Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera, and you can come along if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.
If you haven’t read part 1 of this article, please read it first by clicking here.
After hearing so many frustrations from parents trying to get a decent photo of their kids and families with special needs, I decided to do a little research on how to be a better photographer in this regard. I didn’t find much on the subject online, at least not anything very comprehensive. So, I started digging around and reached out to a few photographers who have worked with kids with special needs for a number of years. I’m so excited to be able to share their specific advice, tips, and tricks on how to photograph kids with special needs.
Tanya: Hi Jamie. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. What concerns do families of kids with special needs usually have and how do you address them?
Jamie: “Parents are often worried that the photographer will not understand or be respectful to their child. Some might even fear that the photographer won’t like them. They may be worried that their child may act out or have a meltdown during the session.”
Tanya: What challenges have you run into when photographing kids with special needs and how did you work through them to create beautiful images and a nice experience for the families?
Jamie: “Photographing children with special needs in many ways is just the same as photographing any other child. Find out their interests so you can use that topic, toys, character, movie, music, etc. to ask questions, and have something to talk to them about to gain trust.”
“The more information you can get from the parents ahead of the session the better. Often just having an open conversation will naturally bring out information that might be helpful. I usually never have to ask these questions directly. I just talk to the parents, finding out likes and dislikes and usually the answers to my questions are naturally addressed.”
Some questions that are good to ask:
- Are there any sensory needs? Some children seek out sensory. In that case, a sibling hugging them, a heavy blanket, or even a small squishy item for them to hold and squeeze might be helpful.
- Does the child have seizures? If so, you might want to use natural or continuous light as flash can sometimes trigger seizures
- What might upset the child? Are there any triggers that might upset the child such as bright lights, loud noises, etc.
- Are there any health or posing concerns? For some children with special healthcare needs, they may need to stay in certain positions for airway or breathing; for others, sitting may be difficult so breathing might be better if they are laying down or supported at an incline.
- How long do they think the child can last through a session? I have had a session that I knew might only last 5 or 10 minutes and I reassured mom that we could make that work. In the photo above, the older brother has autism and because of that, he is non-verbal, doesn’t often make eye contact, and has a short attention span. This photo might not be the best photo technically, but mom loved it. The photo definitely shows the relationship and love of two brothers. You can get beautiful images without eye contact.
Tanya: Any specific posing tips?
“Get creative! Think outside the box. Some children may have trouble sitting still or posing. Ask parents where the child’s favorite place is (park, beach, back yard, etc.) You can meet them there and follow them around. As the child gets comfortable with you, then you might be able to set up some simple poses.
The boy shown above was very busy with his hands (he liked to wave & flap) and I was having a hard time getting him to hold still so I gave him a leaf to hold. Behind the scenes, I was also barking like a dog because I had heard from mom that he loved dogs. My barking got him to bring his head up and bring his attention towards the camera.
“Ask if there are any poses or specific pairing the parents are hoping to capture.
The bride who has a brother with down syndrome that was going to be walking her down the aisle along with her dad requested that I capture her kissing her brother after they walk down the aisle. I suggested we take a kissing photo before the wedding just in case. I was glad we did because he ended up moving so fast when giving a kiss during the ceremony that I wasn’t able to capture it. The bride still got the shot she wanted though and loves this photo.
“Ask parents about posing. Beanbags or sometimes an older sibling can work well to support an individual that has low tone or doesn’t sit without support. I have even used a parent underneath a blanket to provide support. Boxes and crates work well for smaller children. Laying on a nice sheepskin rug and shooting from above works nicely, too.
“Never make an assumption that a parent wants something hidden. Ask parents if they want the photo in a wheelchair or can the child be transferred to another chair. If the child has feeding tubes, oxygen tubes, or scars ask before hiding or removing in post production.”
“For this session, I took many shots with newborn hats on like I do for all my newborn sessions, but mom also wanted some that showed his scars. The scars were a part of him and also signified the journey he had been on and how strong the little guy was.”
“In this photo, the boy with autism didn’t want his picture taken. I know this because I asked him. :) After he told me no, I asked him if I could take a few, then I asked him how many. I think he told me 12. I agreed that would be fine, but he needed to keep track. As the shoot continued, I would check in with him to see how many shots I had left. I must have been gaining his friendship because the numbers of shots I had left actually increased towards the end of the shoot.”
Tanya: Hi Ana, thanks for taking the time to share your talent and skills with us. What tips could you offer that would help photographers when photographing kids with special needs?
Ana: “I have been in business 16 years and over the years so many beautiful little babies grew up with challenges along the way. These physical or mental challenges often mean that the child doesn’t learn or listen the same way most mainstream children do. As a photographer, it is my job to capture my clients image – regardless of any challenges. I spent some time years ago getting certified with Special Kids Photography because I wanted to learn how to properly work with children who had challenges.”
Some things I have learned through training and working with parents are:
- Patience— (always required with any child)
- Less Noise— Loud sounds often can startle
- Less People— I try not to have an assistant, but rather the parent help out. The assistant usually is good for wrangling the child – especially if they run a lot – which some do. But for communication, it is better to have the parent or aid help in signing or talking to the child.
- Just Capture the Moment— Parents are not looking for a cheesy-in-the-camera photo. They are looking for their child to be documented as they are. This may mean a gaze into the distance, or a looking down shot, or interacting with siblings. I want to capture who they are now and photographing their amazing childhood is what is important.
