My Thoughts on Children's Portraiture

I have been photographing children for well over 20 years and have learned a few things along the way.

Most adults will readily admit to being nervous in front of a camera. What most adults will not do, however, is realize that this may also apply to their children and what inevitably happens is that we get into a studio together and well meaning, tho they may be, the parents will have both the kid and myself screaming (one of us internally, one externally) within ten minutes.

Here is an altogether too typical situation:

Jane comes in with her two boys, ages 3 and 9, ready for some photos. The boys have been seriously groomed, the 3 year old could care less, the 9 year old doesn't feel cool and is feeling very uncomfortable and not so keen on any of this. Intent to make a good impression on me with how well behaved her children are, Jane has adopted her firm voice and its all too obvious that she has explained to the boys that this is what IS going to happen and that they WILL behave.

We walk in and she takes a minute to introduce me and herds the boys right into the shooting area, regardless of where I think we should be going. The boys sit - they are nervous, but they are going to sit.

Then Jane becomes what I call, The Director. And here comes the infamous stream of misinformation that is making me cringe. "Jimmy! Smile at the camera!" - Jimmy, obviously having been forced into this situation at numerous family gatherings, plasters on his typical nine year old forced grin. "No! Jimmy! Your REAL smile!" -

Now this last one flabbergasts me every time. How come no one seems to realize that a "natural" smile is an extension of an emotion - like happiness, or humour - how in the world can the kid smile naturally at this point? Then the baby gets rigged up and wants to wander around. Mom is apparently occupied with big brother, so lets cruise. Mom inevitably runs in and repositions. Baby hits the skids and cuts loose. Mom looses it immediately, worried terribly how all this will look to me, opts in with threats, bribes, panics and apologies.

OK, how all this looks to me is entirely too typical. So this is what I need all parents - and actually extend that to any adult that will be attending the session is to read this:

First off, don't worry about me. I raised two boys who were closer to wild animals than children at times, so I do get this. I do not get frazzled by fussy babies, restless boys, or bothered if it takes a little time to get them comfortable. I like kids a great deal and I get kids. So you aren't looking bad, nor are your children. I'm fine. I schedule enough time for breaks, I can shoot them anywhere, so moving around isn't an issue, nothing, really, is an issue except over-directing. Remember, if you could get the results you wanted, I wouldn't be shooting this for you, so trust me, OK? I like kids. They can climb on me, step on me, see my camera, play with my toys, climb on my furniture - make forts under my desk if they need to, all works for me.

What we need to do is have a "hands off" approach with them, at least in the beginning. Children get nervous - they are being subjected to my camera and asked to make some sort of emotional connection to me, a virtual stranger. We need them to trust me in order to share their little spirits and humor with me and we need to let them get there in their own personal way. You wouldn't normally want them to trust and warm up to a stranger and you've ingrained a certain amount of caution in them, don't ask them to drop that so easily.

So my approach is to just be causal, hang out a bit, let them feel their way around me and the environment we are in and as they get involved in it, they will come around. And let them be kids - take the photo above - every little boy is going to want to go here and well he should - this is him playing with me, playing with the session and having fun. Maybe you won't want an 8x10 of that moment, but he will have had fun with that moment and the result will be many other images of that natural smile, borne of a good time, had by all, and the final product will be your child's laughter, shared with me on one day when they were allowed to make the decision to do so.

Family portraiture, for me, is beyond a nicely posed grouping with a beautiful back-drop. Although these are shots that will be treasured and we do accomplish that, as an artist I feel very drawn to the family dynamic and want to express the laughter, interaction, emotion and a bit of the reality of where you are in life. Like I said, I am a mother, and I too, possess nicely posed family photos. But the ones that I treasure, that are in frames in my house, are the moments like the one above - that remind me of the personality, of that fleeting moment in time, of that wild child that was once a baby and is now a man.... the baby's hand on my cheek.... the crazed laughter between sisters, the wrestling match that occurred when they thought I wasn't watching..... the little kisses....the joy over a toy....the untied shoelaces, the dirty shirt, the wild hair.... all of this is precious. And I hope to bring both to the table for you, if you will let me.

Sharon

 

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