Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Eye to Eye with Kids

Warning-If you don’t truly love kids and working with kids this packet is not for you. Unless you have the genuine desire and patience to commit to children’s photography, you will find doing it extremely frustrating and nerve racking.

Get on their level

Now that you have been adequately warned we can go on. It takes a special personality to work on your knees and babble like an idiot. Not to mention a good pair of knees to begin with. In my years of photographing children, I wore out countless pairs of trousers by standing on my knees all day.

I’d like to spend some time talking about kids and adult relationships with them. Many, in fact most, adults view kids from an adult perspective. The old adage that a child should be seen and not heard still rings true with most grown ups. Think about the last time you spoke with a child. Either your own or maybe a subject in your camera room. Where were you when you spoke to the child. Were you, like most adults, standing, staring down the end of your nose at the child.

Think about this for a minute. When you converse with another adult do you sit while the other stands. It can be very awkward. You want to be on an even level with that person. The same is true with kids. Try this test. Get another adult to help you. Stand on a chair and put your hand on your knees and speak to this person. (Much like you would if you were speaking to a small child.) Speak in the same tone of voice as if the person you were speaking to were three years old. Now reverse the roles. How did you feel. If you are like most adults, you probably felt uneasy and intimidated. This is the same way that a child feels when you speak to them this way.

Try to remember this the next time you encounter children. Bend down on one knee or sit down when you speak to them. Get on their level. They
will feel more comfortable with you.

Big men with hairy faces may frighten children. This is just a fact of nature. How many times have you had a parent tell you that their child is petrified of Santa Claus. That is not to say that men with facial hair cannot photograph children. They just may have to work harder at it.

Getting to know them

If you don’t like children or don’t like working with them or if you get nervous around them, they will know it! Children are extremely perceptive. So if you feel this way and want to change it. What can you do? Spend time with some kids.

If you don’t have any of your own, borrow some. I’m sure there a plenty of parents out there who would be more than happy to have you baby-sit for a couple of hours. Get on the floor with them and roll around. Play their games. Let them lead and you follow. Observe their actions and reactions. Remember, take notes if you need to, the things that they seemed to like to do and the things that got a positive response out of them. These are things you can use to stimulate reactions in the camera room.

Translating this knowledge into the camera room

Be sure to practice. Spend some time working with kids in the camera room as well. Be sure that the things you are doing with the kids are appropriate to their ages. Young kids will just not react as well to silly jokes, for example, as older kids will. So what is appropriate. Let’s look at various ages and what can be done with them.

Developmental abilities in the first year

Most photographers and parents think of taking portraits in the first year at ages three months, six months, nine months and one year. It is more appropriate to think in terms of developmental abilities in the child’s first year.

Consider the following levels:

4-6 weeks-It is at this time that the child begins to react to outside stimulation. The child is more alert. Don’t expect to elicit smiles on demand at this age. If the child does smile, it is probably gas. No matter what mother says, infants at this age do not smile ‘all of the time’. You are going to want to look for eyes open and focused and a pleasant expression. You can help yourself greatly by explaining this to the parents in advance of the session. The best stimulation you can use at this age is your voice or moms voice. Loud squeakers and other noisemakers may not work. Also, do not shove toys directly into a child’s face. If you think they like this, think again. Let someone shove a stuffed frog in your face and see how you like it.

3-5 months-You want to have the child come in for pictures when they are able to hold their head up while laying on their stomach. By this time they should be able to respond to outside noise. In fact a small squeaky toy can be very helpful. If you are creative with your voice you can use it effectively as well.

5-8 months-The child should be sitting unassisted. This means that the child should be able to sit on it’s own for a few minutes. I would still have mom or an assistant within arms reach of the child. A noise maker or brightly colored toy can help gain attention. Remember not to make any sudden moves toward the child. It could cause the child to fall over.

7-10 months-When the child is standing. If you can work it out, get them in after they begin standing and before they begin walking. It’s much easier to photograph them when they aren’t quite as mobile. Another thing you can do to keep them in one place is to have them stand against something. Such as a chair, large toy or column.

1 year-It is important that this session come fairly close to their birthday. This is the one time in the first year when date should take precedence over ability. Then photograph them at least once a year thereafter.

Using smiling aids

The use of props and noisemakers can be very effective in eliciting that all important expression. Remember that a big cheesy smile is not necessarily what you always want from your small subjects. You should therefore, select aids that will help you gain the expression that you are looking for.

One of the best tools you have to use is the sound that comes out of your mouth. Your voice can be a great asset. With some practice you can have that ‘Donald Duck’ or ‘Goofy’ voice down pat. Those squirrel-ly voice effects can be a hit with the kids as well. Be careful, some kids get really frightened by strange loud noises. Voice inflection can be very important. Sometimes a whisper will give you more of a response than a yell. Remember to consider the expression you are looking for an tailor your voice for that expression.

Make sure that your aids are age appropriate. Know what is hot and what is not.

Knowing what shows, videos and characters are hot for pre-schoolers and high schoolers can help you immensely in the camera room. A variety of familiar Disney character or Sesame Street puppets will appeal to most young children but probably won’t do much for adolescent kids. Being able to talk about hot movies or music groups and sports will be helpful with older kids. Teasing adolescents about having a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ can work also.

Do your homework. You need to know what kids are seeing and liking. The best thing I used to do when I was doing allot of children was to watch Sesame Street every day. I then could relate with my small subjects about what had happened on that day’s show. Parents thought I was off my rocker, but so what.

