How To Capture Gorgeous Kid Shots :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Capture Gorgeous Kid Shots

by David Peterson 20 comments

[I'm trying something new this week. I have asked professional photographer and writer Becki Robins to contribute a long-form article on capturing gorgeous photos of children. Enjoy! - David]

I take photos of everything. Landscapes, buildings, bugs, patterns, you name it. But my favorite images by far are the ones I take of kids. And why not? Kids are cute. Kids are genuine. They're not trying to be something they aren't - except of course when they're trying to be dinosaurs or pirates.

Now here's the problem with kid photography: when it's bad, it's really bad. No one likes to look at bad photos of someone else's kids. And the vast majority of kid snapshots are the kinds of things that belong in photo albums, to be perused by the proud parents, their families and not really anyone else. And I say this as a parent, too, because I've taken my share of bad kid photos. In a lot of cases they do end up in that photo album despite the utter badness of them, because they're the only shots I've got of Event Whatever. But my favorite photos by far are the ones where I really captured the essence of my child and whatever it is she was experiencing at the time. These are the images that I'd be proud to show to anyone, not just my husband and my mom.

Great kid shots are a wonderful thing to have, but how do you get consistently great kid shots? Kids can be hard to photograph. They're generally uncooperative, they run around a lot and they enjoy making faces. All recipes for bad images. But you can't not take pictures of them, because they're so darned cute. So what's a photographer to do?

Tip #1: Get Down on your Knees

No, I don't mean that you should get down on your knees and beg your children to please just stand still long enough for one photo already. I mean that you should get down on your knees and shoot from your child's perspective. We adults, you see, are always looking down on our kids. Literally, not necessarily figuratively. Most of us see the world from a perspective of 5 foot something to 6 foot something, depending on which end of that gene pool you ended up at. A kid, on the other hand, is much shorter than we are. So if you take a shot of your three year old without bending your knees, you'll end up with a shot of how your three year old looks to pretty much everyone who sees him - from up on high and looking down. And while he may be very cute or doing something extraordinary or exhibiting an amazing connection with someone or something, your photo is still going to have an element of the ordinary because that's how we adults are used to viewing children. That's not to say that you can't get a good photo from this angle, but your image is going to have to have a lot of other things going for it.

Bend your knees, however, and shoot your child from his own eye level and you're giving your viewer an immediate connection with him. Your viewer can make level eye contact with him, but that's not the only advantage. A photo of a child in action, doing his own thing and not aware of the camera is still going to be more compelling from this angle than from that run-of-the-mill "I am an adult looking down at this child" angle. The simple reason why is that you're viewing the child as if you were yourself a child. That simply cannot fail to help your viewer connect with your subject and, perhaps, with his or her own childhood as well.

I like both of these shots of my daughter picking wildflowers, but the first one is too ordinary. I'm looking slightly down at her, and she up at me, which is the way we grown-ups usually look at children. The second image is much more endearing because I was down at ground level when I shot it. Although we aren't getting any eye contact with the subject, we're observing her as if we were children ourselves - from her level. Because of this we get a better connection with her and are able to relate to the experience of being a small child picking flowers.

Other Angles

OK got a few shots from that perspective? Now try shooting your subject from below. Now you're seeing her the way her cat might see her. As a giant, cat-eating child-beast. That's a perspective we don't often have, either. Now what if you stood on a step ladder and shot her from above? That's going to give you a dragon's eye view of your child. How about completing the image by equipping her with a toy sword and helmet?
The key to getting a great photo of a child is to ask yourself this question: who would like this picture? If the answer is just your grandma, or you, or your wife, that's really fine. Sometimes you don't need to impress anyone outside of your family. But if that's your honest answer, then face it - that photo does not really qualify as a great kid photo. A great kid photo is one that will make a perfect stranger smile.

