How to Photograph Kids (who don’t want to be photographed) :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Kids (who don’t want to be photographed)

by David Peterson 0 comments

We all know about moody teenagers, right? In fact it's almost a cliché—mom takes camera to event, mom points camera at moody teenager, moody teenager ducks behind another person or object in order to avoid being photographed. It's maddening. And if you are the parent of that reluctant photographic subject, even more so.

We all want to have pictures of our kids at various stages of life, from that adorable first day when a child isn't capable of ducking behind anything, to those important adult life milestones such as college graduation, marriage, and parenthood. And we don't want any important gaps in the photographic calendar because then we feel like our photographic history isn't complete.

So what do you do if it isn't just your moody teenager who doesn't want to be photographed? Not all kids love the camera, and it could be that your toddler is rejecting your efforts to capture those photographic memories. Fortunately, all is not lost. I've got some great strategies that should help you capture photos of even the most reluctant subject. Read on for my best tips.

Forget those formal sessions

Sometimes, when you dress your child up and take him to a picturesque location with the goal of capturing some adorable, professional quality images, you'll find that just the opposite happens. You end up with a whole bunch of images of him crying, turning away from the camera, or just acting reluctant. When you get home, you open up your photos and find that you don't have a single one that reminds you of those wonderful, professional quality images you've seen on Flickr or in photography magazines and books. So what happened? How come your photo session was such a failure?

Photographing reluctant toddlers

I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that children even as young as toddlers can sense the pressure. Dressing up, driving to a particular location, watching Mom set up her tripod and fancy DSLR, watching Mom get frustrated because you’re not doing exactly the thing she wants you to do—these things all put pressure on the child. In other words, your child, regardless of how old she is, knows something is up, and she doesn't like or necessarily understand why you have these very sudden, rigid expectations for her. She doesn't like knowing that your mood depends on her doing exactly the right thing, and because she's a toddler, she doesn't even know what that thing is that she’s supposed to be doing.

Also remember that children at all stages of life are grasping for independence. A particularly reluctant subject may not be reluctant because she necessarily cares that you're taking her picture, she may be reluctant because she’s being told what to do. Look at it this way—your child spent the first few months of her life learning simple control over her own body. When she heard a sound, for example, she learned that she could turn her head in a certain direction in order to see the source of that sound. Now that she’s mastered that skill, she can look pretty much wherever she pleases, whenever she pleases—until now. Now, you’re ordering her to only turn her head in the direction that you want her to turn her head—“Look at the camera,” or “Look at this toy.” That’s an affront to her personal and new-found sense of independence. When she’s suddenly being ordered to do all those little things that she is supposed to have autonomy over, well, that can be upsetting. So one very effective way to turn things around during your otherwise disastrous photo shoot is to make the child feel like she's the one with the ideas.

How do you do that? First of all, don't use phrases like “Look this way” or “Look at the camera.” Instead, let your child do whatever she would do naturally in that environment. You can bring a few toys along if you like, you can make sure the setting is full of other natural curiosities, but don't make it seem like the only reason you're there is to take pictures.

That means you're not going to get those wonderful posed shots, you're going to have to be patient and wait for the perfect moment to arrive. Your photos are probably going to be more on the candid end of the spectrum, but that's really okay. You can still get great, professional quality, candid photos. All you have to do is let go of the idea that you're going to get those perfectly posed shots, because you're not, and because you don't have to.

Before you even start taking pictures, give your child some time to acclimate to the surroundings. In other words just let him explore. You can bring your camera along and capture some of those discovery pictures, but it really is best to just hang back and let him lead the way. If you start taking pictures immediately, chances are he's going to be on to you. And then it may be more difficult to get photos of him as the session goes on.

Make sure the child is engaged. A bored child is not going to make for great photos, so bring props and make sure they are fun props. Let your child make decisions about what he’s going to do with those props. And if you need him to look at the camera and smile, it generally works better if you do something that encourages him to look that way rather than ordering him to. For example, make a funny face, tell a stupid joke or wave something interesting, attractive, and most important, noise making. That's a guaranteed way to get your child to look right at the camera and smile, or at the very least look right at the camera with a “What are you doing you crazy person” expression on his face.

When older kids are reluctant

An older child may need different strategies, but the idea is basically the same. For example, you could tell jokes, have her talk about her favorite hobbies or school subjects, have her tell you stories about her friends—anything that gets her to smile naturally is going to help her shake off some of that reluctance.

You can also try using a ball—this is a great trick to get a child of any age to look at the camera. Of course, make sure it's a soft ball because you don't want an errant throw to end up knocking your camera to the ground, but generally speaking if you roll or toss a ball to a child and ask him to toss it back, he's going to look directly at the camera before doing so.

Reluctant teenagers

The reluctant teenagers are a different story altogether. They may have it set in their heads that they don't want you to take pictures of them at all, and that is a much more difficult hurdle to overcome. For a reluctant teenager, sometimes it works to just try having a rational conversation with him. I know, teenagers sometimes seem like the least rational creatures on the planet, but if you approach this from a perspective of letting him make some decisions, he may just take a few minutes to listen to you.

For example, you could promise that you won't follow him around with the camera all the time as you have been doing, but in exchange, he has to let you take a few photographs of him every month. Decide on some of the obvious days—Christmas and his birthday are two good examples, and then talk together about what some of the other occasions might be. When those occasions approach, remind him that you're going to take a few pictures of him and discuss when and where you'll take those pictures. Then keep your promise. Take the pictures, then put the camera away and leave him alone. Sometimes this will be enough to convince even the most reluctant teenager to let you snap a few photos. Make sure you tell him how important it is to you to have these images for the future, and remind him that when he is an adult he will want to look back on his teenage years, and it will be a shame if there are no photos chronicling the things he did when he was young.


Remember that the most important thing, no matter what the age of your subject is, is to make sure that you don't make him feel as if he’s under a lot of pressure to perform. Children are under all kinds of pressures anyway—whether it's pressures at school, from their friends, or from you, their parents. Kids want to have autonomy and independence over some aspects of their lives, and sometimes that camera interferes with that sense of independence. So don't give up on those reluctant subjects, but recognize that you need to find some middle ground. Take the pressure off, and I think you'll be rewarded with some beautiful pictures of even the most reluctant subjects.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.