I love capturing magical moments of my children. Both purely documentary as well as more lifestyle moments where I set the scene in advance and provide direction. My children’s levels of cooperation vary widely depending on their personality (my oldest child generally hates being photographed whereas my middle son is a total ham), their mood, and what they’re doing at the moment. Over the years, I’ve come up with different strategies to handle photographing reluctant subjects. Here are my 10 tips:
My number one rule is respecting my kids’ boundaries. If they tell me they don’t want their photo taken, I immediately respect their request and put my camera down. I don’t keep shooting, cajole them, or argue. I want them to know that I will respect their wishes. Sometimes, I’ll talk to them afterward and ask if there was a particular reason they wanted me to stop. And I’ll learn, for example, that my oldest really doesn’t like it when I take pictures of him while he’s reading. This is because it distracts him from his favorite activity. This doesn’t mean I’ll never take a picture of him engrossed in a book. (see my tip on staying out of the way.) But it means that I don’t do it often. And when I do, I try and do it in a way where he doesn’t even notice.
Ultimately, I want the kids to have fun when I pull out my camera. I want them to associate my camera with good memories. But I don’t want them to associate photography with something that’s a chore or times that I forced them into something.
If I set up something that the kids like to do, they often forget about the camera. They get engrossed in the fun activity. Sometimes this means letting them do something I normally wouldn’t like blowing bubbles into a glass of milk. I’ll even promise to clean up afterward, since many of their favorite activities involve all sorts of mess! My oldest son loved blowing milk bubbles. Especially when they started spilling over the top of the cup. This is definitely a forbidden activity at all other times.
In this image, I was testing out flash settings and invited my middle son to jump on the bed. My husband has instituted a strict “no jumping on beds” rule. So my middle son took the opportunity to go absolutely wild, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t get in trouble this time.
Sometimes it’s not about activities that break the rules, but just something the kids like to do. My middle son and daughter love splashing in puddles, baking, and coloring. It’s easy for me to pull out my camera if they’re involved in any of these three activities.
One of my favorite ways to get my oldest to cooperate is to challenge him. I might ask him to run from one end of the park to me and time him. Then I’ll ask him to see if he can beat his record. He’ll do this over and over again, past the point where I’m done taking pictures and have long since put my camera down. I’ve asked him to show me how high he can jump and whether he can jump higher than his brother. Then I’ll let him see the back of my camera as “proof” of who jumped the highest.
My middle son is the artist of the family and he’ll often come to me with an idea. I always oblige (even if it’s not something I would choose to photograph) because I want to encourage his creativity and cooperation. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea for an image and share it with him. And then he’ll add in his own ideas until it’s truly a joint process. An example is the Alice in Wonderland themed image above. My middle son will call himself my “art director” and come up with ideas with his sister as the model. Sometimes, I’ll scroll through Pinterest and show my kids my inspiration and ask if they’ll cooperate with me. I’m often surprised by how opinionated my middle son is. He’ll tell me what he likes about the image and what he suggests we change.
My oldest son loves baseball. I know he’ll never complain if I photograph anything to do with him and his favorite sport. We’ll brainstorm ideas and try to execute them together. For example, in this image he wanted me to capture him tossing a ball. I asked him to change into a blue shirt to go with a monochromatic color scheme against our blue wall. Or in the image below, he showed me the pose he wanted and we had two different takes. A traditional one, and one using OCF to create the rim light around him. He loves when I shoot pure documentary shots of him playing in his little league games and we used some of them to make baseball cards.
Collaborating with my older children produces fun memories and, as a result, some of my favorite images!
I’m a photography course addict and I’ll share with my kids the course I’m taking and the photography assignments. My older kids get a kick out of the idea that I have homework just like they do. My oldest, in particular, takes his schoolwork very seriously. So telling him that I’m practicing composition or lighting or something for my homework makes him excited to participate. I’ll ask him whether he thinks I’ve done the assignment appropriately after I take an image and whether I should do anything differently. He loves “helping” me with my homework, just as I help him with his.
My first year or two after I picked up my DSLR, I carried my camera everywhere and shot constantly. I eventually learned to photograph less often but have ended up with images I like more, not only because I’m more thoughtful about them, but because my kids aren’t as camera fatigued. I can enjoy the moment with my kids and they know that they won’t have a camera shoved in their face 24/7. As a result, the number of complaints about having my camera out has gone down significantly.
When I shoot pure documentary images, I really try to stay out of the way so that my kids stay focused on their own interactions or activities rather than being aware of the camera. My two middle children in particular start cheesing it up for the camera if they know I’m taking pictures, which is usually not what I’m going for. I will often back up – sometimes way back, even out of the room and shoot through doorways – so they are unaware that I’m capturing them in a favorite activity.
While my 35mm lens is my preferred lens for indoor shooting, I’m actually quite comfortable with an 85mm indoors since I first learned with a 50mm on a crop sensor in a small apartment. The benefit of a longer lens, like a 50mm or 85mm, is that you really can back up quite a bit and stay out of the way. If you usually shoot with a wider angle lens indoors, try switching to a longer lens for a week. It might feel too tight at first, but when I tried a one-month 85mm challenge I got used to it and learned which rooms can really handle that longer focal length and where I want to position myself in advance.
I often let my kids see the images on the back of my camera during a lifestyle setup. They get the immediate gratification of seeing the picture and seeing what they look like in an activity. If I’m shooting documentary, I don’t show them the images immediately because I don’t want them to be aware of the camera or change their behavior in any way. However, I’ll often let them see the images while I’m culling later that night or later in the week which allows them to relive the fun moments and reminds them that they like to look through photographs.
I also print out albums from all of our vacations and one 365 album each year, leaving them out so they’re accessible and the kids can flip through them whenever they want. In letting them see these reminders of their lives, they appreciate photography more and it has made a difference in my oldest child’s reluctance.
My older kids think it’s hilarious to change the temperature and tint of an image or convert an image to black and white. I’ll let them pick a favorite image from the session and they’ll direct me in how they want to edit it. My middle son likes it when I change the color of his shirt or a toy in PS. I’m not very good at composites, but my kids will sometimes ask me to do something crazy like swap out the bike they’re riding for a motorcycle. While they enjoy the process of watching the photo editing, allowing them to take part in edits has also had the effect of them having their own photo ideas that they pitch to me.
When all else fails, I resort to bribes. I don’t do this often because I don’t want them to fall into the expectation that they’ll always get something when I pull out my camera. I’m on my sixth 365 project and there’s no way they’re going to get something every single day just because I take their picture. I don’t feel like they need bribes if I’ve set up a fun activity. Also, l want them to find ways to enjoy photography, without the prospect of some external reward.
However, there are times that I do rely on bribes. When I take our annual fall family photographs, I want them to be cooperative and will let them know ahead of time my expectations and that they will get a reward.
If I’m pulling them away from something they’re enjoying, I’ll offer them a treat. For example, my kids were in the middle of Saturday night movie night when I looked outside and noticed it was foggy. I immediately dragged them outside with the promise of some M&Ms if they cooperated for five minutes. Now, we don’t do a lot of screen time in our house, so pausing the movie would normally have caused a lot of groans, if not tantrums – but I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to take a couple of foggy images (we don’t get a lot of it here) and knew they’d do it if they had a reward to look forward to.
Using the tips above, the complaints about my camera have gone down significantly. Because I do pull out my camera every day, I want them to enjoy my photography and not dread it.