- Take It Seriously— When I am shooting, nothing else matters but that child. This is where the focus has to be. Sometimes, it’s in a very quiet studio. Other times, it is running around a park hoping to get one quick shot.
- Be in an Environment That Works With That Child— If the child is a runner, then outdoors is best. If the child is more introverted, perhaps a quite studio or home is best.
My biggest advice is to really talk to the parent and find out as much as you can about the child. Some questions to ask:
- What makes them happy?
- Where are they their happiest?
- Do they have a toy or item of comfort? What is it? Can it be in the session?
- Do they have an activity they like? (for example, blocks are often great when working boys on the Autism spectrum)
- Do they like music? What kind of music?
- What do they not like? (i.e. too many people? loud noises? animals? tickle dusters?)
- Do any colors or sounds bother them?
- What does the parent truly want to capture during the session? Is it a solo shot, or a family shot?
“My biggest tip? Music! I have found that children with special needs or without often respond to music very well. Years and years ago, I had a special Autistic boy who was having a beach shoot. When we arrived, he clutched his ears because the waves made a very large sound to him. It was ten times louder to him than to me, his Mom explained. His Mom really wanted a beach shoot with them together and so I asked her if she sang to him. Lucky for me, she did!
So she sang the entire shoot and whenever she sang, he calmed down. He took his hands off his ears and engaged with me. I left crying from that session. It was literally life altering. I’ve found along the way that music, whether from one of us singing, or on an electronic device almost always works for children of many challenges and disabilities. It is soothing and often very comforting.”
See the resources section at the end of the article for a fantastic read recommended by Ana about why music helps kids with special needs.
Catherine Lacey Dodd
Facebook: Catherine Lacey Photography
Tanya: Hi Catherine. I love that a member of our SLR Lounge community has a lot of experience photographing kids with special needs. What tips can you share with us?
Catherine: “I have a son with special needs myself, so I’m keenly aware of how challenging life, in general, can be for these families. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years.”
“Many of the kids with special needs whom I photograph do wear glasses and often the parents will ask that they continue to wear their glasses, especially if the child has photosensitivity to bright lights. If the child is verbal or uses sign language, I’ll ask the child directly if they’d like me to photograph them with or without their glasses.
“I recently photographed a child who told me that when they removed their glasses, their eyes would cross, a condition called Strabismus. So I asked if I could photograph him with his glasses, but then also very quickly capture a couple of frames of him not wearing his glasses, too. In so doing, I was able to capture the child’s beautiful eyes and see their true color, along with capturing the child as they are typically seen, wearing their glasses. I will also photograph either just under the glasses or just above, again allowing me to see the child’s eyes. It’s a sensitive subject and ultimately, it’s important to respect both the child’s and the parent’s wishes.”
Thoughts on Autism
“I focus on the child studying something very intensively, which is often a characteristic of autism. I’ve guided the child to an area with beautiful flowers or weeds. You can then capture the stillness and the child’s study of the flower and it makes for an emotive image.”
“My son has had 2 open heart surgeries so I know first hand the challenges these kids face. Capturing the evening before, the moments before surgery during prep, and just after the surgery – a point of relief despite the utter pain of seeing your child in such a medically intensive scenario and weeks later when recovered. It provides a visual reminder of where you’ve come from, as a means of healing. I’ve also later photographed the big heart scar in black and white, naked chest, waist up shot.
It’s a visual reminder of what’s been endured but with the outcome of success.”
Conclusion & Resources
I learned so much from the parents and photographers I interviewed for this article. The main points I hope you take away are:
- Communicate with the parents and child(ren) about their expectations and needs
- Be compassionate, kind and sensitive
- Be prepared to take extra time or have very little time. Be flexible and patient.
- Remember capturing the child as they are and the love between family members is more important than getting a technically amazing, portfolio-worthy photo.
What did you learn from this article? Do you feel more prepared to photograph anyone, regardless of their circumstances? Here are some extra resources to help you be prepared.
Strobes can cause seizures and sensory issues for many kids with special needs. Master Natural Light Photography with our Photography 101 Workshop. It’s the best natural light video workshop I’ve seen and includes over 7 hours of “learn as you go” video chapters, handouts, and real-world demonstrations.
Special Kids Photography of America
Special Kids Photography of America was founded in 2000 by a parent who was frustrated after an unpleasant experience with an insensitive photographer. When she took her then one-year-old infant son who was born with a severe physical disability to a portrait studio, the photographer took one puzzled look at the child then back at the mother, as if to say, “You want me to take a picture of him?” Needless to say, she was devastated. Throughout the next week, this young mother’s emotions went through frustration, confusion, hurt, and then anger. That’s when she formulated the idea of providing training to photographers who would benefit from the unique skills to hold photographic sessions with children who are seriously ill or have some other type of special need.
The primary mission of SKPA is to represent special children to professional photographers in an effort to expand exceptional photographic opportunities to these unique children on a national level. This unique focus is accomplished through training, special photographic techniques and tools, advocacy, and awareness.
Music and Kids with Special Needs
Read 5 Reasons Music Helps Kids with Special Needs for ideas and reasons to incorprate music into your sessions.
CREDITS: Photographs are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.