How to Photograph Children

Photographing children can sometimes be a challenging task, since children typically do not like posing for the camera (especially when they are too busy doing something they like). Everything happens way too fast, making it extremely difficult for the photographer to capture the moment. Because of that, many of us end up with blurry and out-of-focus photographs and wonder how we can improve our photography skills to get better results. After learning much about child photography, taking pictures of my two boys and doing some work on the field, I decided to write an article and provide tips and pointers on how you can successfully photograph children.

Powerful child portraits are much different than “look at the camera and smile” pictures. A true portrait will reflect a child’s personality, energy and uniqueness that every one of the bundle of joys have.

Malika Catching Rain

Here is the outline of the most important factors in child photography:

  1. Plan the process, know your gear and have the right equipment
  2. Get to know your subject and learn how to interact and connect with the child
  3. Get creative, imaginative and be fun to spend time with
  4. Have the props to entertain the child or to set the mood for the photo shoot
  5. Get down to their level and figure out your angles
  6. Choose the right location, clothing and timing
  7. Make sure the parents of the child are on the same page with you
  8. Be patient and be ready for mood swings
  9. Take lots of pictures
  10. Post-processing and image retouching

1) Plan the process, know your gear and have the right equipment

Even though things might get a little out of hand while photographing children, try to plan the photo shoot as much as you can. First things first, get to know what kind of gear you need for that particular photo session. If you are planning to shoot indoors, have all the necessary photo equipment with you. The light inside of the house or the building may not be as great as outdoors and you may need extra gear to make things work. If you are using a point and shoot camera, I wouldn’t recommend shooting with it indoors, simply because point and shoot cameras produce too much noise in low-light environments. To have best quality pictures indoors, you will need a good light source to illuminate your subject. Shoot by a big window or a well-lit room. Have your external flash, shoot-through umbrella, bounce cards ready if natural light is out of reach. Try to limit or omit using your on-camera flash, as it creates very ugly and harsh shadows in the images. If you are shooting outdoors, know the basic light techniques. Shooting against the sun is not desirable, if you do not know how to manually control your camera.

What Camera Settings should I use? Since children are fast, dynamic and spontaneous, it is virtually impossible to command them to do what you wish. Set up your camera to a setting where you will be able to control the process easily. I photograph children in “Aperture Priority” mode. In this mode, you will be able to play with the depth of field by changing the aperture, letting your camera choose the right shutter speed for you. In low-light environments, you will probably need to set your aperture to the smallest number (a fast lens with a large aperture such as f/1.4 helps a lot) to have a reasonably fast shutter speed. If it gets darker and the light starts depleting, spike up the ISO a little. Even though the images will be a little grainy, you might capture an image worth the whole photo session. Remember, it is better to have a sharp image with more noise, than a blurry noise-free image! If your camera has an “Auto ISO” feature, enable Auto ISO and set your maximum ISO to 1600 on a full frame camera (FX) and ISO 800 on a non-full frame camera (DX). A little bit of noise is not a big deal, since you can get rid of it in Lightroom and Photoshop. I find that beyond ISO 800-1600, the images get too noisy for large prints. To learn more about camera settings, I highly recommend reading our article on how to take sharp photos.

Uma Playing

What is the best camera and lens for child photography? Any camera will work fine, although using a DSLR with a fast aperture lens is highly recommended. You do not need the expensive top of the line DSLRs for this – any entry-level DSLR such as Nikon D3000/D5000 or Canon Digital Rebel series will work great for child photography. The more important part is the lens. I recommend using fast lenses, because they work very well in dim environments and do a terrific job in isolating subjects and creating a beautiful, creamy background blur, also known as “bokeh“. For low budgets (up to $250), lenses such as Nikon 35mm f/1.8, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 and Canon 50mm f/1.8 lenses deliver great results for child portraiture. If you have a medium-size budget (up to $500), you should look into the Nikon 50mm f/1.4, Nikon 85mm f/1.8 and Canon 50mm f/1.4, Canon 85mm f/1.8 lenses. Those with large budgets (up to $2,000) should definitely consider the Nikon 85mm f/1.4, Nikon 70-200mm VRII and Canon 50mm f/1.2, Canon 85mm f/1.2 and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. I personally tried out many different lenses, including the top of the line professional lenses, and my personal favorite is still the 50mm f/1.4 lens that I use more than any other. It is small, lightweight and very sharp for most of my lifestyle photography needs.

