A couple of weekends back we were due to meet some old university friends and their kids for a picnic. Given that they live in Thailand and we only see them once a year, this is a big deal for us. My friend and I have had discussions in the past about the challenges of photographing kids, after I sent them a canvas print of images I took at last year’s visit. The discussion was around how the images I had selected were not those that she would have selected or even taken – but she liked them. I suspected at the time that this was because these were her kids and my way of seeing them was rather different to her own. My theory was that when you see someone every day you perhaps don’t notice the small facial expressions and mannerisms that are defining in the eyes of a relative stranger.
However, reviewing the images from this year’s session, which also include my own son – a subject that I do see everyday, I came to doubt my theory. I don’t photograph my son as often as some of my friends photograph their kids – a fact I often feel a bit guilty about. I think this is because I don’t like taking photos as records of events – I somehow feel that photographing a birthday, or a family day out somehow removes me from it. It makes me feel distant and separate and so I’ve usually opted to leave the camera at home for such things, take a few phone snaps to send to absent grandparents, and focused on creating the memories rather than the j-pegs.
When I do photograph my son it’s about creating the image, not recording the moment. It’s about capturing him, his personality, his expressions his appearance which are beautiful in themselves not just because he’s my son. I know that there is inevitably some bias here and clearly he is also used to being photographed and so is a good model – but, I take that approach with any child I photograph. Whether its for my 50 faces project, for the parents or like this occasion an infrequent visit what I look for are the small things – the interactions, quirks and unconscious things that make children who they are. As parents I think the temptation is to record events and always go for the smiley shot – when the reality it most kids don’t look like that most of the time and by the time they’re 6 their camera smile often takes on a rather forced, maniacal look which is not terribly endearing!
So – my first tip on photographing kids is “don’t pose them” – just let them get on with being kids and watch for the money shots. You can organise them into groups, set up some situations or events but don’t worry about getting them to smile for the camera, or stand a certain way – let them do what they want and the shots will be more natural and more insightful. In particular in groups it’s a nightmare trying to get everyone facing the camera, smiling and not blinking at once – so don’t bother. Just let them have fun with each other and go with that.
My second tip is “give it time“. When shooting for myself, I’m actually waiting for the moment when they forget I’m there and go back to doing whatever they want. They’ll normally do some posing for me, particularly if they between 5 and 10 years old, but those shots are more for them than for me. The ones I want are the ones where they’ve got bored and wandered off and are doing their own thing – that’s when you get the real essence of kids.
I guess a final point, and something I repeatedly have to remind myself of – is not to be afraid of photographing your own kids. As someone who’s ‘into’ photography I sometimes feel the pressure of always making every shot a masterpiece and imagining that every shot will be critiqued and may not stand up – but honestly that’s bollocks! It’s so much fun photographing your kids and although so many shots will be a failure due to their erratic and pacey movements or not having time to get the settings just right, every now and then you’ll get something that’s great – and it will make you smile for years to come – something that I’m not sure other photographic subjects do quite so reliably.