11 Ways to Prepare a Young Child for a Photography Session
Nervous about how your 1-4 year old will act in the studio?
Maybe a little afraid that this outtake will be all of your sibling pictures?
Wondering if these smiling pictures with the big sibling and baby are some sort of photography witchcraft?
Well, sort of. The photographer actually only has about 25% of control of the outcome of toddler behavior in their studio. The child, because children are behavioral wild cards, has about 25-40% of control depending on age. But the remaining control of outcome, actually falls to the parents.
Does this sound like your typical preparation for a session?
- Dress child for photos. Mama picks clothing and they child has no choice.
- Tell child: “We’re going for photos. You will smile pretty, okay?”
This is pretty much what I did the first time we took my family for family photos. The results? Well, let’s just say this current family selfie is waaaaaaay better than most of the expressions the professional photographer was able to capture.
Expecting a child to know what “smile pretty” means in a new environment is like expecting my cat to know not to eat the baby bird that just flew in my house.
I had failed my kids in preparing them for the experience. My babies ran around like crazy people and ignored the photographer’s instruction. There were tears and yelling (most of it not mine), and no ability to follow directions.
I learned a valuable (but sort of expensive) lesson that year on making sure my babies knew what to expect from a photography session with someone besides mama. The next year our pictures, by the lovely Snap Life Photography, looked like this.
No one cried (except my little boy… when he fell into a cold puddle at the end of our session), and our images were just what I wanted!
I discovered some secrets on preparing young children for a photo session, and I’m going to share them with you.
7 Things You can do to Prepare Your Young Child for a Photography Session
- Lower your expectations just a bit. We may not get a real smile or the kind that’s a true belly laugh. We may get more cheese faces or some smoldering stares. We might get goofy open mouth laughs. That’s okay. It’s who your child is at that moment and it’s worth remembering.
My favorite family image above is the one where my son has binocular eyes at the camera. Megan had told us all to “interact naturally” so we were all chatting and tickling and giving kisses. But my son, at just a few weeks after his fourth birthday, was a really hyper focused little guy. He wasn’t taking his eyes off of Megan and her directions right away. This image cracks me up every time. It’s the one we actually chose for the wall.
- Don’t underestimate the value of pretend play. No matter the age of your young child, pretend play is how your child learns about their world. Take the time to start playing photographer with your child about once daily leading up to your session. Take turns being the photographer and telling each other what to do. Take turns practicing your smiles, your silly face, your monster face, your crazy face, and your angry face. I can’t over emphasize the value of pretend play and rehearsal!
- Talk about the location and photographer. Tell them my name (Melissa!) and show them my picture above.For my studio, your child needs to know that there’s a couch for them to sit on for pictures, and a curtain for them to stand in front. There’s a fuzzy rug that they may sit on. There’s another fuzzy rug that they may lay on with baby brother. There’s also a play space just for them after they have done an amazing job showing me their faces and posing with their family and sibling.
- Practice the big sibling newborn poses. Grab a doll or dinosaur, wrap it up in a blanket, and practice holding baby (bring the play item to the session if you want!! It will help us cue the pose!). For all children, I will lay them down on a beanbag and tuck baby next to or under big sibling’s arm. For older children, I will have them sit on the couch or floor as well and hold baby.
- Make the photo session seem like it’s all about them (even if it’s really about capturing baby sibling). The more you talk about the session being about them, the more excited your child will be. I always take a few individuals of your older children at the very beginning while I’m getting to know them.
- Tell the photographer about your child before the session. The more detail the better! “Jaden is really shy, but she can be easily excited talking about Sofia the First and Pete the Cat. She likes the color purple and her favorite food is strawberry yogurt. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Her best friend’s name is Ashley and they’re both in love with a little boy named Brady at school.” All of those little details will help me prepare to talk to your child as a person. Most of the time I’ll start off a big sibling session with a story book or the promise of a story book depending on temperament. Sometimes I give the child a task to help me with while you settle baby: like laying flowers in a nest for later.
- Schedule the session for your child’s best time. Right after a meal and long before a nap are usually the best time for toddlers. I don’t know your family’s schedule, so feel free to say “10 am would work, but Jonas is the happiest right after breakfast. Would 8 am be possible?”
- Consider Positive Reinforcement (ahem…. bribery). If ever there was a time for bribery: now is that time. Older kids (4-8) do well with bribery they have to wait until after the session is over to receive: a match box car, a park playdate with daddy, ice cream, a barbie doll. Both younger and older kids also do great with food reinforcement. Cheerios, smarties, blueberries (placed right in their mouth), goldfish and jellybeans are all great choices to bring to a photography session. Give the food bribery to the photographer and let the photographer dole out the food for great behavior. This little guy did one smile for every single green jelly bean I gave him.
- Let your child have choices. This is especially important if you have a Strong Willed Child. Instead of picking out everything the child will wear, ask “Would you rather wear the blue dress or the pink dress?” At my studio, I have a wardrobe that will give your child even more choices. I’ll also try to give them choices during the session. “Would you rather me photograph you on the fuzzy rug or the couch first?” Giving your child some control over the situation empowers them to feel good.
- Let the photographer do the directing at the session unless she asks for your assistance. Having too many people bossing them around is overstimulating for any person. It’s also very difficult for a photographer to get eye contact with the lens if someone is standing over her shoulder trying to get the child to smile.
- Know when to say enough is enough. The average child’s attention span is between 15-30 minutes. At the studio, I try to do quick spurts with older siblings and subject. Individuals on arrival (if they aren’t shy), sibling images, and then family images. Sometimes the newborn and toddler allow us to do all of that in the first 20 minutes. And sometimes I have to do parent posing alone and after the child is being ignored by all of the adults for a bit, they suddenly want to be in the family pictures. I’ll capitalize on that moment.But if things are just going downhill (like our outtake above), we just call it. Normally I get a few acceptable images no matter what. Your child may not be looking straight at the camera, or smiling, or may have a toy in their hands, but we have captured them just as they are. I also ask that during a newborn or baby session, that the older sibling and the daddy (or mommy or grandma), be able to leave as soon as the sibling portraits are finished. This allows for quiet and less distracted posing and honors your child’s attention span. This is especially true for newborn sessions that last between 1.5-3 hours depending on feeding and cooperation from baby and big sibling.