Behind the Tree

What lighting equipment should I use for photographing indoors in low light? Excellent question! If you do not have a large and powerful source of light (such as a large window) to lit up the room, your only option, unfortunately, will be to use an external flash/lighting. As I pointed out above, you should not use a built-in flash for any kind of portraiture. The built-in camera flash creates ugly shadows both on the face and behind your subject, so you should try not to use it. If the room ceiling is white and not too high, I find that a good way to lighten up the room is to use an external flash mounted on the top of the camera, with the flash head pointed up. What this does, is it bounces the light off the ceiling, giving softer shadows. Take a look at this example, where I bounced the light off the ceiling:

Omar Laughing

When I use a flash like that, I set the flash to “TTL” (through the lens) mode, set my camera to “Manual” mode, then set my aperture to somewhere between f/2.8 and f/5.6, my shutter speed to 1/200th-1/250th of a second and my ISO to the lowest number (ISO 100 or ISO 200). In “TTL” mode, the camera automatically determines what the flash power should be and fires the right amount to properly expose the subject. This is hassle-free, works great and delivers great results. For Nikon DSLRs, you should look into the SB-600 and SB-900 flashes, while for Canon DSLRs, check out the 430 EXII and 580 EXII external flashes.

If you want to get more serious about indoor and studio photography, you should look into off-camera flashes and lighting (we will write a separate article on this later).

2) Get to know your subject and learn how to interact and connect with the child

If you have time, try to get to know the child before the photo session. Try to determine what the child likes, find a common ground, be their friend. Do not be another adult to dictate them what to do. Stick to their level of innocence, playfulness, adopt their energy and make them laugh by being silly. There is absolutely no need to ask the child to smile for the camera. Aside from having dull and fake images, you will not obtain anything extraordinary. Let the child play and enjoy himself/herself, while you get ready for the shot. Ask the parents to stand right behind you, then when you are all set, either call the child yourself or ask the parents to do it for you. As soon as the child looks, focus instantly on the closest eye and take a picture. Remember, even without a smile or a giggle you can have some emotional, sensitive and touching images. It is important to build a bond with a child to obtain the best results.

Ruslan Looking

3) Get creative, imaginative and be fun to spend time with

Storyboards – To really capture the child’s personality, keep photographing the child while he/she is in motion and playing around. You will have at least 3-4 great images just from those 15 minutes to create a series of images in one frame. These action-packed series of images tell a bigger story than a single image. It also adds a variety to your final product. Parents love these types of shots!

Maz

Try to show emotional appeal, sensitivity and spontaneity in your images. Let the child connect with you. Allow the child to touch the back of your camera and show their pictures on the LCD. Play roles, ask questions and fulfill their curiosity.

Malika #11

4) Have the props to entertain the child or to set the mood for the photo shoot

Just like adults, children tend to get nervous after seeing a room full of equipment or a foreign person in the family. While we already know that bonding with the child is essential, it is also useful to help them to get relaxed. Give them something to play with. One can have countless options to entertain children. The first step is to consult parents and find out what their children like doing. Make sure it is you who brings the stuff for bonding purposes. Have some toys, bubble makers, balloons, fruits, candies handy. While you can absolutely use these props in your pictures, the main purpose is to have the child relaxed and distract his/her mind from unnecessary activities.

Uma Bubbles

5) Get down to their level and figure out your angles

While it is a common rule to get down to the child’s level in order to obtain killer images, you can also try a couple of things against common rules. Snap some pictures standing up, snap another laying down and snap some more sitting on child’s level. Remember, creativity is your friend. Work with it. Try different angels, shoot the details of child’s clothing and favorite toys. After-all, you are creating memories for years to come. Sensitivity is a big part of child photography.

