I'm Dolly — a Nashville based branding photographer for small business owners & a systems + workflow educator (and Podcast Host) for creatives who want to be more streamlined and organized with Systems, Workflows & Dubsado. I'm here to help you look awesome (for your photos) & feel great about workflows!
People often ask me why I love photographing children and families because that is the area where I have grown most in my business. The answer is this: I think each family session is special and unique because of every child’s personality. I also love photographing families because I love hearing how each family bribes their kids. I know that sounds weird, but it brings a lot of laughter (in my head) to hear the funny lengths parents will go to get their kid to cooperate for one photo. (And it reminds me how I am most likely going to act when my own son gets old enough, and I wonder what I am going to use to bribe him). I don’t even mind the mini-meltdowns that much because it reminds me how much love and support every child needs, and I get to see how their parents love on them and walk them through a sad or angry moment.
There are many factors you must account for when working with children as a photographer. I am hoping this will help families best prepare for their sessions when working with me OR this could even serve as a resource for other family photographers who work with younger audiences (aka children). My top five tips of working with children and families in photography are listed below.
Before your photography session, be sure to have the parents talk to their children about who is going to be photographing them and what day it will be. Have parents remind them in the days leading up to your session about the new person they will be meeting so that it’s not a total surprise. (You’d be surprised how many parents do not even mention to their kids they are going to have photos, and then the parents act surprised when the child acts out). One positive way they can prepare a child is by talking about what you will do at the photography session and what clothes they are going to wear. They can even practice posing with the children. Hopefully, they will get excited about meeting a new friend (the photographer). Who knows, by the time your session comes the kids may be helping the photographer with ideas for some poses!
A rule of thumb I use is to always ask permission before I touch or move a photo subject. (That process sometimes involves me getting in everyone’s personal space). Don’t just assume you can move people around for the perfect shot. You don’t know how people will react if you walk up to them and begin repositioning their legs, arms, or hands. Some people don’t mind, but it’s always better to be courteous. Simply ask. It’s respectful, and it’s very easy. You will be pleasantly surprised when you do this with children who are old enough to interact with you. If you ask them if they are okay with you moving them around, they feel important. As a side note, this did not come up because of the #metoo movement. I have always used this rule in my photography business. It shows both adults and kids respect, and it shows parents that I am not there to yank their kids around.
I especially want to be as gentle as possible when posing kids. You are working with people’s most prized possessions (their children), and if you show respect to kids, parents will greatly appreciate it. If the child is too small to understand posing directions, ask either mom or dad if it’s okay if you can move their child around. Remember, just because you are there to take family photos, that does not give you a right to invade their personal space.
Meltdowns can happen for any number of reasons. Often it’s because of a skipped nap, so I recommend telling the parents to schedule photos around their kids’ nap times whenever possible. Sometimes kids are “hangry,” so I always advise the parents to bring snacks and water along. There is nothing wrong with a little snack break during a photography session. Tell the parents not to sweat it if the child gets crumbs on their neatly-pressed outfits they spent hours perfecting. It’s really okay! This is just the stage the child is in, and they don’t need to look flawless. Many times the overstimulation of meeting a stranger can throw kids for a loop. Setting expectations can help, but it’s no guarantee of how children will react when the day comes!
Let the parents know that you understand that kids are unpredictable, and it’s all part of the fun. Just because a child has a meltdown, it doesn’t mean they are bad parents. It’s okay if there are some tears. If the children are old enough to understand, some well-timed “bribes” can make all the difference. I’ve seen kids light up at the promise of a muffin from their favorite coffee shop and even Taco Bell burritos! As long as the parents make good on their promises, I fully support talking about some family fun after the session as a reward.
Put simply, do not discipline another person’s child during a photo session. Remember, you are the photographer, not the parent. I have seen it all, and even though I am a parent myself, it’s not my job to parent another child. It is my job to love everyone who I encounter at my sessions, and it is my job to be as gentle and patient as possible with everyone involved with the session. Let the parent do the parenting. The only exception would be if you witness abuse. In that case, call the proper authorities. (Thank God, I have never experienced this). I have seen so many children act out, and I always allow the parent to intervene because they know what is best for that specific child.
Still, I have gently reminded children to “use gentle hands” or “use kind words” if they are hitting or being unkind to a parent or another sibling, but I always do so with a smile and quietly so they understand I’m not angry at them. Some kids will be aggressive and will not listen to the entire session, and that is okay; it is not your job as the photographer to wrangle them and make them listen. You may experience entire sessions where a certain child is not listening because they are having a bad day, they are fighting with another sibling, or they are normally just grouchy (everyone has an Oscar the Grouch in the family)! After working with families for over eight years, I have learned that not all sessions will go as planned, and that’s okay. You can always reschedule, or you can go with the flow and see how things turn out
The biggest piece of advice I want to give to other photographers is this: respect other people’s kids and speak gently to them. Do not be harsh with them, do not raise your voice, and please treat them with kindness. Family photography is not for everyone because of how unpredictable children are, but I love working with children no matter what type of temperament they have. At the end of the day, they are children, and they need so much love, nurturing, and care in their lives so that they can grow to become confident.
I always allow some time for children to play during their session. (Be sure the parents pack their favorite toy.) Children often need a mental break from “acting serious” for photos. It’s okay to take a 5-10 minute play break. I actually encourage play, and I’ll even take photos of this time because it allows the child to feel a little at ease around me.
It also helps if the family brings an extra member to watch the kids. A trusted grandparent, friend, or relative can be a big help. If there is more than one child, this gives them time to spend with that loved one. In case a child has a meltdown and needs to take a break, have the trusted friend or relative play with that child while you and the rest of the family break off for individual portraits.
It always helps if you, the photographer, are willing to be a little silly. This is pretty obvious, but children are not adults. They sometimes don’t understand sarcasm or humor, and most children take things quite literally. If you joke around with children at a session, make sure the humor is clean, respectful, and not putting anyone down. Children learn from your behavior, so be sure to set a good example, even when joking around. Asking playful questions like, “What is your favorite Song? Can you sing it to me?” can go a long way in getting kids to feel at ease and open up. Remember to face them and get down on their level so they feel important, too!
If you are working with children and are thinking about working in the field of family photography, I have created a PDF for you to use as a checklist for all of your family sessions. Use it as a guide, and send it to the families you will be working with so that they are prepared for their session with you! I hope it helps! You can download it for free HERE: 9 Tips to Ensure you Have the BEST Family Session.
As always, thanks for reading and following along on my photography journey!
(aka Dolly DeLong Photography LLC)
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Great tips and advice, my friend! We’ve had wonderful experiences with you and look forward to having you capture our family moments again, very soon.