3 Professional Tips for Photographing Kids & Families

Posted by: on Jun 02, 2013

3 Professional Tips for Photographing Kids & Families
Photo by Matty Photography.

Matt McDaniel has a decade of experience in commercial and portrait photography, with shooting and lighting styles that produce dramatic and powerful images. We came across his Superhero Photoshoot just in time for Father’s Day and were immediately drawn in by the concept and final images. They are sweet and clever but still well-produced and engaging. Matt’s obviously got a knack for photographing kids and families, so we asked him to share a few of his tips. Here’s what he had to say.

By: Matt McDaniel

Father’s Day is fast approaching and there isn’t a better time to capture images in appreciation of dad’s commitment to raising and loving those kiddos. As photographers, we have to consider a couple of things with a family photoshoot. There is a very good chance that it was mom’s idea to coordinate and have photos taken, which means she is really the sole participant enjoying the experience and desperately wants a fantastic photo to document this window of time with the growing family. This means kids, and quite often dads, would rather be sitting in the dentists’ chair than stuck posing for a camera. 

For those professional photographers who have had the chance to photograph families, you are probably already very aware of the challenges that lie ahead (and have learned the hard way). However, for those shooters out there who want to get into shooting family portraits, or heck, even all those parents out there who want to take pleasing photos of the family, here are a few tips to help you down the path of achieving the type of images you want.

Photo by Matty Photography.

Tip 1: Tap Into Family Interests
Going to the dentist sucks for many reasons, and one of them is we have zero interest in wanting to be there in the first place. This goes for photoshoots as well. Don’t give up and take the boring route by plopping everyone down on a park bench or in front of a brick wall and counting to “three.” This is probably the preconceived notion everyone has when they hear the words “family photo,” and why they are not too keen to the idea. 

Instead, get to know more about your client. Ask them what the family and/or kids like to do for fun. You’d be surprised at how fast this progresses a shoot idea along. It practically does all the hard thinking for you and the icing on the cake – there is a much greater chance you’ll now have engaged subjects and smiles on their faces. The attention span of a small child can go from 30 seconds to 30 minutes if you wrap the shoot around something that actually interests them.

Little boys love throwing things, so take him to the beach and let him toss rocks. You’ve now just bought yourself hours of smiling shoot time, literally. Parents, you should already be pros at this one with your insight into your family, so use it to your advantage.  No one enjoys “just sitting there,” so don’t expect magic to happen if that’s where your idea stops.

Photo by Matty Photography.

Tip 2: Setup Ahead of Time & Keep Things Moving
The majority of my shoots are highly conceptualized, integrating many lighting techniques. If yours are, too, lengthy setup times can deliver a knockout blow to the family who is sitting there with nothing to do. Do your homework if you are going to be shooting a location. Scout ahead of time, identify exactly where you are going to shoot, identify where the sun will be, and maybe sketch a few ideas, etc.

Get there before your client, figure out your ideal lighting, take your test shots, and be ready when your client shows up. Clients shouldn’t have to sit there while you take time to solve a mental Rubik’s Cube. Shoot quickly; don’t take 50 photos of the same exact look. Get a solid group of shots and keep moving. This will help with people not looking overly posed or stiff. Sure, they may have to wait 5 or 10 minutes when you move on to the next location/look, but you got off to a snappy start and have some momentum built up. Photo assistants are awesome for so many reasons, so having an extra hand there to help quicken the pace of those transitions is a bonus.

Photo by Matty Photography.

Tip 3: Keep The Kids Happy, Always
The mood of the kids will always be the golden ticket to success. Their mood will instantly make or break the shoot. I can give dad a pep talk and get a few bulletproof frames from him, but there are no safe bets with the kids. Even when you are shooting a super fun idea and the kids are into it, down time during the transitions can be a mood killer for the them (and sometimes a dad with a bad poker face).

Parents will do their best to manage the children, but kiddos know how to play them like a fiddle.  You, on the other hand, are a fresh face and by default are interesting and different. If you get off to a good start with the kids, the shoot will last longer and you will get better results when you ask them to do something for the camera. This means you bring toys, snacks, and other distractions so they get to have fun while waiting between setups. Become their best friend, as they’ll be yours if they do what you ask when the time comes.

Helpers are super valuable here as well. If you have a difficult child, dedicate yourself or a helper to playing with the kids a bit while the other tends to the next setup. It’s totally worth spreading out your resources and becoming slightly less efficient to keep moods high. Parents will also thank you because they didn’t have to bribe their child with everything under the sun just to get one smile out of them.

The success and duration of a family photoshoot is completely determined by how long you can keep the whole family happy and entertained. The quicker you can shoot and transition, and the more you can keep subjects engaged, the more shots you can get in before the first family member throws in the towel. Hopefully by the end of the shoot you’ll get some great photos and no one, including dad, will feel like they just got a tooth pulled.

Matt also teaches hands-on weekend workshops for both beginner and advanced photographers. He is based out of Tacoma, Wash., and is available for travel. Check out his website for more information.