I photograph all types of people, but children are my very favorite subjects to work with. I love their innocent nature, genuine expressions, sparkling eyes full of life, and the endless possibilities and dreams their futures hold. By combining beautiful natural light, a truthful connection, and a glimpse into the soul, even the most ordinary scene can be transformed into something magical. I’d love to share with you some of my tried and true tips for creating stunning portraits of children.
TIP # 1: PATIENCE
Working with young children requires a gentle demeanor and patience. Lots of it. They can be energetic, easily distracted, silly, shy, withdrawn and sometimes (okay – a lot of the times) not at all interested in what you are trying to do with your camera. Make it fun for them! Leave your dignity at the door! Do not be afraid to get down on their level, play with them, tell funny stories, and even make silly faces or noises – whatever you have to do to engage them and grab their interest, if even for only a few moments. Ask them questions about their lives and interests. Make small talk. Prepare to spend at least the first 10-15 minutes of your session just getting to know your little subject before even thinking about pulling out your camera. Once you have that camera out, BE READY! Wait for the right moment – the perfect connection – before snapping the shutter. When you nail it? Pure magic.
Settings: ISO 400 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/400 | natural light
This is one of my very favorite portraits of my 7 year old daughter, Camille. I took this with a 200mm lens, so I was sitting quite a ways away. I asked her to hold a dandelion, close her eyes, and relax. By asking a child to close their eyes, you are removing any tension they may feel by having a camera aimed at them. Their face and features all become calm and softened. I ask them to open their eyes and look at me on the count of 3, and then immediately snap the picture. This is one of my favorite tricks for getting soulful portraits of children.
TIP #2: GIVE THEM A JOB
There is nothing worse than just standing around awkwardly with nothing to do. I am not a big fan of most props, but giving a child something to hold or care for can be the ticket to an amazing shot. Whether it be a beloved pet that needs to be held, or a bouquet of flowers to smell, giving children a purpose can effectively remove tension and help the shoot flow smoothly.
Settings: ISO 400 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/640 | natural back light
This is, hands down, one of my very favorite portraits I’ve ever created. This is my little boy, Elliott, when he was 2 years old. This photo was taken just a few minutes after sunset, so there was still ample light in the sky behind him to create a soft glow in his hair and behind the chicken. Elliott loves our chickens and spends hours outside playing with them on an almost daily basis, so by giving him the important job of holding his hen and making sure she was safe, he suddenly had a purpose that went far beyond just ‘stand there and look at the camera.’
Settings: ISO 800 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/500 | natural back light
Similar to the last image, I had Mia hold this white bunny. Not only do children tend to love animals, but again, giving them an important job to do gives purpose to the picture and relaxes your subject for a more natural and genuine expression.
TIP #3: CAPTURE CANDID MOMENTS
I absolutely love the perfect, soulful, posed portrait, but I also adore the unplanned moments – images that capture true childhood – kids lost in their own world and thoughts. Allow time for these moments to unfold, and always have your camera ready. You can even encourage these moments to unfold by making suggestions. “Why don’t you go over there and pick some flowers while I talk to your mom for a minute.” One of my very favorite strategies is to place children in a stunning environment with glorious natural lighting, and then allow them to just be kids. This technique has resulted in some of my all-time favorite images.
Settings: ISO 800 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/320 | natural back light
Settings: ISO 400 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/400 | natural back light
Settings: ISO 320 | F-2.2 @85mm | shutter speed: 1/500 | natural back light
In each of these images, I asked the little girl pictured to go off and pick flowers and just pretend I wasn’t there. When you have a little girl and a beautiful field of flowers, NOTHING can go wrong. You are guaranteed to walk away from this situation with amazing images.
TIP #4: EMPLOY AN ASSISTANT
Having an extra set of hands on deck while photographing children is not only helpful, it is crucial in my humble opinion. Whether it’s mom, a friend, your own older son or daughter, or your spouse, having someone else there to assist during the shoot is invaluable. With younger children and babies, I love having someone that can stand directly behind me and get the child’s attention, while I focus on capturing the perfect moment. My 14 year old son, Damien is my go to for this – children LOVE him and he can elicit the cutest laughs and smiles from them! Assistants can also help keep kiddos where you want them, fix wardrobe issues, and help with any props (or chickens!) that you are using – the ways in which they can assist you are endless.