Get Close

I can't tell you how many kid shots I've seen that have just a little too much background in them. In fact, I've seen a lot of kid shots that are all background and not much else. That's not to say that background isn't important - background can give your photos some context, so you don't want to, say, photograph your entire trip to the pumpkin patch without ever getting a long shot of all the pumpkins. But if your beloved daughter is just a spec amongst all that orange in every single shot you bring home, you haven't really done a very good job at capturing the outing in its entirety.

You need close shots of your daughter struggling with that pumpkin that's really way too big for her to carry. You need a close-cropped shot of her smiling face with nothing but a few hints of those hay bales in the background. You could get closer still and get a shot of her eye with some pumpkins reflecting in it. In fact a good rule of thumb with kid photos is this: when all else fails, get close. Kids have perfect skin and youthful faces. There really isn't a good reason not to zoom in on all that kid wonderfulness. Just remember that the eyes are the most important part of the face, and the part that always needs to be in focus.

These two photos are of my daughter on the pumpkin patch train. The first is really chaotic. The background is full of distractions - other kids, boards going every which way - the viewer doesn't really know what to look at. It's also not the best shot of her. She looks happy but there is a little distortion in her face and her hair looks pretty awful after a whole morning at the pumpkin patch. The second shot is much better. By getting close I've angled out all those distractions and I've also captured her fascination with the moving train and with all the scenery passing by the window.

If your camera has single-point focusing, make sure you place that focus point on the child's eye. Viewers are drawn to eyes, and having the eyes in sharp focus will help your viewer connect to the child in the image.

The Specifics: When and Where to get Great Kid Shots

My husband once commented that we have loads of photos of the kids at the fair, the zoo, the air show and the children's festival but we don't have nearly as many shots of them at home just being kids. My older son used to use our loveseat as a racetrack for his little Matchbox cars, and it wasn't until my husband said something to me that I ever thought to take a photo of him playing racecars on the loveseat. My older daughter draws all the time and though I keep a lot of her drawings I have far fewer photos of her actually making those drawings.

  • Olympus E-410
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.01 sec (1/100)
  • 42 mm

Don't forget to photograph the every-day stuff, too.Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time. (Rabbinical Saying) by Flickr user Ekler

It's easy to forget to photograph the ordinary stuff, but if you're a parent those are the things you're going to want to remember, maybe even more so than those annual trips to the county fair. Make sure you keep your camera on hand for the mundane stuff as well as for the exciting stuff.

Or, Pick a Location

Every day shots make for great memories, but sometimes you just want some beautiful portraits. It's hard to keep a child engaged in a studio setting, though there are certainly tricks. If you don't want to hassle with indoor lighting and all those tricks, though, consider photographing your subject in an outdoor setting such as a park. Bring along plenty of toys - balls and toys for the sandbox are good examples. Then just let the kids be kids. You may find you get much better photos in this type of setting than you will in an enclosed setting.

A beach or other outdoor setting will give you an opportunity to take both portraits and action photos of your subject. The advantage to this sort of location is that your subjects will be engaged for much longer periods of time than they would be in a studio setting.Untitled by Flickr user Christos Tsoumplekas (Back again!)

Take care with your backgrounds, though, in these types of situations. You may get a lot of background clutter in a park setting, for example - lots of people, colorful playground equipment and other items that distract from the photos themselves. If you can, try to angle out the distracting stuff. If you can't, use a smaller aperture so it will all fall out of focus.

How to Induce Spontaneity

OK, you want photos that look spontaneous. Posing kids can be cute, but a posed photo doesn't really give your viewer a feel for that child and how she is interacting with the world around her. So even if you're trying to just shoot a portrait, you want it to seem like a natural, spontaneous moment. With kids, that's actually easier (in some ways) than it is with an adult.

First of all, kids like games, so make it a game. Be silly and funny. Tell jokes. Have someone stand behind you and be silly and funny. Have a conversation with your subject and ask him a lot of questions. Kids love to talk about their toys, their pets and their friends. If they're talking they're not going to be posing. I've heard of at least one photographer who puts Pez dispensers on his camera's hotshoe to induce smiling in his subjects.