Be sure to keep your smiling aids out of sight. I never let my subjects play with my toys. I’m really stingy. No, actually there is a very good reason for this. If a child plays with a smiling aid then it loses it’s effectiveness when I want to use it. I used to tell my subjects that the puppets were there to work and they had to sleep between sessions so that they were ready for the next session. I kept all of these special friends in a separate place out of reach. I also had toys the kid’s could play with during the session. I would talk in character voices and always keep my aids out of the child’s reach. I would occasionally have the character ‘tickle’ the subjects tummy. Again, remember to keep the aid out of the child’s face.

Timing is essential in children’s photography. You must have your camera ready and your lights set. Children have extremely short attention spans. I’m a strong believer that if you can’t have the session done in twenty minutes you are not going to get it done. Be sure you are ready, have props, film and needed equipment close at hand. Most of the time you will get that wanted expression only in a fleeting moment.

Pre-portrait consultation

You can help yourself tremendously by having a pre-portrait consultation. Discuss what your client is looking for. Talk about clothing and props. Find out the best time of the day for the child. Let them know that if the child is not feeling well the day of the session that they may call and reschedule. You need to be flexible about this, especially with kids. Everyone will have a better time if the child is feeling well. Be sure to find out about nap times. NEVER! book a child right before or during nap time or before or during meal time.

It’s a good idea to meet the child during this consultation. Plan to spend a few minutes getting to know the child. This will help break the ice the day of the session. You may want to show them the camera room and what you will be doing the day you take the pictures. Take time to answer any questions that the child may have.

Prepare the parents for what to expect. They expect their child to behave beautifully and cooperate completely. You need to give them a reality check. This is not to say that the session will be anything less than the very best. Provided they follow your advice.

Ask the parents not to put any undue stress on the child. Parents have a tendency to think they can force their child to be happy. It just doesn’t work that way. You need to be allowed to set the parameters in the camera room. Don’t allow them to begin bribing the child with wondrous gifts if they cooperate. This usually does not work. When the child is unhappy. One of the very worst things parents can do is get angry with the child. If a child is spanked for crying, there is usually no hope in getting the expressions you or the parents desire. If this happens you may want to stop the session and suggest a retake on another day.

Keeping parents at bay in the camera room is necessary if you hope to build a working relationship with the child. Be sure to discuss with the parents what their role will be during the portrait session. Remember, it is your camera room, your expensive equipment and your expertise that they have hired to capture their child’s image. You must maintain the control.
Allow only one parent in the camera room with you. Otherwise, you will have too many distractions to the job you are trying to do.

One of the things that worked well for me was to give the parents specific responsibilities and boundaries. I would keep them busy holding up props or backgrounds. They felt like they were contributing to the success of the session. This also would keep them in one place and allow me to work directly with the child. Talk to the parents through the child. You will be amazed at what you can get by with telling the parents if you ask them through the child. For example, if you have a mom constantly in your way in the camera room. Say to the child, “Billy, we can take your picture as soon as we get mom to move over to the right.” This is a much softer approach than talking to the parent directly. On occasion I would tactfully ask parents to leave the camera room if I felt they were interfering.

Don’t mention the Doctor

The experience of having a portrait taken can be the same as going to the doctor. This happens when parents unwittingly use the same phraseology when preparing their child for a portrait sitting as they do when they take them to the doctor. This can lead to unnecessary fear and apprehension on the part of the child. Be sure to discuss this with the parents and suggest that they consider how they talk about the portrait session in front of the child.

In the camera room

Plan plenty of time for the session. The actual photography should be only a small part of the time. When the child arrives, make them feel comfortable. Give them time to get acquainted with the studio. You will want to spend time with the child before you begin photographing them Depending on the age of the child, you can play a game, sing a song or talk about a topic of interest to them. The key is to help them relax and become
acquainted with you. The session will go much more smoothly if you leave the anxiety in your lobby.

Once you are in the camera room you will want to work quickly, but not so fast that your customer feels rushed. Keep the conversation going in the camera room. I found that talking to the child thoughout the entire session helps them relax. The last thing I want the child to know is that I’m taking the photograph. By talking about subjects that interest the child is interested in, it gets their minds off of being photographed. Their expressions will then become much more natural. They will also stay involved in the session.

Think about what you say when you are working in the camera room. Some things are just not appropriate for kids. For example, if you have the child say a word to help them smile, what are you having them say. The words that you use and the tone of voice you use them in can illicit different types of expressions. A whispered ‘peaches’ can give you a soft sweet smile. Whereas a loud ‘Chuckie Cheese’ will give you a broad toothy smile. Use these words and voice inflection to your advantage. Words like money, sexy and hot rod may be appropriate for a senior but not for a child. Constantly watch for expressions. Often children will give you the desired expressions without prompting. Be ready when these occur.

Cut and Run

Know when things aren’t working. If the session just isn’t working out, you’re better off cutting bait and running. Prolonging a bad session will not improve the results. If the child is uncooperative or the parents are not happy you are much better off to reschedule and have them come back on another day.


Adam Squier said...

This is one of the (if not the) best articles I've read on the subject. And yes, people tease me about wearing out the knees of my pants like a fifth grader. But that's OK because my work shows that I love photographing children.

Thanks for a great read.

nina said...

Great post, Stacey! So true! And the timeline for babies is right on, I have a baby's first year package along the same guidelines.