November 14, 2012

How To Take Better Child Portraits

‘Never work with children’ goes the old hackneyed adage! And of course like any cliché there is always a ‘nugget’ of truth in it- it can be notoriously difficult to get kids to do what you want them to do in front of the camera, which can be very frustrating. The thing is though, some of the very best and most touching portrait photography you see is about children or childhood. Why is this? My theory is this- whilst with adults it’s very difficult to break down their outward ‘guard’ or façade, with children what you see is what you get. They don’t put up any guard, and they live very much in the moment. There is a purity to child portraiture that doesn’t often exist in other forms of photography.

It’s for these reasons that we love taking portraits of children. In this short post I want to share with you some of the things we have learned over the years that have enabled us to really capture the spirit of our (young) subjects:

1. Be patient!


When you start a portrait session with children it can be very tempting to just start taking pictures straight away. The problem with this approach is that, unless you already know the child, they may feel really uncomfortable and ‘freeze’ in front of the camera. It our experience it’s far better to keep your camera away, for at least 30 minutes or so. Start off by chatting to the child’s parents, and once the child is used to your presence, then talk to them- if you can make them laugh, then even better! It’s really important that both the child AND their parents feel comfortable around you before you start taking pictures.

2. Telephoto Zooms are your friend


If, like us, you shoot outdoor lifestyle shoots rather than studio based shoots, then one of the most effective ways of getting natural shots is to use a ‘long lens’. For lifestyle shoots about 80% of our shots are taken with a 70-200mm lens. Not only does this mean that you can ‘stand back’ a bit more and be less invasive, the longer focal length allows you to use selective focus (shallow depth of field) to really isolate the subject.

3. Set up fun games

One of the best ways to get really natural shots of children, especially when you are photographing more than one, is to get them to play a game together. It could be something as simple as ‘tag’. Once the children are involved in playing the game they almost always forget your presence, and this allows you to get some really wonderful natural shots. This is yet another reason why it pays to use a long lens!

4. Anticipate the moment

One of the skills that you learn over time when working as a portrait photographer is the art of anticipation. There’s nothing specific I can tell you about this, other than just keep your eyes open and ‘practise’. Over time you get much better at anticipating those golden moments- more often than not, it’s a ‘reaction’ rather than an ‘action’ that you are looking for.

I guarantee if you apply these principles your portrait work will improve exponentially. You see, whilst I think it helps to have a good ‘eye’, I do think talent is overrated. It’s far more important to put your heart and soul into what you do, and to practice, practice, practice. Before you know it you’ll be producing children's portraits to rival the very best professionals!

Matt Foden

About the Guest Author:
Matt, along with his wife Brenda, run a wedding and portrait photography business called
Foden Photography. Their style combines fine art portraiture with documentary style photography.