Tips from a Pro for taking the best children’s portraits
© Tamara Lackey, D800, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G, 1/250s, f/2.8, ISO 160, Manual Exposure, Matrix metering. It was a warmer light, later in the day, and I was working with her to get past some silly expressions and to show her authentic smile. It's fantastic to get a real look from your subject, in brilliant light—and it's worth working for, repeatedly.
© Tamara Lackey, D4, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G, 1/320s, f/3.5, ISO 1000, Manual Exposure, Matrix metering. A reserved four-year-old, he wouldn't look toward the camera or stay engaged in any way. "So I started imitating him, doing exactly what he was doing," Tamara says. "He found that funny for about 4.3 seconds, which was more than I needed. I held the camera away from myself, which I don't usually do with the 85 mm lens. But both of us were stable, not moving around, so I could."
© Tamara Lackey, D800, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G, 1/125s, f/2, ISO 2000, Manual Exposure, Matrix metering, SB-910 Speedlight. "I sat down and showed her this pose. I had to make sure her feet were back towards the stairs because I've got a pretty tight frame for the 85 mm lens, and her feet would look really large if they were sticking straight out."
Before you assess the location and the light, before the camera comes out and the lens is chosen, it's a good idea to unpack some strategy and psychology. These are truly the essential elements you'll need to get the best possible photos of your kids or grandkids, nieces or nephews.
That's one of the things we learned from Tamara Lackey. Her mastery of portraits and lifestyle photographs evidences not only imaging skills but a sure command of the strategies needed. Tamara consistently captures the moods, moments, and expressions that make for memorable images of children.
Here's more of what we learned:
Ages and Expectations
The ages of your subjects are going to dictate what you can draw from them. "When I'm dealing with younger children—babies through toddlers—part of my job is containment," Tamara says. "I go in knowing they have no interest in being photographed, [and] I have to contain them. So just for the millisecond I have, I get an expression that matters." Containment can mean making a game of all or part of the session in order to keep the child in the spot Tamara's chosen. Or it can mean setting up a location and gently—"in an inspiring, non-threatening way"—moving the child to it. "I'm always thinking, how do I get them so that I'm not always shooting the back of their heads. For that age, I lower my expectations of what kind of interaction I'm going to get, and I make fast use of the few moments I do get."
From four to nine-year-olds, Tamara expects to get a lot of performance art. "They're going to perform for me—watch me do this, watch me do that—so I have to be sure I'm shooting that as well as more authentic images."
When her subjects reach nine to 12 or 13 years of age, Tamara is photographing children who are becoming self-conscious about how they look and how they come across. "They're thinking, was I cool, was I pretty, was I fashionable, and will this look good on Instagram? So one of my jobs is to help them feel sure about themselves, and comfortable, and I take extra steps to photograph them attractively because it matters more to them now. And as I show them that I'm photographing them attractively—because I'm posing and lighting them well—I get more authentic engagement."
With teenagers Tamara's approach is to go with the truth: "Whether stated or not, I acknowledge that I know they don't want to be here being photographed." She'll tell them she's on their side, set a countdown—"it's going to be a couple of hours"—and go to work looking for and catching micro expressions. "It takes only a second to get a laugh or an intense look before they remember they're not supposed to be responding to me." She'll talk with them, but avoid the obvious—"What are you studying in school?" isn't going to work. "They have predetermined responses and expressions for that," she says. So she'll go with the offbeat, like asking about their stances on current congressional bills. The measure of her success with teenagers is the number of times she hears versions of "I had no idea you were getting these!" when her subjects see the images on the back of the camera.
In fact, Tamara says, "When you watch a video of me photographing children, it doesn't look like I'm getting anything, but the amount of time I need for an expression is only 1/200th or 1/1000th [of a] second. I go into shoots giving myself a break, knowing that I need only a hair of a second here and a hair of a second there, and if I get eight to ten of those, it's enough."
© Tamara Lackey, D4, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 1/800s, f/9, ISO 200, Manual Exposure, Spot metering. "I'd worked with her, her sister and their mum—we'd been in the water, on the sand—and she got bored with me, which is kind of a great place to be. I strive to be just background noise after a long period of engaging and engaging. So, bored, she just started walking away, and I got that moment."
© Tamara Lackey, D4, AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G, 1/160s, f/4.5, ISO 640, Manual Exposure, Matrix metering. "She was so active for the first part [of the shoot] that she was tired and resting. This is a good example of when you see a situation, don't disturb it. When I see [a] resting moment, someone zoning out, that's what I want to get, and I framed it to get the negative space she's looking into."