Any child who is old enough to use his hands can be given a prop. Age-appropriate toys like stuffed animals, blocks and toy cars will give your child something to do with his hands and distract him from the overwhelming job of being a portrait subject.

Props are also a great tool for portrait sessions. If you're photographing someone else's child, ask the child's parents to bring along a favorite toy and encourage the child to play with it while you're snapping the pictures. Have a lot of other props on hand too - things that are sure to interest a child in that particular age range. Stuffed toys, large plastic vehicles, blocks, you get the idea. Save these props for the end of the session or when the moment arrives that the child really needs to be engaged.

Don't be afraid to be a little devious, too. If you're photographing your own kids, feel free to set up a craft area, a box of Lego or something irresistible and give them time to get excited about it before you get that camera out. They don't need to know that your primary motivation is getting a photo of them. Setting up this kind of ulterior-motive activity has the added advantage of allowing you to make sure the conditions are right before you start shooting - you can choose an area where there is perfect light, for example, straighten up that bookshelf in the background and evict all those stuffed toys before you start snapping pictures.

Timing is Everything

Don't try to take photos when kids are cranky. This goes for your own kids as well as other kids. Remember that toddlers in particular still need regular naps, so trying to get a great shot just before naptime (or scheduling a photo shoot during naptime) is not going to yield very good results. Thirty minutes before lunch isn't going to work, either.

Set up sessions when your subject is likely to be in a good mood and remember that kids have very short attention spans. Unless they're engaged in some activity they're going to get bored pretty quickly, and as a general rule, the younger the child the shorter the attention span.

It's Not Just About Faces

Of course we are drawn to our children's faces. But their little hands are amazing, too, and so are their feet. A shot of running shoes can make a wonderful image, as can a line of different little shoes standing up against a wall. The hand of a newborn grasping his mother's finger makes a beautiful image. Kids walking or running away from the camera can be great shots, too.

    Don't just stick with faces; feet and hands also make wonderful kid cute... {explored} by Flickr user Adrian Dre├čler

    Group Shots

    OK, the very worst photo shoot of the year is the one I do the day after Thanksgiving. This is where I get all four of my kids together in front of the Christmas tree, dressed in their Christmas finery, and I try to get just one stupid shot of them all standing there smiling. Just. One. Shot. And it's always a nightmare. When they were little, it was impossible to just get them to all stand there and smile at the camera. Now that they're older they want to have a fight with me about wearing their Christmas finery. Someone is always mad or misbehaving. I've tried bribery, goofy faces, enlisting Dad's help, you name it, and I almost always end up hacking together two or three shots in Photoshop because I can't get them all looking good in the same frame. Yes, we're talking smiles pasted over frowns, ties straightened and complete digital decapitation. In my defense, no one ever notices. But group shots of kids are notoriously difficult, even for the pros.

    Where to begin? That first photo is awful on so many levels. My younger daughter is clearly sick of the photo session. My younger son can't stop goofing off. My oldest boy just looks disgusted. My older daughter is the only one who looks reasonably good. The background is bad, too - there's too much of my house behind the kids, including the TV, the bookshelf and the dining room table. After much trial and error (and a little help from Dad, who was providing the entertainment behind me) I was able to get the second image. However, I can't promise there wasn't any digital decapitation involved.

    So now that you've read that, I'm sure you're thinking, "Yeah, like I'm going to follow her advice now that I know she stinks at taking group photos." Point taken. But remember that not all kids are like my kids. Though some of them might be.

