How to Photograph Mischief :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Mischief

by David Peterson 0 comments

I know, you hate it when your kids act up. No parent loves to find scribbles on the wall, broken family heirlooms on the floor or the dog wearing a pink tutu (well, maybe that last one wouldn’t be so bad), and no parent loves to have to discipline a child who isn’t behaving the way she’s expected to. But mischief, whether parents like to admit it or not, is a natural part of being a child. So it may surprise you to hear me say that I think you should photograph it.

Now of course, this is a challenging task no matter how you look at it. You know you don't really want to encourage your children to be naughty, and as soon as you get that camera out to record their naughtiness, you're sort of endorsing it. So you need to come up with some ways to capture mischief without making it seem like you're giving permission. That is a challenging task. Read one for some ideas about how to do it.

The blackmail photo

Every parent should have one of these. You know exactly what I'm talking about—it's that photo of your child doing something really cute and funny, which will embarrass the heck out of him as he gets older. For example, I have a friend whose extremely macho 11-year-old, who, as a toddler, used to enjoy wearing his mother's high heels. That is a photo that you absolutely must have, not only because it's cute and funny but also because you can use it in the future as a viable threat for good behavior. “Make sure you come home by curfew, or your girlfriend is going to see that picture of you in high heels!”

Now, I will say that this is the sort of photo that needs to be kept under wraps—posting it on Facebook or framing it and hanging on the wall would just be plain cruel and I really am (sort of) kidding when I say you should use embarrassing photos as tools for blackmail. But it is the sort of mischief that you really do need to record on camera, not just because it laughably embarrassing, but also because it will remind you of some of the innocence of childhood, especially once your child has left that phase and moved on into the difficult tween or teenage years.

The aftermath

Have you ever turned your back just for a moment, just for a split second, and when you turned around again you found yourself viewing the aftermath of an unprecedented disaster? Children have an amazing capacity for destroying things in new and interesting ways, and at dizzying speeds. And if you can get past your initial distress, these are the types of images that you should capture for posterity. Let's say, for example, that your child has found a box of powdered laundry detergent or a bag of flour, and decided to pretend that he's playing in the snow. This kind of disaster can happen very quickly—often in just the time it takes for you to step away to the bathroom. No parent is immune, no matter how much you think you might be, unless all of your stuff is locked up or stashed in high places.

Laundry detergent all over the floor is going to be a huge mess, for sure, but it's great fodder for photography in the meantime. Those flour/soap covered hands and faces are going to be adorable all by themselves, but a photo of your chubby little angel sitting there with the powdered destruction all around her is going to be something that will make you smile for years to come. Maybe not during the next hour while you’re cleaning it all up, but trust me, someday.

When you're photographing this scene, make sure that you include both child and disaster. Get down to your child’s level, and try to make the disaster look even bigger than it actually is. One way to do this is by placing your focal point on a pile of flour or detergent and letting your child fall out of focus in the background. Likewise, if the disaster had anything to do with a black sharpie and/or a white wall, you can stand at somewhat of an angle to the new mural, select a narrow aperture to give you broad depth of field, and fill the frame in such a way that the graffiti appears to go on forever. Include your child in that shot too, of course, and although I'm not sure of the wisdom of asking him to wield the tools of his trade, I think you need to include the black sharpie as well.

Now again, you need to do this with some discretion. You don’t want your child to think, “Mom loves it when I make it snow in the house!” or “Mom loves it when I decorate the walls!” You can take these photos while still conveying a sense of displeasure, for example, “I am texting this picture to your father so he can see what you’ve done!” will give you both an honest and valid reason for photographing the mess without also condoning it.

Children also like to turn those markers on themselves, so if your child decided to paint himself red so he could become a baby dragon, or brown like a werewolf, that will be a pretty awesome picture too. And take it one step further—get some shots of him in the tub while you are trying to scrub all those bright colors off. Or have fun with it and have him act the part—a brown werewolf or a red baby dragon chasing little sister or the dog around the house is going to be a pretty hilarious photo.

Sometimes it's just a matter of letting go of your own personal hang ups—sure, your child wasted an entire tube of paint and sure, it's going to be a pain to clean it off of him but there’s something to be said for giving his creativity free reign. Let him role-play a little and see what happens.

Innocent mischief

There is such a thing as innocent mischief. How do you know when it's innocent mischief? Because it’s mischief that bugs you, but in a very harmless sort of way. For example, your child may like to flip mindlessly through the channels on the TV set. That's enough to drive anyone bonkers, but if it's a habit of his, or he thinks it's particularly hilarious, get your camera out. You might actually be surprised to discover that your camera can be used a little bit like reverse psychology. If you suggest to your child that you might be endorsing his behavior by taking a picture of it, you may find that he actually doesn't think the behavior is so much fun anymore.

Whatever the end result may be, try to get a picture that lets the viewer know exactly what's happening in the scene. Your child wielding the remote control and laughing hysterically is going to get that message across pretty well. Now, there may be some differences in interpretations—if your viewer doesn't know your child, for example, she may think he's just laughing at his favorite cartoon. That doesn't really matter so much, as long as your images are well composed, and do a good job at conveying the silliness of the moment and your child's personality.

You should also strive to capture a moment that you will be able to identify later on down the road—so make sure that you capture that moment as honestly as you can. That may mean taking a series of images—one of your child wielding the remote, and a couple of them over his shoulder with vastly different television shows on the set. On a similar note, mischief is nearly always accompanied by giggles (maybe not your giggles, but almost certainly the giggles of your child). Make sure that you are able to capture the spirit of the mischief as well as the mischief itself.

Naughty mischief

Let's say you catch your child in the act of some seriously naughty mischief, like throwing the cat in the swimming pool or drawing a star on the side of your car with a rock. Now, no one is going to argue that you should hide out in the bushes and take a picture of this while it's happening, oh no, you need to save the cat first (or save your paint job). But you can photograph some of what happens after the event, and those photos can serve some very important functions. First, I promise you that one day it will seem funny when you think of that poor, dripping wet cat or your child's beautiful but all too expensive art work. And as far as the family history book goes, it's still going to be an important event because it represents a learning moment for your child, and maybe for you, too. And it may also serve as a stark reminder for your child of the importance of good behavior.

So how can you capture these moments without capturing the mischief in-progress? We've already talked about shooting the aftermath—the dripping wet cat (or the process of toweling him off) can be one way to record the event. But you want to record the lesson, too, so a photo of your child in time-out or looking longingly at his siblings while they play video games and he doesn't will also serve the purpose.


Again, don't think that taking a picture means you're telling your child it's OK to misbehave. A good scolding afterwards is always helpful. And if they ask you why you took a picture if it was something they weren't supposed to be doing—be creative. Tell them you want to make sure they remember how much trouble they got in on that day, and the best way to do that is with a photo. Whatever you do, don't avoid taking the picture, and if you do have to hide in the bushes with your 400mm lens, well, I'm not going to say anything. What's important is that you're capturing a broad slice of family life with your camera, and that includes anything worth remembering, whether it's good or bad, naughty or nice.


  1. The blackmail photo
  2. The aftermath
    • Get down to the level of the destruction
    • Make the destruction look bigger than it is
  3. Innocent mischief
    • Make sure the moment is identifiable (at least to you)
    • Capture the spirit of mischief (facial expressions, etc.)
  4. Naughty mischief
    • Photograph it, don't condone it

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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+.