How to Photograph Kids… By a Former Poorly Photographed Kid


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.

  • Mansgame

    Man what’s going on? I’m liking a lot of articles on here all of a sudden. Good job.

  • Eins7ein

    Great article!… a couple of quick questions. How do I keep the kids engaged/interested? With my nephews I get maybe 15 minutes and if I’m lucky a 1/2 hour. Is this where the “helper” comes in handy?

  • p.rock

    I’m early 30’s now, so I’m at that point where everyone of the photos of my childhood was on film, usually via a point & shoot, but every photo I’ve taken of “my kids” (nieces/nephews) has been via DSLR.

    If one were to look at these two collections of photos, one might think our childhoods were completely different. Mine a series of frowns and missed smiles, rumpled clothes and out-of-focus features, like the author’s. My kids’ photos are well-lit, all smiles, perfectly posed with creamy, undistracting backgrounds.

    There is, of course, no functional difference between our childhoods. But I feel like capturing the awkwardness of that stage of life is a better end result. Looking back through albums, I wouldn’t trade the photos I have of myself for what I could create with today’s technology. Yeah, I look awkward in a lot of photos. Because, as a chubby, bespectacled kid with a goofy smile, I was awkward. My childhood photos have a character to them that, IMO, are more true-to-life than today’s low-DOF, Lightroom Action Overboard “child photos.”

    I kind of feel bad for the people who are growing up today and won’t have a visual record of the foibles of their youth because Mom and Dad took 1,000 photos of every event and deleted the ones with a crooked smile or sideways glance. It all just seems too…sanitized today.

    That said, I don’t want to take away from this author. Good article, I guess my reaction was more philosophical than practical.

  • Michael Comeau

    What this guy said.

  • frank mckenna

    The helper is definitely a big part of it. The other way I do it is to give them different things to do that they think is fun but that can also tell a story. For example, give them a ball and take them outside. It’s kind of like you need to get very creative. Also, I will often just let them roam around and follow them around. They will think of interesting things to do that make great pictures.

  • Zack

    Not knocking this article, because there are a lot of good tips here, but my favorite photos of myself as a kid are the weird, awkward ones. There’s nothing wrong with cute photos of kids, but there isn’t anything wrong with goofy ones either. If I ever have kids, they’ll have to deal with a lifetime of awkward photos. Hopefully they have their dad’s sense of humor about it. ;)

    But kudos, very useful article, especially to a young man unaccustomed to working with children

  • frank mckenna

    You know, I was thinking the same thing. My family is really big and my dad took many thousands of pictures. He didn’t have a way to edit out the pictures like I do because it was all film. I spent about 3 months editing our family shots down from probably 30k plus photos to a small box of keepable ones. The keepable ones were not great but they still presented us in a way that was genuine to how we live. I think its good to have the cute shots, but also to have the genuinely awkward family ones because they all mean something later. I think we are better off now, but your point is correct.

  • Adam Cross

    this is too great, awesome article, even Mansgame ^ is happy – if he’s happy then we’re probably all happy

  • Fra Lippi

    A big thanks to my dad for taking a picture of me with an onion on my belt, which was the fashion at the time.

    j/k – great article.

  • Eugene Chok

    Except for number 5 which is called spray and pray I agree( my camera never comes off one shot, most likely because I’ve seen how fast my 1vhs goes through a roll) , “chasing cuteness “I will be using that!

  • photosforus

    Really Agree with the fisheye. I love shooting in the wide angle (18mm on crop sensor) and those pictures capture so much memory, you can see the whole scene and what your kids are doing.

  • disqus_rCwdLr9552

    I find that slipping them a xanax will buy you at least one F stop, sometimes more.

  • JeremiahB

    Anyone else notice that Ron Swanson was their hayride driver?

  • Muhammad Malik

    loved this article, one thing i wanna mention is, yes, our parents took some very very bad pictures of us when we were kids, but you also have to give them the benefit of doubt.. they couldnt take 100pictures of one kid and delete the bad ones, whatever was taken, that was it. you had to wait until the film was finished then go and get it developed. So I would say it was obviously harder for parents to take good pictures of us when they couldn’t instantly see the result of the pictures.

  • ToonShoot

    Great article ! Though you do compare goofy pictures of teens with cute pictures of childrens :) Goofy babies look great anyway, so shoot away. But to chase down the cuteness of a teen is an entire other challenge !

  • Jason K

    There is no such thing as not having awkward pictures from your middle-school years.

  • 4dmaze

    Ok, we need some happy shots, here’s a kitten. Now we need a few crying shots, give me that kitten! (here’s a fish).

  • laura

    Love the picture of the boy with the kitten!

  • mike

    your pics are so much better than the chasing cuteness, dont put kids in big stuff its weird.

  • Timtop

    Agreed. While these are good tips for creating the very modern kind of kid photos, we must also keep the charming, awkward, ugly and blurred ones. I do – and i print anything worthwhile once a month in a batch. After all, a certain someone has to discover them in a box in 20 years…

  • Theresa

    Really great article, thanks. I have a four year old niece and just got a good enough camera that will actually ‘machine gun shoot’ and the quality of pictures has improved exponentially.

  • eraserhead12

    I especially like the last point–family photos that aren’t totally staged are usually some of the best. More often than not, because they’re linked to specific memories or experiences..

    The pretty photos of your cute smiling kid are the ones you show off for now, but the spontaneity of everyday life that Dad decided to capture on film, or the organic downbeats of a shoot wherein the kid is lost in his own world, are the ones you’ll savor later on.

  • fotomumo

    Excellent! This captures all of the problems and solutions in one easy blog. Nice one!

  • JayBee

    I couldn’t agree more! I love my fisheye (8-15mm) for capturing the kids doing their thing.

  • dhalgren999

    Your article seems sincere, but your photos suck in a big way…