    The real key to getting a group shot is not to push it. You have a very short window of opportunity. Make sure that your camera is ready - ISO set, shutter/aperture set etc. Make sure that your background is ready. If it's a Christmas tree, turn the lights on first, make sure those ornaments are just-so, make sure there is plenty of light and no distractions in the background. Then line your kids up, get someone to stand behind you and make funny faces or whatever you need to do to induce smiling. Press the shutter button and don't take your finger off it until you're sure you have some good shots. You have maybe five minutes. If you can't get a good shot in that time, don't push it. Start over again tomorrow, or after nap time. Pushing it is not going to result in a good shot, and it may just make your kids mad enough that they won't be cooperative when you go back to try again.

    Remember that you don't have to get all your subjects to look at the camera at the same time. I know it makes for a classic group photo, but you may find it's easier and maybe even more rewarding to just let go of that expectation. It's OK to engage them with other things. Try giving them each a themed prop - if it's that holiday photo, you could use a stuffed Rudolph, a plastic ornament, a holiday trinket that makes noise, or anything else that goes with your theme. You could even try giving one of them a prop and then get some awesome photos of them fighting over it. You don't necessarily need to stuff a posed picture in those holiday cards - any photo that captures your kids as they are and will make your viewer smile is a successful image.

    When Your Kid is Sick of your Camera

    OK I admit it. I'm really annoying with my camera. I'm here to tell you that it's not just teenagers who run away and hide from the camera, it's three year olds, too. Yes, my three year old son will crawl under the table to avoid having his picture taken. I get out the camera and he runs for the hills.

    Now, he really just doesn't like to be the center of attention, so not all kids are going to flee when they see that giant DSLR come out of its bag. But my kids know that the DSLR means business, and that's why I hide a great little point-and-shoot in my purse. Sometimes being inconspicuous is a good thing. That big camera may discourage your subjects from being spontaneous. If they know they're being photographed - and with the serious camera, no less - they are more likely to just pose, flash a really awful fake smile and just hope it all ends soon.

    If you're having this problem during your photo shoot(s), try letting the kids run off some steam for a few minutes, then get out the little point and shoot. You may find you lose just a little something in quality and features, but you'll more than make up for it in the personalities that show up on your images.

    It also helps if the camera doesn't just come out on special occasions. Have a camera with you all the time, and shoot often. Ever wonder how those people on reality TV shows manage to ignore the cameras that are all over their houses? Well, it's because they get used to them. They're pervasive. After a while, you just forget they're there. Of course the money probably helps, too, but I digress. Your kids will forget about that camera if it's always attached to your wrist and you're always shooting photos.

    What if you're trying to capture a moment that just will not happen again, and your child isn't cooperating? Sadly, you just can't push them into being OK with the camera if they really don't want to cooperate. You're going to get photos of a cranky kid, or you're going to be too irritated to get a great shot and you'll make your child hate photography sessions. That's not what you want, because it's going to impact all those future great shots as well. You might be able to bribe them with a few M&Ms, but even that doesn't always work with my kids when they're sick of pictures. Or if it does, you get a very posed-looking photo that's really not what you were going for anyway.

    Really, when the session starts to fall apart it's best to just put the camera down and take the pressure off your child. If you want, try turning your camera on something else - losing the limelight might convince your child that he really did want to have his picture taken. But either way a breather is going to help both of you, even if it's just for a few minutes. If the moment ends, OK, you still have some meltdown shots and those are always good for a laugh.

    Which brings up a good point - not every photo needs to be of a happy child. Kids aren't always happy. Showing them as such is not being honest. One of my favorite series of photos is of my youngest daughter wearing a strawberry costume just before trick or treating, sitting in the doorway wailing at the indignation of having to wear a strawberry costume (don't worry, she snapped out of it as soon as she realized there was candy in it for her). But my point is that life is not always just fun and happiness. Capture the sad moments too, and thoughtful moments, and the angry ones (really nothing makes my kids madder than being photographed when they're mad - I know I'm a pretty mean mom).

