When photographing families with small children (between 4 and 10-ish), I generally try to warm up to the kids right off the bat. Telling them that they are in charge, asking who their favorite hero or princess is, showing them pictures I’ve taken on my camera, giving them a “job”, and anything I can to get them to warm up and not be shy. I tell them corny jokes, ask if they are in their 20's or married, ask about their spouse, stuff that will get them laughing, looking at me like I’m crazy, and opening up. At this point they generally will begin talking nonstop like we are best friends or avoiding me like the plague.
I let them know that they are in charge and that when they are done, we can all go home. Parents, with young ones, you might want to bring some fruit snacks, cookies, or candy and don’t be afraid to bribe or reward them. Be prepared to hear fart noises, take turns making silly faces, watch them to do their favorite superhero pose or twirl like a princess. Sometimes we will take turns laughing the loudest and the softest. See who can jump the highest. I may pretend they’ve disappeared, and that I can’t see them through the lens and then act surprised when they are where they are supposed to be.
My goal is to make the photo shoot into a fun experience. As the photographer, I should be the only one really working. Constantly getting on to little Jimmy and trying to get little Susie to look at the camera can be very frustrating for parents. I don't expect children to smile on command or to act like perfect angels. I will take a lot of pictures of them doing what they do and will work a genuine pose into the mix here and there, but working around the child’s personality will bring out their character, as well as the whole family’s genuine reactions. I had a kiddo that was all about the fun and games and refused to do a genuine pose. He was standing on top of something behind his parents and grandparents with his cowboy hat in front of his face. I took the shot any way, praising him on what a nice hat he had. That was one of the mom’s favorite poses as she said, “that is SO HIM!” I also have one with him wearing his cowboy hat after he had stuffed it full of leaves. Truly, I can’t make this stuff up! Any photo shoot that I do with small children that doesn’t end up with the youngest in a meltdown is a success.
Children have very short attention spans. There is so much to do and see, they have so very much energy, and some very strong-willed children seem to love nothing more than to push everyone’s buttons. It is not always important to have everyone looking at the camera. I may ask everyone to look at the person that has the stinkiest farts, or I will capture a moment that you had no idea I got, like when little Susie sat down, folded her arms, and refused to even look at anyone. I try to be interesting, flexible, quick, funny, silly, and genuine all at the same time.
Many photographers use tickling wars and they are great, but it is really hard to capture it all when everyone starts wiggling and turning to and fro. I save these as a last resort. More often I will ask the dad to quit looking like he’s constipated, ask who farted, or get everyone to say a silly word. It’s not so much the initial look that I love the most but the ones that follow. These are the true gems. Kids love being kids, but they don’t like being told what to do all the time, being talked down to, or sitting around taking boring pictures. Most dads refuse to smile or say, "this is my smile." By picking on them, I've been successful at capturing, at the very least, that hint of a smile. I try to make it fun for everyone, to get as many candids and posed images as possible in the allotted time, and hope everyone leaves with cheeks sore from smiling and laughing so much.