Alternate titles for this post include: “Please don’t say “cheese” “, “It’s OK if they don’t smile”, “Kids will be kids” and “Nagging probably won’t help”.
I love photographing children. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always had a thing for kiddos, and I worked with them in the Early Childhood Education field for 6 years. Or maybe it’s because they keep things exciting, unpredictable and fun. Either way, photographing those lively littles is one of my favourite things to do. But it doesn’t come without its challenges.
I think the most important thing to remember when photographing young children, for both parents and photographers, is that they probably don’t fully understand what they’re getting into. They don’t know that their parents might have saved up for this family session forever, agonized over the perfect location and gone over budget on the adorable coordinating outfits. They don’t fully understand that this may be the only date that worked for each member of the extended family and that this is a one-shot deal. They don’t care that you wanted four separate poses of them smiling with their sibling to fill the four-frame arrangement in the living room.
The simple reality is that young children won’t fully grasp the importance and meaning of what’s going on, and as much as both parents and photographers try to plan out a session to perfection and find potential solutions for every possible outcome, children are unpredictable. So we can all get ridiculously stressed, or we can just go with it.
It’s no secret that I love a good candid shot, one that shows a person as they are, without a fake, forced smile. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good genuine smile. But I’d rather frame a real expression than an awkward grin. When I’m photographing your child, I start out with no expectations. I usually take the first little bit to get to know them, chat with them, ask them about school, their favourite colour, etc. We might pick flowers or explore the location a bit. I’ve found myself collecting pinecones, playing “alligator hug attack” and singing ridiculous songs while making funny noises. The most important thing for me is that they have fun and don’t feel pressured, cornered or forced to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Some of my favourite shots are of children exploring and just being themselves. And as a parent, the same goes for my favourite shots of my own baby girl. The smiles are lovely. But those photos that show her just being her? Priceless.
Now, moms and dads, don’t worry. I do my very best to get some smiles for you. And I almost always do. But here’s the key. For real smiles to happen, we all need to back off a little bit and figure out what produces a grin. Sometimes that means I need to make a fool of myself and dance around and make silly sounds and play peek-a-boo relentlessly. Sometimes that means asking them about their favourite TV show and proceeding to imitate some of the characters. Sometimes that just means letting them pick up rocks for 15 minutes and catching a spontaneous smile as they show off their treasures. Sometimes, that means I need to stop asking them to sit on my pretty quilt because it’s just not going to happen. But these smiles – these genuine expressions of joy – are so worth it when they happen.Because let’s face it, children aren’t quite so skilled as many adults are when it comes to faking a smile. They haven’t all figured out that a giant toothy rigid grin isn’t quite their best look.
When we force children to sit still and “say cheese”, often we get smiles that no one is too excited about. So often I hear parents pleading with their kiddos to give their “real smile” – but the thing is, these smiles need to just happen. Which is why I always tell parents that I’d rather go with the flow than push children to the point where they are cranky, upset, and no longer wanting to participate. You can usually work with a busy, silly, shy child. But a child who is pushed to the point of tears and frustration is usually all done.
I do understand that desire parents have to capture that beautiful smile they know their child has. I know that the intentions behind bribing and pleading and threatening consequences and insisting on cooperation are good. And I certainly never judge whatever method a parent chooses to try and make things work. I’ve been there, both as a parent and a teacher, where you’re grasping at straws to just try and make things work. I’ve also been in a situation where I’ve paid for family photos and my joyful, happy-go-lucky baby decided to be cranky and serious. It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. But it’s life. So don’t worry if your child isn’t on their best game the day of the photo session, and please don’t feel the need to apologize for them. I’ve worked with children for years, and I know that, like everyone, they have their good and bad days. I also have a very good understanding of child development and adjust my expectations accordingly. Sometimes, a three-year-old miraculously sits, poses, tilts their head and gives me the most gorgeous, natural looking smile with no coaxing at all. But most times, by the end of a child or family session, I’m sweating, dishevelled, and I’ve spent the last hour or so running around and being silly to try and capture the essence of who your child is.
Parents, you have to believe me when I tell you that it’s not just your child. This is just the way it is most of the time.
And it’s totally OK.
And while I can’t 100% promise that you’ll get that perfect smiling pose (although I can promise I will try my best!), I can promise that you’ll get photos that really tell the story of who your child is right now, and that when you look back on these photos, you’ll see their personality shine through.