    Oh, I am a mean, mean, mom. When all else fails, just snap the photo. Yes this baby is not smiling and happy, but anyone who has kids knows that babies do not smile all the time. If your family album only contains photos of your kids at their best, you're not telling the truth. Get a few shots of them melting down with those big crocodile tears under their eyes. They may not be great memories, but I guarantee that after those years have passed they will still make you smile.

    Camera Settings

    OK, now for the technical stuff. Remember that kids move fast, so if you're shooting action shots you'll want to choose shutter priority. You'll need a shutter speed of 1/500th or greater to freeze the action, especially if your kids are really moving. Burst mode is going to help, too - even when your subject isn't moving so fast. You can capture a lot of character in a series of images taken just a few 10ths of a second apart.

    If you're capturing the quieter moments, switch to aperture priority. You want a pretty shallow depth of field to get a portrait so that your background doesn't distract from your subject. f/5.6 is a good place to start. You can go even shallower than that if you want - it's OK for some of the face to be softer focus as long as those eyes are sharp. If however you want to include the background for context, aperture priority will let you switch to a wider depth of field when you decide that it's necessary.


    You don't really need anything special to photograph children if you're doing it outdoors. Zoom lenses are useful because children are moving around so much that you may find it necessary to zoom in and out in order to keep them in the right place in the frame. If you're taking pictures at high noon (sometimes you don't have a choice) it can also be useful to have a flash unit to fill in some of those harsh shadows. A reflector might help, too, but good luck trying to get that kid to sit still while you angle your reflector just-so.

    Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

    Now, this is advice that works for really any kind of photography, but it's particularly useful in kid photography. Keep your finger on the shutter button and keep shooting. Take as many photos as you can and fill up as many memory cards as you have. The shotgun approach works great for kids because they are so dynamic. One second they're playing quietly and the next they're doing pirouettes on the lawn. If you don't have that camera poised and firing you're going to miss something great.

    Becki Robins - Guest Poster

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    1. melissa says:

      I had to laugh and nod while reading your comments about group shots. Its the same thing every year for me at Christmas. I want that perfect shot of my 2 daughters and our dog in front of the tree, but it never turns out. Either the dog is blurry, or one of my girls are blurry. One is smiling beautifully and the other is looking down. It goes on and on. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one having this issue every year! Thanks for your tips.

    2. timmy palijo says:


    3. Nguyen Viet Hung says:

      Hi David, I always enjoy reading your tips throughout the year. Best wishes to you and your family for 2014.

    4. vincent browne says:

      I ENJOY YOUR ARTICLES. I am learning to draw and maby paint pictures later. I am speciling in portraits of people showing inner their emotions and in natural real settings, a woman's almost undectable smile as she slowly dances with her husband


    5. Patrick Doris says:

      Thank you David for your tips throughout the year.
      Best wishes to you and your family to for 2014

    6. Krasimira says:

      Thank you, dear David !Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    7. Geoff Cockrell says:

      All your photo tips and articles are massively educational. Anyone who's photography hasn't improved their tecnnique immensly just isn't trying !
      My thanks to you and your contributors .
      Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and a most successful 2014 from Johannesburg, South Africa.

    8. Marlene S says:

      Just wanted to say thank you for all your expertise. I love getting your emails and reading your take on how do take great shots. I would like to wish you and your family a Blessed Christmas and we look forward to hearing from you in the New Year.

    9. Alan says:

      Thanks for the tips on photographing kids. Over the years I have taken hundreds of pictures of my 14 grandchildren now ranging from 16 to a few weeks, and have many good ones but hundreds of bad ones. Now maybe I can reverse the trend and take more good shots.
      Thanks again, and have a great christmas.

    10. Denise R says:

      Merry Christmas David to you and your family. Your awesome tips over the years has given me a new found love for photography. Because of you, and your tips, when I began receiving your helpful tips, I had a point and shoot. I'm proud to report I've advanced to a DSLR and have a kit of 4 lenses. Keep up the passion, and love that you have for photography so that others may continue to take advantage of the knowledge received from your expertise.

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