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on photographing your own children

The other day I got a wild hair to head out with all three kids and finally get some images of them together.  Yes, it took me a whole ten months to get the chance to do it, but I’m thrilled with the results.  The thing is, we are moving soon and I was determined to get some images that I can print and hang on our new walls.  I’ve been photographing them for their whole lives now and they still tolerate my requests to go take pictures which I consider a WIN in my book.  So when it came time to share these on the blog I thought I’d also share some of my tried and true tips on photographing your own children…

1.  Be realistic.  As I approach ALL of my sessions with children, my goal wasn’t to get a formal “sit-and-smile-for-the-camera” shot (because OMG the PRESSURE!).  My goal was to get some genuine interaction between the three of them.  Smiles, laughs, giggles, even seriousness… Let’s face it my littlest one doesn’t dole out smiles or giggles on cue – seriously this chick mad dogs like no other.  (See #3… LOL)

2.  Get them excited, then follow their lead.  If they’re young, tell them you’re going exploring for (insert favorite creature/character/animal here). If they’re older, explain why it’s important to YOU that you take these photos. When my son was littler, I’d take him out and tell him we were looking for dinnosaurs. As he got a little bigger (and understood the humor in potty talk) I’d tell him we were looking for dinnosaur poop. Now that he’s approaching 7, I simply explained that it meant a lot to me to have some images of all three kids. This got him wililng to come out with me and also set a good example for his 4 year old sister. The baby was just along for the ride. The key is – find something that makes them *tick* and run with it. You know your children better than anyone, use that to your advantage!

The first set up (below) was simple – I just sat the three of them in open shade on the grass. I didn’t ask them to do anything fancy here. I just asked them to distract the baby for me so that I could get into position and shoot. When I realized she was very distracted by the grass I asked them to get in her face, to try and get her looking at one of them. She never really did look up from that grass, but I love the images where my son’s forehead is pressed against hers.  He adores her so much and you can tell. 

3.  Be quick.  Also related to this – respect your children. When they say they’re done, you need to be done. There’s nothing worse than forcing your kids to take pictures. Forcing them to do something they don’t want to do will stress you out. It will stress them out. It will be a lose-lose for everyone involved. And, even worse, they’ll remember the bad experience next time and it’ll become a bigger fight with each attempt.  So form a small shot list in your head, make a loose plan, and execute fast. I think the main reason my kids are still so willing to let me take their pictures is the fact that I’ve always respected them. I put the camera away when they ask and don’t force it on them, ever. 

This day in particular, my shot list started on the grass (above).  Again this was to try and get ANY decent images of all three of them.  Then once I knew I got at least one keeper, I wanted to shoot them individually for updated portraits.  So I took each of them aside and asked them just to talk to me.  Again, this is where you use your knowledge of them.  My son and I talked about math.  He LOVES math!   My four year old and I talked about princesses (DUH).  And I just made loud noises and funny sounds for the baby.  See her mad dog face?  I don’t care it’s still cute.  Plus, cheeks.  After we were done with some individual shots, I asked the older ones if we could go explore the park a bit more for a chance for more with all three of them.  They happily obliged so off we went. 

4.  Ask them to SCREAM.  One of my favorite “tricks” to get genuine expression out of kids is to have them scream.  Now I’ve done this trick a number of times with my older two but the novelty is still there.  Something about telling kids it’s OK to be as loud as they want is amazing.  The key to this is not to capture the actual scream but instead the moments just before and immediately after.  The moments before typically have direct eye contact, and anticipation + excitement.  Then right at the tail end of the scream, they all crack up into genuine laughter. 

The first black and white image was right when I started talking to them.  I said, “OK we are going to do something fun here!  You know what I want you all to do?”  and then I paused, and they looked at me like this.  Is it the best shot ever?  No.  But they’re all looking and I appreciate a good pensive photo.  I imagine they are thinking something like, “Mom is cray cray.”

After that I told them we were all going to scream as loud as we could BUT they couldn’t start screaming until I counted to three.  If you’re doing this with you own kiddos you then begin counting real slow… “One…… Two……” meanwhile you’re shooting.  During this time my son readjusted his hold on the baby which led to the 2nd shot (top right).  Once I said “THREE!” I let them scream for a while and when the scream turned into laughter, I captured the second row of images.  As expected the baby is still mad dogging, but this series still makes my mama-heart happy!  It’s all about realistic expectations, right?  (See again #1)

Then I spotted a good opportunity to take a few more images of the baby by herself…

5.  Have a reward in mind.  Not to be confused with bribing, having a good reward in mind is nice incentive for well behaved children.  Don’t get me wrong I’ve been known to use a well-placed bribe every now and then, but in general I try to think of something fun that we will get to do faster after photos if they cooperate.  In this case it was going to a friend’s house.  Now if I were using this as a “bribe” I’d say, “Take these last set of pictures for me or we can’t go to our friend’s house!”  This typically leads to frustrated kiddos who can only seem to focus on the negative… “If I don’t take these pictures then we can’t go to Johnny’s house.  But I want to go to Johnny’s house… I don’t want to take more pictures.  I want to go NOW!…” (cue anxiety and impending temper tantrum over something that hasn’t even happened yet).

Needless to say I try to avoid this scenario at all costs.  Instead, for this last set of images I asked, “I think I want to do some laying down shots on that hill over there.  If we do them really fast, we’ll be ready to head over to our friend’s house even faster.  Do you think we can do that?”  They knew that, either way, we were still going to go to our friend’s house.  But the incentive to cooperate was that we could get there EVEN FASTER if we took just a few more quick photos.  They agreed, so I laid a blanket down, took my shots and we were done!  The kids were thrilled, I was a happy mama, and we were at our friend’s house before dinner time.   WAHOO!

I hope you can use some of these tips and tricks with your own kiddos and end up with a positive experience and some good images to hang on your walls.  These make me so happy – I cannot wait to get them printed for the new place.

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