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How to Photograph Kids… By a Former Poorly Photographed Kid

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I am a former kid. I have lived through the trauma of bad photos taken of me by my father. I was not photogenic, and admittedly he had a cheap camera. He had a knack for catching the incredibly awkward moments of childhood in a way that now makes me cringe. If I could go back in time and give my 1970′s dad a few tips on how to take better pictures of me I would.

As a former kid recovering from the trauma of bad photographs, I feel like it is my duty to future kids of the world to give parents and photographers some tips I have learned on how to take some great photos of kids. Or, at the very least, photos that won’t make your kid cringe when they get older.

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Two things come to mind after seeing the photo above. First, a big thanks to my dad for timing this perfectly, and second, why am I wearing such horribly dirty T-Shirts in every picture?

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Thank you Dad for this picture of me in prison pajamas pointing at a location somewhere in Michigan.

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At least now I know that those feelings of complete teen awkwardness were not just in my mind.

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Dad liked to snap blurry pictures of us posing in front of trash cans. I am actually a little thankful for the fact this shot was out of focus.

Photographing Kids is Not Difficult

I’ve heard people say that taking photographs of kids is one of the hardest types of photography to master. I’d have to disagree; in fact, I think that photographing kids is just about the easiest thing you could do with your camera.

You don’t have to use lights. You don’t have to make them pose. You don’t have to explain what looks good and you definitely don’t have to worry that they are self conscious. You just pick up the camera and shoot. It’s simple.

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Chasing Cuteness

I actually have a term for photographing kids. I call it “chasing cuteness,” and I think it’s exactly what kids photography is all about. My general rule of thumb with photographing kids is to put them in the right place where the light is good, give them a prop or a situation to deal with, and then fire away.

I run around. I get on the ground. And I shoot. I shoot a lot of pictures. Getting a good photograph of kids is about chasing the cute things they do and (hopefully) capturing those cute things on camera. In short, you have to really match your own energy level with the energy level of kids (which is extraordinarily high).

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I come from a huge family — 12 brothers and sisters, and it just gets bigger. I think at last count I have over 20 nieces and nephews, so I get an endless amount of practice in taking pictures of kids. I wanted to give my list of the top 10 techniques that I have learned through trial and error on how to get the best shots of kids. These are techniques and approaches that I use every time I pick up the camera.

1. Get Out of the Studio

Here is the good news. You don’t need to have a fancy studio setup to take awesome pictures of kids. In fact, you are better off if you get out of the studio and get into their natural element. You only need 1 studio shot a year of your kids and I consider that their school photos. Get outside. Go in their room. Go anywhere to take kid shots – just not in a studio.

2. Get on the Ground

If you read any tips on photographing kids, this is the most common thing you will see, and that’s because it is true. If you’re not cutting your eye level view down to under 2 or 3 feet, then you’re not capturing the kids in the way that they see the world. When I shoot kids, I am sitting, and often times I’m laying on the ground even lower than them.

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She’s under the bed hiding. I could only get this shot by laying down under the bed too.

3. Create a Situation, Then Watch What Unfolds

Kids are unpredictable in a predictable sort of way. Sure they can do anything at any moment, but if you put a bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of them without a spoon, what do you think will happen? My prediction is that you will end up with some hilarious shots of your kid with ice cream all over their face.

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This is my favorite of all techniques. I try to come up with creative situations that will later tell a story about what is important to that kid. If they love to watch mom put on makeup, then I give them a mirror and some makeup brushes and create a situation where I am almost always guaranteed a great shot.

We gave this little boy in Vietnam a kitten to play with and ended up with some great shots:

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4. Use a Fisheye Lens

If you’re going to take a lot of pictures of kids, invest in a fisheye lens. Not only can you capture a wide scene of whats going on, but you can capture the mood of what it’s like to be a kid — everything is slightly larger than life.

I like to use a technique called the Jarvie Window. It’s a great technique to use at kids parties and can be a lot of fun.

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Using a fisheye lens lets you capture the energy of kids and is also wide enough to capture all of the chaos.

5. Machine Gun Shoot

A lot of people don’t like it but with kids you have to do it or you will miss the best moments. Put your camera on high speed mode and shoot. The average adult will blink 25 times a minute. The average kid will change their facial expressions dramatically almost as often, so you have to machine gun shoot to get the cutest shots. Sure you end up throwing out a lot of the shots, but there are those golden gems that are priceless that you could not get without employing this technique.

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All these pictures were taken in a span of about 30 seconds. She went through all the human emotions in that short period of time.

6. Let Them See Your Picture, and Perhaps Take a Couple

Kids love to see pictures of themselves. If you’re stalling out in taking cool pictures of kids, show them your viewfinder and what you have come up with and I guarantee they are going to come up with a bunch of new ideas for you.

Of course, you can also give them the camera and take some cute pictures of them trying to take pictures. That works too.

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7. Put Them in Big Stuff

Kids pretending to be adults is a sure fire way for cuteness. I like to put big shoes on kids (like their parent’s shoes) and take pictures. You can also give them their parent’s guitar, or put them on their parent’s drum set. Whatever you can do to put the kids in a situation where they are acting like their parents in a cute way works pretty well.

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8. Don’t Say No

Half of why photographing kids is so cool is because their imaginations and their creativity is way beyond our adult minds. I usually come into a situation in which I am photographing kids with my own notion of what I want to capture, and it is almost never what I end up doing.

My rule of thumb is to pretty much never say “no” to a kid about their ideas. Most of them are good. No, in fact most of them are great. Just let them run with their ideas and you will probably be much happier with the result.

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Let a kid be awesome without saying no to whatever silly thing they come up with in their mind.

9. Get a Helper Behind You

Kids have short attention spans and sometimes you need someone to help you keep them in one place long enough for you to shoot something spectacular. One technique that I like to use is to have a helper behind me who can coax the kids into doing cute things. The benefit of having a helper behind you while shooting is that you can get the kids to appear to be looking straight into the camera for some great shots.

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We were able to get her to make some incredibly cute poses by showing her what to do. I could not have done this alone.

10. Don’t Stop Shooting When They Cry

When I am taking pictures of kids and they start crying, my first instinct is to stop shooting. I guess in my mind I have been programmed to believe that all pictures should be happy. A while ago, I started ignoring those instincts and just kept the camera going. I find that these shots are often just as good as any others. It’s part of growing up and its part of who kids are so I just try to capture it as it happens.

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He was crying because he was afraid of a fish. Now he has a good picture and story to tell when he is older.

Anyone can take great kid photos with patience and energy. The great thing about photographing kids is that just about anyone with enough energy and patience can capture some pretty good kid photos. You don’t need an extraordinary camera. You don’t need to have expensive lighting. You don’t even need to understand all those complicated buttons on your camera. Just make sure you have good lighting and an interesting situation, then go and chase the cuteness down.


About the author: Frank McKenna is an amateur photographer based in La Jolla, California. You can find him on his blog, 500px, Tumblr, and Google+. This article originally appeared here.