Umar Eating

Uma Expression

6) Choose the right location, clothing and timing

Location is very important to create great images. Some parents let the photographer choose the location. I always scout for locations in advance. If you have time and means to travel around, I suggest to take the opportunity. This way, you will know the good spots and you can plan for your shots better.

Background and surroundings – While taking pictures, make sure that there are no distractions in the background. Ideally, the child should be isolated from the background and the background should look pleasantly soft and blurry. Watch for harsh objects and ugly colors both in the background and surroundings.

What to wear – I advise to dress the child in something that really suits their personality. It is your job to be creative and try out different things to see if one approach works better than another. Make sure to tell the parents to bring additional clothing and other items such as hats, sunglasses, etc. in advance. If you think that the clothing is not very appealing or appropriate for your environment, talk to the parents and ask them to change the clothing or spice it up.

Timing is another big factor for successful images. To avoid harsh shadows and various exposure problems, try to photograph early in the mornings or late afternoons. Outcast days work great too, because the clouds help soften up the light.

Isadora #2

7) Make sure the parents of the child are on the same boat with you

Do not assume that the child’s parents are OK with your tactics and with how you are treating their child. Take time to explain your plans and your approach to them. Once they are comfortable and confident with your style and ideas, they can help you out a great deal. They can assist you in interacting with the child, so that you can capture more of the emotions that are usually very hard to create while standing behind the camera.

Malika Laughing

8) Be patient and be ready for mood swings

Mood Swings – Being a child photographer is not an easy task. Children are very unpredictable. I cannot even predict the behavior of my two boys, not to mention the reaction of a child that will be seeing me for the first time. Be patient, give them some time to get used to you and your presence. Put the parents’ minds at ease that you will not take off once your time is up. Rushing will get you nowhere.

Children might get very moody if they are tired of being photographed. They might want to do something different, like play another game or move to a different location. If you feel that you haven’t gotten enough of good pictures, talk to the parents and see what other approaches you can take. Act a little silly to cheer the child up. That last giggle you capture could be the best photo of the day.

Maz Serious

9) Take lots of pictures

And yes, take LOTS of pictures. Do not just sit there, waiting for the best moment, because you might not ever see it. Take lots of pictures, change angles, take more pictures. Get closer, then get further away and keep firing! Most likely, you will have plenty of blurry pictures and it’s OK, as long as you have some good pictures that are acceptably sharp.

10) Post-processing and image retouching

Generally, I do not do much post-processing on my images. Well-composed images rarely need to be post-processed. Especially with children, there is really no need to edit images – for the most part, they do not have blemishes or imperfections. Try to keep the image natural. Too much work on the picture will change the personality of the person embossed in them. I mostly do minor editing in Lightroom and use very minimal Photoshop if there is a need for it. You might also need to crop the image, fix the angle and add some vignetting to highlight the subject in the center. Pay special attention to the eyes and make sure that they have a catchlight.

Malika Posing


Avatar of Lola Elise About Lola Elise

is a professional wedding and portrait photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. She is the co-author of Photography Life and author of the Lola Elise website. Read more about Lola here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) WebMonster

    Haven’t read it in details yet, but I am already sure that this is one of the best posts here! Thank you and keep it up!

  2. 2
    ) Lola Mansurov

    WebMonster, thank you :) There is still some work to be done.

  3. Nice article. Thanks for posting this.

    I usually take pics of kids outdoors. They don’t need much coaxing to get into action outside ;) When indoors, I like positioning them beside windows because I love the softness of the light streaming from the window.

    • 4
      ) Lola Mansurov

      I absolutely agree with you :) How are you doing? You probably are busy with work and family. You need a statue of yourself for taking care of sooo many things! :)

  4. 5
    ) Amit

    >>As I pointed out above, you should not use a built-in flash for any kind of portraiture.

    Do you think that a built-in flash diffuser can reduce its harshness? I came across this product from Gary Fong: http://www.amazon.com/Gary-Fong-Puffer-Flash-Diffuser/dp/B0011000R6/ref=pd_cp_p_1

    Can this be useful?

    • Amit, the diffuser will help a little bit, but not too much. The problem with built-in flashes is not just the harshness of light, but also the direction of light, flash power and distance between the lens and the flash.

