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The Real Ways To Keep Children Engaged During A Family Photography Session

By Max Bridge on August 26th 2016

In family photography, if you lose the child, you’ve lost the session. Don’t panic, it can be recovered, children have the capability to bounce back pretty quick, but it’s tough. It’s hard for the parents if the children aren’t having fun. It’s hard for you to keep up your enthusiasm when shot after shot is ruined by a grumpy child, and worst of all, it’s hard for the children who are getting upset. Hopefully, these four family photography tips will help you to keep the kids engaged, the parents relaxed, and you looking like the amazing photographer you are.

Before I get going, let me address the title. Many family photography tutorials  would leave you believing that family photography is a breeze; that children listen to your every word, with a little bribery they’ll do anything, and all you have to do is “x” and it will be perfect. Well, I’m calling bull****. Kids are tough. Sometimes you’ll have that perfect session, but more often than not it’ll be a struggle. My aim throughout a session is to keep the mood good. Not laugh-out-loud, happy 100% of the time, but hopefully not curl up in a corner sobbing either. So long as the children remain engaged, you’re golden.

At the same time, don’t get disheartened if a child has a tantrum. Children are more complicated than some family photographers would have you believe, and as much as you may feel like the “child whisperer” you’re probably not. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at these real family photography tips.

This Tip Can Save A Dying Family Photography Session

Play games. I always chat to parents before a session and find out what each child likes and dislikes. If I feel attention levels are dwindling, it’s time to play a game or two. By all means photograph this game, but don’t feel like you have to. In fact, it’s great if you can get involved. Let the kids feel like you’re on their side, on their wavelength.

The photo above came just after a “game” session. The three older children of this family had just been having a race. I opted to stay out of that one as the sweaty photographer is never a good look. Afterwards, the children were re-invigorated and more engaged. The eldest girls asked if they could play more games and, as they were old enough, we chatted together and decided on pat-a-cake. I’d already set up a blanket in a lovely spot and hence this shot almost created itself. Other games I might play include; hide and seek, animal impressions, whispering to make someone laugh, staring contests, not laughing contests, tickle fights. Anything you can think of. All we want to do is keep them engaged, if we get a good shot while they play, great. More often though, it’s the moments after. Those few precious minutes proceeding play time when they’re up for anything.

I’d like to draw your attention to something. In the previous example, I mentioned how I spoke with the girls and we decided together. With older children, I’d say 5 and up, this technique is fantastic (I’ll cover it more later). It will not, however, work with younger children or with families where there are both young and old children. You’ve got to remember that every age group is vastly different.

Family Photography By The Children

This family portrait tip follows on neatly from above. The process of having your photo taken is fairly passive. Sure, you may be asked to move in a particular way but you’re not taking the photos and often not seeing them. With childrenaged 5 and up, I love getting them involved, and they love it too. I’ll let them take a photo or two (while I hold the camera of course). I explain what we’re doing from shot to shot, and what I want from this photo. I continually show them photos. Ask if they like it. Ask if there’s a photo they think would be cool. By involving them, they begin to take an active role in the process. They want to help you take amazing photos. When this works, it works very well.

[REWIND: IT SHOULD BE PHOTOGRAPHY 101 | HOW PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION CAN HINDER YOUR PROGRESSION]

There are some caveats. Obviously, if a child is handling your camera you have to have control at all times. I also advise you to get the shot ready so all they have to do is click the shutter. There’s nothing more disappointing for them if the photo turns out rubbish.

Be careful not to exclude younger children who are unable to join in. That’s a fast way to a tantrum, and it’s not a bad idea to involve the parents’ help, kids loving getting praise from their parents.

Location Is So Important For Family Photography

I used to offer studio sessions but I’m doing these less and less as I don’t find it to be a natural atmosphere for kids. They want to run around (not all, but most), or at the very least, they don’t want to be penned into a small area and unable to leave when they want. Have you ever tried to stop a two-year-old doing what they want? It doesn’t work.

When it comes to location, I like to have somewhere the kids can play. If they want to go for a walk, we can, if they want to run around, we can. Ideally, it’s a place with a few activities to provide a break (feeding ducks is good), has access to toilets, and has loads of open shade. The best locations provide flexibility. Keep that in mind whenever you’re out location scouting.

[REWIND: SHOULD YOU SPEND EXTRA TIME LOCATION SCOUTING?]

What Gear For Family Photography?

Most of what I have been saying thus far can be summarised like this “kids are completely unpredictable so you need to be flexible”. The same has to be applied to your gear. Now I know many of you will probably disagree with me here but what can I say? I’m right, and you’re wrong. Only joking.

I like to use zoom lenses which give me the ability to very quickly capture a variety of images. Especially when you’re dealing with young children (sub 4), the ability to rapidly capture a range of images is invaluable. Imagine (as regularly occurs), one of the children started in a bad mood and, even after 2 hours, is still grumpy. Suddenly, they’ve cheered up and you have 2 minutes before they go grump again. In those kinds of situations, my 70-200mm is worth its weight in gold. I use the Tamron 15-30mm f2.8, Tamron 24-70 f2.8, and Nikon 70-200mm f2.8.

Away from lenses, your camera has to be up to scratch with a decent focusing system. I use a Nikon D750 but any modern DSLR or mirrorless body will do.

Finally, you need to have some tools for modifying the light. I always carry a couple of 5-in-1 reflectors; one is used to flag light and the other to reflect it when necessary. In addition to that, I bring along some speed lights with HSS and a pop-up Octobox which I’ll sometimes use for fill.

You can find some great methods for using off camera flash in Lighting 101 and 201, which are available separately or as part of a Premium membership.

Summary

Family photography can be far more challenging than you’d expect. If you can keep the children engaged, then you’re 80% there. Remember that every child and age is different. Try to find out information from their parents before the session which will help you on the day.

[REWIND: PHOTOGRAPHY COURSES: 5 ESSENTIAL COURSES FOR EVERY BEGINNER]

One of the big reasons I used to get nervous before a family photography session was a lack of knowledge and ability. If you feel like you’re in the same position, then check out all the education in the SLR Lounge Store, the Premium membership is a fantastic option.

Featured top image by: Kishore Sawh

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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4 Comments

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    On letting the kid take the photo, what about using a wireless remote to let the kid take a selfie?

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Ralph, I suppose you could. I personally like them to actually get their hands on the camera. It’s more dangerous but far more exciting for them and really gets them involved.

      I like the idea of a selfie but I wouldn’t like photos where you could see a child holding the remote, you’d have to frame it out. Good idea though!

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  2. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Solid. And we especially love the black and white image on the steps. :)

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks! That was a really natural moment between the two of them and worked very well :)

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