How to photograph reluctant children

Have you ever tried to photograph a child who does NOT want to be photographed? If yes, then you’ll totally relate to how difficult it can be!

Reluctant children are a common dilemma for both amateur and professional photographers alike. And reluctance can come in many forms. Whether it’s an artificial ‘school smile’ or just a plain and simple strop, kids can be sometimes be terrors when it comes to getting them to co-operate for a photograph.

As a professional baby, child and family photographer, I’ve photographed literally thousands of children of all ages, from newborns just days old to temperamental teenagers. I’ve seen tantrums, strops, tears and an all manner of avoidance tactics! Photographing reluctant children is one of the biggest challenges I face, each and every day.

So I’m going to reveal a few techniques that I use regularly, that hopefully you may find useful. Ultimately they are distraction techniques, and as every parent knows distraction is a great antidote to resistant behaviour!

Keep the pressure off

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

Kids don’t respond well to pressure, especially when it comes to having their photo taken, they’ll sense it a mile off. When commanded to do something under duress such as “look this way” or “smile”, they’ll probably do the opposite! So, the key thing is, try not to make it too intense. For example, if you have limited time, try not to let the child realise this. Keep calm, relax and go with the flow.

Toddlers are notoriously resistant to having their photo taken. So if you’re dealing with the under 3’s, try and make them feel like they are calling the shots. Any attempt to lure them into a certain position, to sit on a particular chair or to look at the camera could fail and lead to a spectacular meltdown!

Keeping the pressure off will increase the likelihood of getting a great, natural shot.

Plan & be prepared to wait

Children like to move around. So let them. Plan your photo in advance, be camera ready and ensure the backdrop and lighting are just so. Then wait….

By being prepared to wait you are signalling to the child that they are free to do as they wish. There is nothing forced about the photo then and you’re more likely to capture them looking natural and happy.  As the saying goes, good things comes to those that wait!

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

Encourage the child to explore

Let the child explore their environment before you start taking photos. Whether I’m photographing on location or in my studio, the setting is usually new to the child. So I always let them get comfortable with their surroundings first.

Outdoors, at a woodland location for example, I stack the odds in my favour by planning and setting up the shot. With an older child I let them run around, jump in puddles, play in the leaves… whatever it takes to make them relax.Then when they eventually come into the frame, in the way I intend, I’ll use a fast shutter speed to capture multiple frames in a matter of seconds.

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

If I am photographing a baby who isn’t yet walking, I may set up something like a teddy bear’s picnic scene.  Or in the studio I may lay out a chair or a rocking horse, something they can climb on, or perhaps a toy car, a teddy, something they can play with.

Distract them by encouraging them to explore their environment and play with props or things in their surroundings. Then capture them in their natural state of play.

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

Make it fun

Children of all ages respond well if you endeavour to make them laugh or give them an enjoyable activity to do. The age of the child will dictate what activity they will consider to be fun of course, but creating a funny situation will help relax the child and bring out those natural smiles.

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

Act like a fool! Pull a funny face, make a noise, turn it into a game – all of these simple tricks will encourage a smile. You don’t have to be the only silly one either, encourage them to jump up and down or roll around on the floor. If you’re outdoors, use what you have to hand. Encourage them to role play.

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

If they are teenagers, interact with them. Ask them questions or get them to visualise something, when they are doing this their expression will likely relax and you’ll be able to capture the shot you are after.

Use moving props

To encourage reluctant toddlers to make eye contact with the camera, I roll a ball towards them and then get them to roll it back to me.

In the photography studio it’s a technique that I use a lot and even the most reluctant little ones usually respond well. When the ball is sent in the child’s direction they’ll usually take the bait by fixing their gaze on it. Then I ask for the ball back and when I pick it up and raise it up next to my camera, I catch them looking directly at me. Bingo!

Image source: KW Photography
Image source: KW Photography

Another trick I use is to hold the ball near the camera and pretend to throw it at them. This usually gets them to smile or laugh!

Good luck and do let me know if these or any other tactics work for you in the comments section below!


Karen Wiltshire

Karen Wiltshire is a multi-award winning photographer. She specialises in maternity, newborn and baby, children and family portrait photography. She is also a professional newborn photography trainer. She was the very first certified 'Craftsman' in the genre of Studio Children's Portraiture and the Guild of Photographers' 'Photographer of the Year 2013'. She works from her photography studo in Poole, Dorset as well as on-location. She is mother to two children, Tom, 12, and Lizzie, 9. Find out more about Karen and her work here, or check out her Facebook page.

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