      If you want the best quality light, you should be using a good external flash.

  5. 7
    ) Amit Kumar

    Thanks Nasim for clarifying this.
    I am planning to buy an external flash but I am unable to decide between SB 600 and SB 400. SB 600 appears way too big and SB 400 has many limitations. The more I search on the internet forums, the more I get confused. Which one would you suggest?

    • Amit, go for the SB-600 – it is a much more versatile flash than the SB-400.

  6. 9
    ) Valerie

    hey there… I have a quick question…
    I’m undecided on getting the Nikon D5000 or Canon 550D. I dont really like the feel of the Nikon in my hands, so am leaning towards the Canon. but I am worried about the 550D having so many megapixels, that I just wont use, how it will effect my photo. I will be taking photo’s of my kids mostly and inside our house can be very poor light on the best of days. I’m worried that that many mp in low light will discolour/ruin the photo, and cranking up the ISO to much. Would I be better of going the Nikon? I was looking at the Canon 500D, also. but that is quite a bit slower in many things. what would you reccomend?

    • Valerie, both cameras are good and I would certainly lean towards the D5000 for low light performance.

  7. 11
    ) Amanda

    The information above is great, Thank You. I have a quick question and I know it has already probably been answered above but I think it’s a little case of information overload for my amatuer photography brain. I have some friends who have asked me to take some photo’s of their children, which i’m more than happy to do but a little anxious as to how to set my camera up. I have an Olympus E-520 and only have 2 lenses. 1.)40-150mm and 2.) 14-42mm, I will be shooting indoors with medium natural light and i dont have an external flash. I have been trying to play with the aperture and shutter speeds etc but just confusing myself.

  8. 12
    ) Nanda

    Good Morning Mr & Mrs Nasim

    nice website it give me alot information for me as Newbie.

    I Have a Problem right know I confused which one I should buy Nikon AF 50mm f1.4g + SB600 or Nikon 50mmf1.8+SB900. my needed for Wedding + Portrait.

    Thank’s for your attention

  9. 13
    ) Mariam

    Great website, with lots of really useful practical tips (and lots of heart!). Thanks Lola and Nasim!! Beautiful work.

  10. 14
    ) srinivas

    Excellent Excellent Post ….

  11. 15
    ) Hendra

    Wow.. this article is what I’m looking for. I’m having difficulties to take pictures of my daughter. Thanks for the tips, can’t wait to try it with my camera :)

  12. I wish I had come across this post before I wrote a similar one on my blog. I am neither a professional blogger nor a professional photographer, but had tried to put out my tips and tricks for taking better pictures of kids in my post. it is not as in depth or technically advanced as yours, but i felt like sharing it with you and your readers. http://subhorup.blogspot.com/2011/11/photography-tips-photographs-of.html

  13. 17
    ) Claudia

    Hello Lola !

    Thank you for the information…Could you tell me more about light modifiers and accessories that use with babies, toddlers and older kids (I believe you can do different things with each one). I am thinking in buying reflectors -the cheap 5 in 1- , Are they good or do you recommend something else instead? Do you like to use flash (sb-900 for example) with an umbrella or do you prefer natural light when possible? I’d like to get dramatic pictures using when possible. By the way, can I use SB-900 with a D5100? Thank you

  14. 18
    ) Joseph thomas

    Hi,

    Just loved Your Photos.Is it possible to take good pictures of children with the Kit Lens(18-105mm,f3.5-f5.6) that is provided with D7000.I am a starter in Photography.

    Jeffy

    • 19
      ) Tomas Haran

      Hi Joseph.
      Yes it is very possible, but you would be somewhat limited to shooting outdoors. For a kit lens that is a sharp lens from f6- f11. But, if you’re looking for a great portrait lens, fast and budget friendly pick up the 50mm 1.8D $110. It is one of the cheapest Nikon lenses out there, but very sharp.

      • 21
        ) Joseph thomas

        Thanks Tomas,

        I bought a d5100 with the kit lens 18-55 and a 35mm f1.8g.Hope this is a good start.Is it advisable to buy a 50mm f1.8g even though having a 35mm f1.8g.Please advice.

