You are a parent and a photographer. You spend hours scrolling social media posts of happy, hugging siblings, angelic portraits of little girl cherubs picking flowers, and a window-lit farmhouse baking scene depicting the happy face of a child with the most darling amount of frosting on his face, and you wonder what you’re doing wrong. While social media paints parenthood as a magical experience straight out of heaven, you’re sitting in a living room that more closely resembles a war zone.
But this is reality. While children are often the most convenient models to shoot, they can also be the most difficult. You’ve mastered getting other people’s children engaged in a family photoshoot, so why is it so hard to get the same out of your own children?
With a group of over 30,000 photographers, many of which are parents, we asked our online Mastin Labs community to offer suggestions for photographing your own children. Our willing parents had a lot of time-tested great advice.
By Kirk Mastin
SET THE STAGE
Don’t use your children as lab rats, treat them like professionals by including them in the decision-making process. Of course, grab a sneaky photo whenever you can, but if you’re planning a photo shoot, don’t assume your child is game. If they don’t want to be photographed, don’t make them, but do feel free to use the clever powers of persuasion (that only parents have) to your advantage. Need some help? Here are a few tips.
If you want to take a formal or themed photo shoot, prepare your kids ahead of time for it by telling them what to expect and following through. Don’t lie to them by falling into the “one-more-shot” cycle, it breaks their trust and it will backfire on you. Your kids will start to dread your photo shoots before they even start. Instead, set a timer and uphold your promise. When the timer goes off, ask them if they’d like to continue, and either way, show them gratitude and congratulate them for a job well done.
Get your children invested in the photo shoot by giving them some control. Ask your children to help you come up with ideas for photo shoot locations and activities. Tell them they can pick out their very own outfit, or ask them if there’s a photo shoot they would like to star in. Do they have a superhero costume they want photos in to show their friends at school? Do they like to give themselves goofy hairstyles or pretend to be a puppy? When you give a child ownership of the photo shoot, you’ll find that they’re more invested.
Natalie Balen-Cinelli believes in letting your child’s personality shine by letting go of control. She insists, “don’t try to control it. Let them be, let them wear what they want to wear. Let them be their wacky little selves. I mean, if you like authentic images full of real smiles”.
Make the event special and integrate activities and props that your kids love to elicit genuine enjoyment. Create a surprise scene like a picnic, teepee, finger painting, a street full of puddles, or a table with their favorite food, and be prepared to capture their expressions right away.
By Mel DeFazio
LEAN INTO THE CHAOS
Some children will just never go for styled shoots, so lean into it, respect it, and take advantage of your unique kind of family chaos. When in doubt, do what our community member, Kelly Morin, does. “I never force my kids and I photograph them being them and they are literally always game.” Mastin member, Nadia W Stankova adds, “be quick, be invisible, be there, and let them do their own thing, it always works!”
Let your kids be themselves. Don’t try to get a perfect (or specific) shot; it will make you go crazy. Mary Renwick admits, “I do not attempt to recreate anything from Pinterest.” Photograph your kids as they are with their unique personalities, style, and temperament. If all you get in the moment is a bunch of photos of your children crying, let it go and laugh it off as true-to-life memory.
Some community members, like Jean-Louis Kong, embrace the chaos and even try to include it in their shot. In her words, “I shoot with a 35 mm f1.4 to include the environment he’s in. The purpose is to capture a memory with enough context to tell the story. I always shoot at his eye level to capture his perspective.”
Kristina Nalette shares her thoughts on perfection, “don’t attempt perfection – imperfect shots have become the absolute favorites over the years! There’s always a baby poking someone, a kid crying, someone tipping over, dirty faces. The goofy ones will be the favorites.” Jamie LP agrees, “I have long given up on trying to get cooperation. My daughter is a bit of a free spirit. I just capture her candidly, doing her thing. Being herself.”
POSING PROMPTS FOR CHILDREN FOR REAL MOMENTS
A great way to get fun, unique images without controlling your subjects (who are we kidding, they can’t be controlled!) is to use well-executed prompts to elicit real expressions. Don’t ask them to pose or say cheese, these posed images almost always end up looking stiff and forced. Try to draw their attention away from the camera and capture candid, genuine laughter by being goofy and giving them activities to engage them.
Sing silly songs, put on their favorite music that they crazy dance to, ask them to tell you a story or tell you about their favorite movie, tell your children to play together or with your family pet.
Mastin Labs user, Nola Fontanez shares her secret, “I fake sneeze and ask if I have boogies in my nose[…] I tell the most off the wall stories to get certain reactions out of them”. Kelli M VW offers a strategy for getting her children to look at the camera, “I have a few tricks”, she admits, “singing helps. […] I’ve [also] put something silly on my head before.” Mariah Carmichael swears by her method, suggested by another community member. She pays it forward, “[I say] “whatever you do, don’t smile!” and it has worked like a charm on my 4-year-old.”
Anastasia Grady and Morgan Ah Leong speak to the power of good, old-fashioned, potty humor. Anastasia admits,“My little guy falls for the “pffffffft” and laughs, and my daughter can’t help but crack up over words like “fart” and “poop”. Morgan echoes her, saying, “Make fart jokes, talk about my stinky feet, anything for a reaction. Just unleash the goofy!” Desperate times call for. . . poop jokes.
By Kirk Mastin
Taking photos of your children can feel like a battle of wills, but every once in a while, we’re convinced, that even the most stubborn kid can take a great photo if the timing and conditions are right. Parenthood is not a perfect science, and there’s no reason to try to make it look that way.
Dare I say, and all of our parent photographers agree: Perfection is overrated.
Set expectations, work with your children’s unique personalities, and, most importantly, lean into the chaos. The imperfect moments are the ones that will really mean something and tell a story in the future.