a child therapist's tips + tricks for a successful photo session with wiggly kids

My absolute favorite sessions are ones with wild, playful kids. I've been asked a few times how I get such successful, fun shots with lots of wiggly littles so I thought I'd share some of my tips and tricks for working with children.

But first, let me tell you a little about my background and education- that actually has nothing to do with photography- but has been extremely helpful in my work as a family and lifestyle photographer.

I have a Master's degree in art therapy counseling and, before my daughter was born, worked for years as a professional art therapist at a psychiatric hospital. There, I specialized in running groups, individual sessions, and family sessions with children and teenagers. These were kids who had extreme social, behavioral, and psychological challenges. Over the years, I made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of success, and learned a great deal about how to engage children, create a space where they can feel safe, and then have opportunities for meaningful, creative interactions.

As I started photographing families and children, I was surprised to find myself going into my "child therapist mode" many times during a session and that's when I'd get some of my greatest shots.

Now you definitely don't have to be a therapist in order to have a successful session with children. I'll share some of my tips and hopefully they can be helpful to you in your work either as a professional photographer or as a parent just trying to capture the wild spirit of your child on camera.


explain to the parents and kids that they don't have to say "cheese" and that you're just there to have fun with them One of the first things I do at a family session is explain briefly to the parents and kids that they don't have to worry about posing or holding still and that I'm just there to have fun with them and take a few pictures while we all play together.

Family photos can easily bring up a lot of stress for most parents. I find that their past experiences usually consist of struggling to wrangle their children and pose perfectly in front of the camera, all whilst forcing huge smiles and always being 5 seconds away from someone having a meltdown. That scenario, although common, is the last thing I want my family sessions to be. So I really try to help parents understand that the more playful the kids can be, the better. And, because children can easily pick up on and then respond to the emotions around them, the less stressed the parents can be, the better!

high shutter speed This is so key. If I'm trying to create an environment where kids are jumping on beds, running around, and leaping into dad's arms, I've got to make sure my camera's shutter speed is high enough to capture all that glorious movement and emotion without blurring. For the most part, I have my shutter speed set at 250 during family sessions and rarely do I change it. Even if everyone is more calm and still, I never know when someone's gonna make a sudden, unexpected, but awesome movement. And because those magic moments can happen so quickly, I like the peace of mind knowing that I don't have to worry about pausing to change my camera's settings, and attempt to recreate the magic, after that perfect moment has passed.

Speaking of which, if you do miss a great shot, don't stress! One of the great things about working with kids is that there are always plenty more opportunities to capture great shots in a single session. be confident and kind  Children respond best to adults who they can feel safe around. When I walk into a family's home, I'm usually meeting everyone for the first time. So I've got only an hour's photo session to get to know the kids and help them feel comfortable around me. When I'm confident and kind, I find that children will gradually warm up to me. And, it sounds silly, but the more they like me, the more they'll be willing to work with me.

So, right from the start, I don't hesitate to get down on their level, talk to them, and play with them. If they are super shy, I am sure to give them their space and let them open up to me at their own pace. Instead of this weird stranger adult coming in with a camera, I want the kids to see me as a nice and fun friend who is interested in them and wants to play with them. let the kids run the show The greatest thing about photographing children is how uninhibited, spontaneous, and creative they are. Never in a million years could I come up with the kind of "poses" that kids will just naturally do on their own. When kids feel free to be their goofy, fun selves, I'm able to just sit back and allow amazing shot after amazing shot to happen organically in front of my camera.

I try to keep my own direction and instruction to a minimum. When I do offer a specific direction or request for kids, instead of ordering them to do something, I disguise my direction as a suggestion for a specific kind of play.

For example, if I want to get a shot of a kid standing on top of a specific chair, instead of saying, "Ok. Now I need you to go stand on top of that chair right now, please." I enthusiastically announce, "Ok! Now who wants to be the first to stand up tall on that really big chair like Superman!?" Now, instead of wasting time and energy coaxing, bribing, and demanding the child obey (which almost always ends in tears), I've got more than one eager and willing participant in what they think is a fun new game I've created! if something isn't working, ditch it and move on to something else Even with so much fun and play, meltdowns are inevitable. And that's ok, just part of the process. If you're trying to get a specific shot that just isn't working and is causing frustration and tears, then simply ditch it and move on to something else. It's much better to sacrifice that one shot you wanted for the benefit of everyone's stress levels. You may not get that one shot you had in mind but, instead, you'll get 10 unplanned, and unexpected shots that were even better because you have happy children and parents to work with. Trust the process and know when to move forward.

For example, if a family group shot is just not working at all, I'll tell the kids to go jump on someone's bed in another room and then, stay with the mom and dad and get a few great couple photos while the kids are happily playing elsewhere. Later, when everyone's tears are wiped and spirits are high, I'll come back to the group shot. be silly and playful  Like I've mentioned earlier, if kids think they are playing a game with me, they are much more willing to cooperate.

One of the "games" I like to play is the "funny faces game." I play this by asking kids to "show me your monster face!" or "show me your biggest surprised face!" Sometimes I end up using their funny faces pictures in the final edit but those faces aren't actually what I'm wanting to get. Lots of times, when playing this game with me, I get some of my best, individual portrait shots of kids in between the funny faces. So while I'm saying, "hmmm...what other face could we do?" I'm snapping pictures because that's when I'm usually getting some great, genuinely happy (normal happy- not crazy, over exaggerated happy) expressions from the kids as they are concentrating and eagerly thinking about what wild face to do next. be calm, gentle, and quiet While it's great to be wild and playful, it's also important to have some time where things are slow, calm, and quiet. This is especially important for getting those perfectly tender shots of a mother and young daughter together.

This is when, in the middle of the fun, I'll stop, get down on my knees so I'm face-to-face with the little girl and, almost in a whisper, ask if she'd like to come do some very special pictures in her room (or wherever) with just her mom. (Side note: asking is usually much more effective than telling because it can help a child feel like they are in charge and making the decisions for themselves). Once in the room, I'll calmly close the door and again, remind the child that this is going to be a special time for just her/him and no one else.

Because I've created a more quiet, gentle environment, I can now also be much more slow and calculated in my shooting style. I can take the time to compose shots more and then also allow for the beautiful, authentic loving interaction between a mother and daughter that comes without instruction.

(You can definitely do this with boys as well. In my experience, I've just found that girls in particular respond best to this kind of interaction.) make the kids feel like they are doing something really special and important Another trick I use for getting a child to comply with a specific request is to ask them if they want to do a "very special, important secret mission" for me. The "secret mission" is whatever instruction I'd like them to comply with in order to get a certain shot. This one, especially with boys, almost always works like a charm.

Children also respond well if something is a competition. "Show me the absolute very biggest hug that you can give your mom!" is a great way for kids to happily give out big bear hugs on demand. give lots of positive reinforcement  I don't bring candy to hand out to kids for good behavior and rarely use bribes. Often, the parents have set up a reward for the child that they will get if they are "good and obey" during the session so I feel like that covers the bribe bases. Instead, I like to focus on telling the kids many, many times during the course of the session that they are doing a really great job. And I mean it when I say it- because even if a kid is being a total stinker, he/she is still trying his best in a new and different situation with a stranger.

Telling the kids how awesome they are doing also helps me gain a few points in the "being confident and kind" category which, in turn, can help kids feel more comfortable with me as a person. I'm on "their side" and want to be sure they know that.