        • 22
          ) Tomas Haran

          yes, but pick up the 50mm 1.8d, as it is cheaper. the 35mm will show some distortion if you are too close to the subject like when doing head shots. the 50mm 1.8d is inexpensive and a great portrait lens. but, practice with the 35mm and see how you like it first.

  15. 20
    ) Tomas Haran

    Lola.
    Very nice post!

  16. 23
    ) ashley

    great info, i am curious about what your response would be to claudia concerning the sb900?

  17. 24
    ) chantal

    I really enjoyed reading through all your tips, i found them very helpful and clear.
    You have done a wonderful job at explaining everything. Great work and thank you!!

    Wondering if you could give me some advice as i struggle when shooting fast situations and low light situations/locations.
    What would you suggest to be the best setting and shooting mode to use as a general rule???

  18. 25
    ) Elona

    thanks a lot, this is a great help. Love this site :)

  19. 26
    ) Goran

    Hi Nasim

    I’m a keen photography hobbyist who likes taking photos of my kids as they grow and learn. I find your articles very informative and this site motivational. Thank you for this great resource.

    What Autofocus settings do you find work best when photographing kids?
    I like to manually select my focus area using the Single Point AF mode and use the AF-C focus mode (set to release+focus priority), however, I find I am continually recomposing the shot as my kids run around like crazy. I find images have some motion blur, or the focus areas tend to vary from the eye, to the nose, to the hair, and even miss altogether. I don’t really have the opportunity to keep them still long enough … besides its more fun taking photos of them when they are doing crazy things.

    Adjusting the focus point in Single Point AF takes a bit of time, so I find I’ve missed a few fun moments as I try to get the focus point in an area of the frame relative to the composition I am trying to make.

    Do you see any benefits in using Dynamic Area AF and Auto Area AF modes? I fear I may not be able to control where I’d like the focus point to be in the frame using these modes?

    Am I too controlling or should I just trust my gear more?

    Any advice you have will be much appreciated.

    PS: I’ve recently picked up a 2nd hand Nikon D3s, and using it with a 50mm 1.8 G as my most common setup.

    Thanks
    Goran

    • 27
      ) Goran

      Sorry Lola, I just saw that you wrote this article!

  20. 28
    ) Amb

    Omg!! I’m a beginner and this enlighten me soooo much!!! Thank you!!!! C: btw, I’m using Canon Powershot S3 IS , and i can’t find the aperture anywhere. What am I supposed to do?

  21. 29
    ) Bethany

    Lola,

    Thank you for this article. I am very much a beginner and only bought a camera to start taking photos of my 6 month baby girl, Selah. I bought a Nikon D7000 with the 18-105mm lens and the 55-300 mm. I am quickly discovering that I love pictures I see online with the blurred backgrounds, much like the ones you have posted. I realized that in order to achieve this effect, I am going to need an additional lens. Ninkon recently came out with the 28mm (f/1.8G) (~$700). Is this lens worth the extra ~$200 over the Nikkor 50mm (f/1.4G) lens you recommended in your article? Which lens will give more versatility? The 28mm is advertised with nano crystal coating that reduces ghosting and flare. Is this important with children’s portraits?
    Overall, I have found this website extremely helpful, thank you for that! Are there any good books you would recommend reading that can provide additional help for SLR beginners? Thank you so much!

    • 30
      ) Goran

      A 50mm lens would be better than a 28mm for photographing children. A 28mm is quite a wide angle for portrait type shots

      I recently bought a 50mm 1.8G and find I am using it most often to photograph my kids

      • 31
        ) Bethany

        Goran, so with the 50mm do you find that you have to back up more to get the whole child in the picture where as with the 28mm you can stand closer? Maybe I am not thinking of the angle correctly? I appreciate your response! Thank you!

        • 32
          ) Goran

          Hi Bethany

          Kids naturally gravitate to the camera as they are very curious creatures.

          Most of my shots are within 1m or so of my kids and are generally close up focusing on what they are doing, playing with, or looking at rather than trying to get their whole bodies in the photo. Usually get their whole bodies in the shot at around 1.5m.

