How to make a really good photo of a kid, overcoming the obstacles we may not have foreseen.
1 Deft as we may be at taking pictures of landscapes, townscapes, and any other inanimate objects, there is a type of nature that provides considerable challenge unless we really have the knack for working with it. This is, as you may have guessed, people, with the peculiarities of their unique traits, their inner world in need of revealing, and especially the trickiest of them all: children. What does it take to make a good photo of a kid, if by a good one we mean a photo that will capture his or her true nature, at the same time remaining a fact of art? Of course, all the rules that apply to photographing grownups apply here too, but there are particular snags not to be overlooked. This subtle property of understanding kids, which will solely enable us to establish a contact with them, isn’t, arguably, anything to be learned, but rather a matter of your own personality, life experience and emotional constitution. But what if you do have this love and empathy, and the photos come out lifeless and stiff anyway? What if you put a lot of effort into setting your photo in the most enticing way imaginable, if you seem to have managed to capture just the very expression on the kid’s face that you aimed for… and then the kid’s parents – who are, after all, the ultimate experts, - shrug and tell you, “Well, this is hardly our child”? OK, then. However much all this is a matter of your personal approach – both to photography and to kids – there are some clues as to how to succeed in this rather intricate field.
No Stranger in a Strange LandIf you want a kid to be him/herself, to reveal the essence that makes them what they are, you must eliminate all factors that make them withdraw or (probably to an even worse effect) show off. Which involves eliminating two main Unknowns: you as a Stranger, and the location as a Strange Land. The latter is in theory easy to achieve, but sometimes not as easy in terms of organization: kids should be photographed in their own territory, or an environment they will (after some effort from your part) perceive as theirs. It may be their home, their backyard, a playground or a garden where they often go, anything that is already theirs. It may very well happen, though, that such locations are unavailable or unsuitable for any number or reasons (to name just one, the idea that you had in mind while preliminary observing the child and imagining the best setting for him/her). In this case, the task grows harder: you have to familiarize the kid with the environment. This process of adoption might take a few sessions, during which you will observe, talk or play with your future model. Thus you’ll achieve a goal of paramount importance: you’ll cease being a stranger to the kid. Some people have the happy ability to make friends with a kid immediately, or almost. For some, it might take longer, but the result will be definitely worth the time and the effort. A kid, happily, readily and naturally posing to a friend photographer on a friendly location will come out totally different from a kid posing to a stranger in a strange land.
Your Natural Allies…And then you realize that in spite of all your effort, the kid remains tense and plays it false. His/her smile is strained, s/he is wary or listless, keeps looking somewhere other than directed and doesn’t seem to listen to what you say. That’s because, busy with making friends with the kid, you’ve overlooked the parents. No more stranger to the kid, you may still be one to them. There’s nothing wrong about parents being overprotective, especially when the kid is very young, and the parents’ alarm, their worries concerning their child being controlled by someone other than themselves or the people they’ve got long used to trusting, reflects on the kid’s behavior immediately. To avoid this kind of barrier, try to make friends with the kid’s parents too, and let them into the secrets of your trade as soon as possible; prior to the session, show them your studio, your photos, especially those of other kids, tell them funny or moving stories about previous sessions. Once I relaxed a very tense mother by telling her about a little lady of four who spotted my cat (the session took place at my home studio) and flatly refused to do anything except playing with him. The cat, then, was solemnly asked to state his position. I put my ear close to his mouth to hear the reply and related it to the little girl: he agreed to play only after the session was completed. During the photoshoot, we got the cat to reappear a few times, reassuring the girl that his plans hadn’t changed. On hearing the story, the heretofore nervous mother laughed heartily, and there was no more strain between us. The parents are your natural allies, and the more they know you, the more they understand what is about to happen, the more they trust you, - the more relaxed they will be, and this attitude of natural trust will without fail get across to the kid.