Kids can be a joy to photograph. When they're small, they are so open and unfettered by self-consciousness and ideas about how they should look that they make it easy to capture an amazing range of genuine emotion on their little faces.
But then they turn two.
It's remarkable how early we become aware of the camera and begin to react when one is pointed in our direction... usually with less-than-genuine results. In my work as a photographer, though, I have to be able to get around that, so I've developed a bag of tricks that helps me capture those real, genuine smiles and laughs pretty much each and every time I pick up my camera... and I figured I'd share them with you!
But... there are a few ground rules.
First: Get down on their level. Most of these tricks involve interacting with kids, and that almost always works better when you're eye to eye (or even lower). Kids seem to feel more comfortable when they're not staring up at you, like it gives them the sense that you're playing, rather than trying to get something accomplished.
Second: Make them comfortable. If it's your child, make sure they're not hungry or tired, and are in a comfortable spot. If you're photographing someone else's child, make sure they feel secure... depending on how old they are, that might mean having their parents right there or just making sure they get used to you.
Third: Don't start cold. Even the world's funniest comedian has an opening act to get the crowd warmed up... if you want to get kids to smile and laugh and have a good time, start with a conversation or a game. Have the camera around your neck and maybe pick it up once or twice, but let them see your face and know that you are interested in them and what they have to say before you start clicking away.
Finally: Don't get fed up if something doesn't work! If you get frustrated, or try to force a particular thing to happen, it's pretty much guaranteed to fail. Just keep moving, keep trying new things, and above all else, keep having fun (or acting like you are, anyway)!
Okay... so we're sitting on the floor of this child's playroom happily chatting and playing games. Everything is going great, until the camera comes out. Suddenly it's either a total cheese-fest or you've got a kid who won't look you (or your camera) in the eye. What to do?
In the former scenario, snap a couple of throw-away cheesy shots so they know they're doing a good job, then start playing games:
1. It's always good to start off by remembering their names wrong... the sillier the name, the better:
"Oh Hildegard, what a beautiful smile you have!"
"My name's not Hildegard! It's Emily!"
"What?!? Noooo... get out of here! It's not Emily, it's Ethel, right?"
Etc., etc.2. Tell them to roar like a lion, make monkey noises, make a monster face, etc. When they do it, give them a hard time about it ("Oh come on... that didn't sound like a lion!"), then repeat until you've got them laughing.
3. Play the mirror game. Tell them you're going to make a face, then you want them to make the same face. Peek around your camera and bust out your most ridiculous face, then get behind the camera in time to catch their reaction. (Be sure to get both the imitated face and the ensuing laughter!)
Generally, if this particular child is already showing off with the big cheese smiles, getting them to laugh at these (admittedly ridiculous) antics is not hard, but sometimes you push them too far and they're bouncing off the walls. Now's the perfect time to let them run around: they burn off some energy while you step back and get some action shots.
There are those kids, though, are pretty slow to warm up. They might be shy around strangers, or, if you're their parent, it might just be the camera itself making them shy. In either case, the goal is to distract their attention from the camera and/or the photographer and get them smiling and laughing about something else altogether.
4. Ask questions. Start off with topics that are normal adult-child questions, then veer into the ridiculous:
"So, Mark, you're in kindergarten, huh?"
"How exciting! What's your teacher's name?"
"Oh, Ms. Brown! Is she friendly?"
"Is she funny?"
"Is she a watermelon?"
You might get a blank stare, but if you hold their gaze and look genuinely confused, most kids will ultimately give you a smile. If not, start again with a different topic, ask a couple of normal questions, then throw in an absurd one... once they "get" the joke and can anticipate the punchline, you'll get some giggles.
5. Get the parents involved (or a spouse or friend if you are the parent): tell them ahead of time to "sneak up" behind you and tickle you, give you bunny ears, imitate you, etc. If you get the kid laughing, you can then respond with mock-frustration ("Heeeey... don't make fun of me! Don't you laugh at me! Don't do it!"), which brings me to...
6. Reverse psychology. Don't start this until you've gotten some initial reaction, but if they giggle and then go back to being somber, you can usually get them going again with an overtly silly "Oh that's perfect... don't you smile. We want this to be a VERY SERIOUS picture. Excellent. No smiling allowed. Not even a little bit. No wait! Stop smiling! Aaaah - no! We need SERIOUS faces! STOP!"
Once kids know you're there to have fun, and you're not going to get mad if they don't cooperate or if they act crazy, you're their favorite person in the world and you can play games all day long (or until your session time is up):
7. Fart noises, classy as they are, go over big with little kids, and boys of just about any age. When things start to get a bit stale, make a big fart noise while you're hidden behind your camera, then pop out and look accusingly at the kids. "Did you do that? Ewwww!" (This will work on one child, but is even better with multiple children who can blame each other and feed off each others' giggles.)
8. Taking pictures in weird positions, i.e. bent over between your legs, facing the other direction and holding your camera over head, lying on the ground and having the kids come look down at your lens... not only might you get some cool perspectives, you'll also have the kids thinking you're crazy, and as far as kids are concerned, crazy is AWESOME.
9. They also like thinking they know more than you do. When you've got them quietly looking into the lens, get some of those beautiful stares, then compliment them on their beautiful orange eyes. What's that you say? Not orange? Oh wait, I mean pink... yellow? Purple? This is very similar to the wrong name trick, but they both work, as do many variations on the theme... if you know the Mr. Noodle character on Elmo's World, you know what I mean.
10. Get that one last, perfect shot with a bit of bribery:
"You did such a great job... let's go have some ICE CREAM!!!"
Smiles galore... guaranteed :D
I know it's tough getting the real smiles, especially at the precise moment you want them, when the kids are lined up in front of a beautiful flowerbed in the springtime, dressed in their Sunday best. My best advice is to not get too caught up in perfection... that's not what childhood is about, anyway. Let kids be kids and learn to react quickly with your camera and you'll have albums-full of amazing memories that will really reflect who your kids were rather than some Rockwell-ian version thereof. I tell my clients all the time: pictures of your children are not about the flowers behind them... they're about your children!
P.S. If you have a child who won't warm up and is either scared or tired, it might not be possible to get belly laughs... and that's okay! Redirect and go for those amazing, wondrous stares or just looks of quiet contentment. I get great staring shots from young children (usually 2-3 year-olds) by directing their attention to my lens and asking if they can see the butterfly inside (when the shutter is released, the flicker inside is the "butterfly").