          The 50mm is great at this distance as I can get some pretty good bokeh (background blur) at that range. As a rule of thumb, the wider the angle the lens, the close to the subject you will need to be in order to create good background blur (bokeh) in your shots.

          If you want to get in the action around your kids a 50mm 1.8 lens is great. If you want to take photos and observe from a distance, better going for a longer zoom lens like a 70-200mm f2.8. The bigger the aperture(f number) the more background blur you
          Can create.

          Try taking some shots with you zoom lens at a distance at its widest aperture settings. You should still be able to take some great shots outdoors where there is sufficient light.

          • 33
            ) Bethany

            Thank you Goran for your help!

  22. 34
    ) Paul

    Amazing photographs, love the article too. I’m currently experiecing some problems with my portraits when shooting in Manual and fill flash; the shots are completely varied on exposure, so take one shot…. looks kinda close to where you want to be, take another shot and pow it’s blown out and overexposed. Can’t figure it out cos on M setting, if I haven’t adjusted the settings, surely it should be constant? Think I’m going to have to take some test shots and figure out what’s going on? I don’t think the metering mode shouldn’t effect the reults?

  23. 35
    ) Venkat Bitra

    hi Nasim,
    Just like you, I was not satisfied with the pictures that shoot with my Nikon D-60. I started searching for basic photography tips. Mansurovs has been a very good guide for me to start with. I looked over 100 sites out there, but I could definitely say Masurovs has been the best so far. Thank you for such a great site with all your inputs, reviews, examples etc…
    I have Nikon D60 with 18-55 mm VR lens and 50 mm 1.8 G prime lens. I am starting my experimentaiton starting with portraits. I am looking to set-up my studio in our basement and need your recommendation on the studio lighting equipment that I could buy as a beginner. Your adivse would be greatly appreciated.

    thanks

  24. A great read. Really informative.
    Thanks so much for this!

  25. 37
    ) Madison

    Ahh! I have fallen in love with your website. I have it bookmarked and read it daily. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I am starting to get into newborn photography and am learning so much! Thank you.

    From reading your posts, I now know what lens to get and I am trying to decide on an external flash. I have a Nikon 3100 and was wondering if the SB 700 would work fine with a soft box as well? In one of your posts you said to get both the 600 and the 700, but I am trying to understand both if the 700 can be both the slave and master.
    Thank you for your time.

  26. 38
    ) Stacie

    Great article! I am new to being “serious” about photography and your site has given me a lot to think about and apply. I do a lot of canine photography…any chance you might be doing an article about getting the best and/or unique shots of puppies and adult dogs indoors and out. I currently have a Nikon d5100 with a Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX and a Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens. I plan to upgrade my camera body to a 300s soon as stepping stone before spending the money for an 700 or 800 since I am still learning a lot.

  27. 39
    ) Srijaggu

    WOW !!! Great Article. Thanks for detail information, Helps a lot.

  28. 40
    ) Jothon Ropero

    Very helpful. i wont close the page without saying thank you, you deserve a credit. you are brilliant! keep it up.

    Jothon
    Philippines

  29. Hi Lola,
    Really wonderful pictures..
    It would be more helpful If you or Nasim prepare an in-depth video for Port Processing Portraits..
    I mean skin smoothening, white balance changes, eye/hair/teeth sharpening etc..
    I know we have many videos on youtube for the same but having them from you would be even better..
    You can post separate videos for Post Processing Kids/Teenage/Old portfolios.

  30. 42
    ) Robert

    First, thank you for the effort that you have put into this webs.
    Does the 50mm f1.4g work as well for both FX and DX digital camers?

    thanks, Robert

  31. 43
    ) Amit Varshney

    Thanks Lola for such a informative article!!! I was always confused for taking pictures of my child…but surely not now after reading this article.

    One question..In your very first pic in this article, flowers are in red color in child’s hand while pic is B&W. Did you edit this in Photoshop manually?

  32. 44
    ) Tim Bryant

    Great article. I definitely think #2 is the most important.

Leave a Comment

*