Settings: ISO 400 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/1000 | natural back light
Leaf overlays? Think again! I had mom, my only assistant for this shoot, standing off to the side tossing leaves over her little boy. He thought it was the most amazing thing ever! Not only did I get some adorable expressions and keep him in one place long enough to get the shot, I also captured real leaves falling and was able to add some extra magic to this autumn portrait.
TIP #5: MAKE IT A FUN GAME
One of the best ways to get amazing portraits of children is to create a theme, or a fun game out of it. Think of things that children naturally love to do and incorporate it into your photo session. Not only will their true personalities come out, but you will come away with some brilliant images of childhood. You can’t beat that!
Settings: ISO 400 | F-2.0 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/400 | natural light
I captured this image of my son while we were on a summer vacation in Montana. My husband had found the little child-sized mandolin at an antique store months before and bought it for me, thinking I may be able to use it at some point in my photography. Elliott wanted to play with this mandolin so badly! We finally let him have his chance in this field of daisies we found in the middle of nowhere, Montana. He was in his own little world and having a wonderful time, and I got one of my favorite images ever of him.
Settings: ISO 200 | F-2.5 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/320 | natural light
This image was taken during a shoot I did with my good friend and fellow Las Vegas Photographer, Suzy Mead and her little girl, Mia. Letting children do typically ‘grown up’ activities can result in some seriously adorable pictures! Elliott got to play the role of photographer, and Mia was his model. The result? Total cuteness!
TIP #6: INVOLVE LOVED ONES
One of the best ways to capture natural, meaningful images of children is to bring in a loved one – whether it be mom, dad, a sibling, or even a grandparent, these images are sure to be treasured above all others as they capture beautiful, real love.
Settings: ISO 320 | F-3.2 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/400 | natural back light
Settings: ISO 400 | F-2.5 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/1000 | natural back light
Settings: ISO 200 | F-3.2 @85mm | shutter speed: 1/250 | natural light
Settings: ISO 500 | F-3.5 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/250 | natural back light
Settings: ISO 800 | F-2.8 @182mm | shutter speed: 1/200 | natural light
Settings: ISO 800 | F-2.8 @200mm | shutter speed: 1/500 | natural back light
TIP #7: BE SILLY AND HAVE FUN!
Anyone who follows my work knows how much I love serious, soulful portraits of children, but getting those laughs and smiles is equally important. Let your guard down and do whatever it takes to get those natural happy expressions – be it fart noises or a game of peek-a-boo – there is nothing that will melt mom and dad’s heart faster than a real smile!
Settings: ISO 200 | F-2.8 @190mm | shutter speed: 1/800 | natural back light
This is one of those images that has stood the test of time for me. I took it during a family photo session back in the spring of 2011 and I still love it to this day. This little sweetheart was just 2 years old at the time, and we all know how challenging of an age this can be to work with. A game of peek-a-boo was just what the doctor ordered here, and it resulted in an entire series of seriously adorable images (mom and dad ordered a collage of this set).
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article on photographing children! The best advice I can give you is to go into your shoots feeling relaxed and confident. Children will easily pick up on your feelings and mood, so if you are nervous and antsy, that will rub off on them. Take your time, get to know these special little people, and go with the flow. Don’t get upset if things don’t go perfectly according to plan. Part of the charm of working with kids is their unpredictable nature. Follow their lead, stay calm, and be willing to adjust your plans to fit their personalities. If you follow these tips and keep your camera ready for that perfect moment, I can guarantee you that you will come away with priceless images of your littlest subjects. Happy shooting!
Lisa Holloway is an internationally published, award winning fine art portrait photographer residing in rural Northwestern Arizona with her husband and 10 children. A Canon girl since day one, Lisa is completely self-taught and works exclusively with natural light. She has been in business serving clients in the Las Vegas metropolitan area since 2008. When Lisa is not pursuing her photography interests, she loves the outdoors, road trips, cooking, thunderstorms, and spending time with her family.