them. Once they know this, they will be watching to make sure you’re still watching – use that to your advantage.
Be goofy, have fun, and make everything a game
When your subject is a toddler with the attention span of a gnat, you will need to be quick on your feet and ready to respond to their hairpin turns. When they get restless or if they don't think you're funny anymore, they will send you a clear message that they are done. You need to be ready to try a different tactic.
When fake sneezes stop working, you can try a sitting still and making faces game. When sitting still isn't working, you can try jumping, when jumping isn't working, you try peek-a-boo. Finally, when you start running out of ideas, it's time for Mom and Dad (and the siblings) to step in and make fools of themselves.
It often takes a good 15-20 minutes for me to earn the trust and admiration of my pint-sized buddies. Or at least their tolerance.
Persistence usually pays off, and this is where asking Mom and Dad to bring that stuffy or blankie can actually work for you. You can balance it on your head and pretend it's going to fall, play catch, play peek-a-boo with it, ask them to let you take a picture of it, make them hide it, and it becomes a tool.
If their favorite item is a pacifier, your best option is to let them have it without it being in their mouth. Otherwise, you might be stuck editing weird imprints from their face. Try making a noise as you yank it out quickly, tucking it in their pocket or pant leg, or asking them to hide it behind their back.
Get the toddler to notice you
Bring things that will make them look at you or your lens. You can purchase a wide variety of camera accessories, ranging from stick-on lens covers to noise-making blinky lights that mount to your hot shoe. If you're the creative do-it-yourself kind, you can buy a hair scrunchy from any store and decorate it to look like an animal using googly eyes and craft supplies. Slip it around your lens and voila – instant attention grabber.
I admit I have done everything from balancing logs on my head and putting socks on my ears – whatever works! Just make sure you remind the parents to look at your camera, too, instead of looking at the kids to see if they’re looking at you. A pet photographer once told me to buy a dog toy and remove the squeaker so I could hold it in my mouth and bite it to make dogs and cats look at the camera. Well, I am happy to report that the surprise squeaker in the mouth trick works well for toddlers (and adults) too!
Know when to call it quits
There are going to be times when despite your best efforts, your diminutive subject is not having any of it – not you, not your tricks, not their parents' singing or their siblings’ tickles.
You will know you have hit the end when you see the same look on Mom or Dad's face that you've seen at the mall. If a tantrum hits and hasn't passed after five minutes, chances are good you're done for the day.
The parents are going to apologize to you. They might even lie and say they've never seen their child act out like that before. It doesn't matter. Just reassure the parents that their child is normal and that you understand, even if you don't.
I hope this gives you some useful tactical maneuvers to employ the next time you're face to face (or camera to face) with a toddler. Just remember, you aren't going to have any control of the situation so your best bet is simply to embrace the chaos and dive right in!
Do you photograph toddlers? Share your questions, comments, and images of toddlers in the comments below.
“I wife. I parent. I shoot. I write. I travel. I bike. I debate. I study. I teach. I sew. I cook. I don't clean.”
Hope Walls is an Edmonton-based photographer whose preferred genre is “chaos.” In addition to photographing families and weddings, she is a peer-educator who passionately teaches fun things like bookkeeping, tax preparation, and marketing to other creative professionals. You can see more of her work on her blog.