Snapping images of children is one of the most rewarding and incredible experiences a photographer can have. With kids, photos are honest and real; within them, they have the ability to tell a story in a way that other images can’t.
When it comes to photographing kids with special needs, photographers and families are often worried that children will become frustrated, restless, or upset.
However — from getting comfortable, to asking questions, to defining your own version of perfect — there are some simple tips you can take into account before your photoshoot that will ensure great photos (and even better memories).
1. First Things First: Explain
As humans, we tend to do better in new situations when we understand what’s going on beforehand. Having photos taken of ourselves, as is, can be a somewhat daunting or intimidating task. This is especially true for sensitive children who might need to warm up to the camera first. So — explain to the child what you’ll be doing and allow them to feel comfortable before you attempt the intimate interaction of photo-taking. Ask them if they have anything that comes to mind when they think of photographs or cameras; perhaps they’ve seen an image of their favorite ice skater or basketball player. Maybe their grandfather had an old camera they used to admire. Getting the dialogue going first before jumping into action will make for a more comforting and enjoyable photoshoot.
2. Get Comfortable
In photography, getting comfortable has everything to do with getting great shots. Consider the location of the photoshoot first. Where is the child comfortable? Do they enjoy being outside amongst the trees and birds? Or would they rather be indoors, surrounded by their favorite toys and stuffed animals? Maybe a family portrait would be best, where they can be surrounded by people they know, love, and trust. Making sure kids are comfortable first before diving into a photoshoot is incredibly important — for both you, as the photographer, and the children, as the subjects.
3. Be Prepared to Move
Kids are on the go — always. So when you’re snapping photos of them, you need to make sure you come prepared to move with them. Put on shoes and clothing you’re comfortable in — maybe you’ll be running, or hopscotching, or playing a spontaneous game of soccer. If you let the children guide you through their world, you’ll be more likely to get candid, emotion-filled images. Similarly, be prepared to take tons of photos. If you’re on the move, you might end up with a lot of blurry shots. Some images can be fixed with the help of photo enhancer. Some will be completely blurred. That’s okay! Keep snapping away. (Just be sure to have an extra memory card on hand.)
4. Ask Questions
To make the situation run smoothly, don’t be afraid to ask children what they want and do not want. Do they want to sit? Or run? What do they want to wear? How do they want to feel in the photos? Maybe they want to feel beautiful — twirling like a ballerina. Perhaps they want to feel strong and powerful, in a cape like their favorite superhero. Making kids feel empowered about the photoshoot, and having them play a prominent role in the decision-making process, grants them the artistic freedom to envision the shoot in a way that is uniquely their own. Plus, it comes as no surprise, that children have within them some of the most incredible and imaginative ideas possible. Let their creativity take flight, and see where it leads you.
5. Don’t Force Emotions
When it comes to photographing children, particularly children with special and unique needs, it’s important to not force the emotions. Don’t tell them to smile or look directly at the camera. Don’t insist they move their hand three inches to the left or lift their chin higher. In photography, emotions come across best when they are truly and entirely felt. Maybe the child is having a bad day and just wants to cuddle with his stuffed bear or his puppy — that’s fine, too! Capture them in their element. And remember, they are beautiful just as they are — happy, sad, and every single emotion in between.
6. Don’t Try to Define “Perfect”
In all situations in life, we are happier and better people when we accept that the definition of “perfect” varies from place to place and moment to moment. I happen to believe, for instance, that there can be absolutely no better photo of my nieces and nephews than when they get into my sister’s lipstick and come out with it in a myriad of colors all over their faces. Is this “perfect” by definition? Perhaps not — their hair is a mess, their clothes are dirty, they have makeup all over their face. But to me, that’s perfect. Perfect shots come in all shapes, sizes and situations. And when dealing with kids, especially, this is an important idea to keep in mind. After all, some photo imperfections can be fixed in post-processing with the help of photo editing software.
7. Be Patient
Patience. Patience. Patience. Even when you’re taking a photo of the most poised and professional model, you must have patience! And when it comes to kids, they’re moving, often filled with roller coasters of emotions and moods, and they’re busy (very busy). Getting the images you want often requires a great deal of patience. Sit still for a moment. Observe the kids in their surroundings. Then, decide what types of photos you’d like to capture. Maybe you spend the afternoon sitting at the kitchen table while the kids draw and paint — and then, out of nowhere, they look up, smile, and there it is. Your patience has rewarded you a beautiful, natural, moment — and your end result will portray that.
8. Stay Away from Invasive Lighting
It’s tough to find an individual (adult or child) who enjoys bright, invasive lighting that makes them squint and hurts their eyes. For children, consider soft and warm lighting. If you have the option, avoid the strict studio setting and shoot during daylight hours. If you aren’t outdoors, open the house up and let the softness of natural light stream in through the windows and doors.
9. Get in the Picture!
Kids like seeing how cameras work and they often find it comical to see the photographer in front of the camera (as opposed to behind it). So, don’t be shy! Set your camera up on a tripod, put the self-timer on, and get in the photo. Make it fun, relaxed, and enjoyable. Chances are, you’ll have a good laugh and wind up with some amazing photos.
10. Take Breaks
Recognize when a child needs a break — maybe they’re becoming anxious or moving around a lot. If their attention is going towards other things and, most importantly, they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves, then it’s definitely time for a break. Planning for breaks throughout the session before you begin tends to be a great way to go. Pause to step outside and smell the fresh air. Sit on the porch and have a snack. Chat about something besides photography.
11. Be Positive
Above all, be positive when working with children. A positive attitude is the single most important quality for anyone who works with children who have special needs. There’s no space (and no need) for negative actions, words, or emotions.
Whether you’re setting up a photoshoot for your own child or for strangers, we hope these tips have given you inspiration to get out there, get shooting, and most importantly — to have fun!