© Tamara Lackey, D800, AF Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D, 1/160s, f/2.8, ISO 640, Manual Exposure, Spot metering. "I was shooting two subjects in the city, using cool buildings—interiors, exteriors and colourful walls—as backgrounds. I'd remembered something the organizer Peter Walsh had said, to the effect that every time he empties a space, children dance in it. That's what she did—and then she rested on the beam for a second. I didn't set it up, she just did it, and I shot it. I framed it in a striking way, but it was all her."
And that's where the gear comes in. If you're going to have merely milliseconds to capture expressions, and maybe a little longer for poses, you need to look to fast lenses and high shutter speeds to help you out. You also need to work quickly, so complete familiarity with whatever gear you're using is vital. "The worst thing in the world is an amazing moment happening, and you're at the wrong setting or just not ready," is Tamara's take on making the mechanics speedy second nature.
Having your subjects trust you is obviously key for a professional shooter, but it's equally important for the family photographer. "The best way to start when photographing your kids or nieces or nephews," Tamara says, "is to say, 'My whole goal is to get great pictures and have fun.' And then let them know they're contributing to the success of the photo—it's a confidence builder for them."
Tamara tends to shoot a lot with the camera away from her body in order to keep interaction alive between her and her subject. "Sometimes when you move the big black box in front of your face, you shut communication down," she says. "I'm very comfortable shooting with the camera away from my face, so I can have exchanges and get really quirky looks. It sometimes appears that the subject is looking off, but she's actually looking at me while I'm shooting with the camera held away." To do this she often uses a wide-angle lens, like a 35 mm, or has the focal length of the zoom lens at its widest—"the 24-70mm is a great lens to use with this technique," she says.
© Tamara Lackey, D800, AF Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D, 1/250s, f/4, ISO 400, Manual Exposure, Matrix metering. "I wanted this image to say 'brothers.' You can see which is the actor and which is the 'looking cool' kid, and I had to interact with them separately before I could get them together. I call this 'organic posing'—I pose them and they shift into something that looks way better."
© Tamara Lackey, D610, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR, 1/125s, f/4.5, ISO 160, Manual Exposure, Matrix metering. "This is the view I get of most toddlers—going away from me. Here I worked with it and framed it so it meant something. Technically it was almost architectural photography—get the stairs straight and the angle right—but it's really all about seeing a moment, using it, and making it work. This is a 'where are you going' moment: a child going and growing...that's what I saw in this frame."
Focus on Expression
"Every single time I'm about to take a photograph, looking at the frame I'm about to shoot, I'm thinking about what I can eliminate," Tamara says. "The more I can eliminate, the more striking the subject's expression will be because viewers tend to home right in on what matters. All the other things that could be distracting have been taken out. It's not just 'unclutter your background'—most people know if you want a stronger image, you need less clutter—it's more like 'unclutter everything in the frame that takes your eye away from what you want to see.' If that means physically moving things out of the way, or changing the angle completely, even if it means the lighting won't be as strong and I'll have to add light, if it makes for a cleaner look and feel, I'm drawn to that. An uncluttered frame makes a big difference in how strong images can appear and how much impact they can have from expressions."
It's Always On
There's no warm-up to a session when you photograph kids. Don't waste a second. "I often see photographers or parents taking photographs of kids, and they're having exchanges and the child is reacting or laughing, and they're not clicking. They're forgetting it's all about the photograph. Every session starts with I'm ready."
Tamara finds that some of the best shots she gets with some subjects happen right at the beginning: with others, right towards the end. But she never knows how it's going to go, so her attitude is always: "It's happening the whole time."
Compose and Recompose
Don't lose the shot if the composition isn't perfect. "Sometimes I’m going to have to compose my subject in a way that might not be to my liking," Tamara says, "but I know I have the subject sharp and clean and can later crop as a way of recomposing to get the look and feel I want." Which is one of the reasons she favours the resolution of the D800 and the D4—"I can crop in and still get a great photo. I love having all that room to play."
"The worst thing can be having to step back because you've got a long lens on the camera, and completely losing control over the subject. With the 35 mm I can stay close ...and even get a shallow depth of field if I make a point of separating my subject from the background."
So proximity equals control? "They have to pay attention to you because you're close," she says, "and I generally need to be close to keep control. I lose engagement when I step behind a long lens and go far away. Lens choice can literally allow me to be within arm's reach when I have to guide them back into the frame, and that's something I will do in that containment-stage age group. When they're leaving, I have to roll them back into my frame."