90 per cent psychology, 10 per cent photography
Veteran children’s photographer Ann Worthy Stephenson shares her top tips for creating beautiful photographs of your grandchildren
You love your grandchildren more than anything and you just want to remember this special moment — but getting the young ones to cooperate can be quite a challenge.
A little neuro knowledge can be helpful. Did you know that there are four levels of the brain’s control centre? Levels one and two handle the fundamentals of attachment and evaluation, level three represents the emotional mind, and level four is where rational thinking happens.
Babies are born with only the first three levels; the rational thinking layer often does not finish developing until they reach their mid 20s. In short, forget trying to use logic with your kids. My motto is 90 per cent psychology and tricks, 10 per cent photography.
So, how do we influence our young subjects in order to create beautiful photographs that represent this moment in time?
Tip one: Get on their level
I mean this both literally and metaphorically. The eyes are the window to the soul, so be sure to get on your young subject’s eye level. In image 1 you can see me lying on my stomach, playing with this wee boy on the beach — directly at eye level.
Of course, there are always exceptions — every rule should be broken sometimes. Image 2 shows one of my absolute favourite ways to photograph a child. In this photo, I am directly above, with a 24-70mm lens at 24mm. The wide-angle lens emphasizes her eyes and the ‘circles of her tutu’ as a design element. I feel it shows their innocence and a beautiful smile.
With image 3 you can see this approach taken to a further level by getting above this enthusiastic basketball player. A lot of effort, but worth it.
Remember that a child’s brain doesn’t really develop its rational layer until later in life, so how can we get onto their emotional level?
How do you do that?
Tip two: What is their favourite kind of fun
From the moment Ted in image 4 saw the rocking horse, there was no holding him back — not even to get clothes on; he was so thrilled to jump on. If we had forced him to put clothes on, we would’ve got a meltdown rather than pure joy. You have to pick your battles.
Children light up when they are having fun and, like adults, they don’t want to do what they don’t want to do. Of course their favourite thing changes from year to year; a ten-year-old likely won’t have the same interest as they did at age three.
For one-year-old Ted, it was the rocking horse. Simple bubbles can be the magic potion for slightly older kids. For others, maybe it’s a bicycle, reading, sports, music, or climbing trees. Whatever their passion may be, including it in the photo shoot can make for instant connection.
Tip three: Game: contain and entertain
Kids like to move and they love to play games. You’re never going to get photos by chasing them or yelling at them to do what you say. Here are a few tips to keep them where you need them while ensuring they stay engaged:
Get them to climb a tree.
Take them to a playground. For image 7 I lay down at the bottom of the slide, waiting for this wee boy to come down. He was happy to repeat and repeat.
Find yourself a good space, tell them to run to a particular spot, then back to you. On their way back, snap away.
For image 8, I had the child hide inside piles of tyres on a farm. We created a game of hiding, then jumping out on the count of three.
Tip four: Indulge
Forget the word ‘no’ for the duration of the session — unless they’re about to run in front of a car or something dangerous. When they get to do something that they don’t normally get to do, delighted wee facial expressions will emerge.
Similarly, if they absolutely insist on you taking a photo of them doing something, but it’s not what you want — indulge. You don’t want to spark a meltdown, so simply indulge them in the shot and then move on. You’re way more likely to keep them happy that way. Put your ego in your back pocket — don’t make a big thing of it; just do it and move on, letting them feel listened to. You never know, it might end up being the better idea.
For image 9, the young boy positioned himself in this tyre. Good parental instinct would say, “Get out of there, you’ll get dirty.” Instead, we indulged. Just look at that happy expression on his face!
Tip five: Make them feel special
Focus all your positive and loving attention on them. I learned this from a session where, during the pre-planning, everyone told me the oldest boy, aged 8, was going to be extremely difficult. I took the boy off to the side and just focused on him. With that undivided attention, his eyes sparkled. He felt special. He cooperated. Now, I make certain each child feels special for every single session.
Tell them they are doing a good job. Even if you just got the worst photo of your life, do not say out loud, “Oh, that was terrible”. Keep it to yourself! Tell the child it was awesome, shift and tweak, shoot again until you get what you want.
If you tell them, “That was the worst photo I ever took”, they’re going to think they are the one doing wrong. You’ll get a way better expression sticking to positive encouragement.
Remember: If you find yourself frustrated or getting impatient, swallow it. Do not let the child sense it. Make them feel special.
Tip six: Remember the time of day
Kids are typically better in the morning. If shooting outside, it is best to avoid midday — aim for earlier. If that’s not possible, look for shady spots. Put the child’s back to the sun — otherwise you’ll get squinting and possibly harsh shadows. You can always fill in some light with a reflector or off-camera flash.
Tip seven: Watch your background
There are so many things to remember, it’s easy to get caught up and not pay attention to the background. A beautiful subject can get lost against a messy, distracting background. Shallow focus can also be used to reduce background distraction — see image 9 for examples.
Tip eight: Remember to have fun yourself
This is your precious grandchild; every moment you spend with them is a blessing. Remember to cherish this time and have fun with it. Every time you look at the photos, you’ll remember these moments.
Bonus tip: Be sure to print
Did you know that displaying photos of children in the home can:
Elevate their confidence
Boost their sense of belonging
Help them feel loved and part of the family
We focused on making them feel special during the photo session. Now, every time they see a photo from the session displayed, they’re going to be reminded that they’re special. That’s a very special thing to be able to provide as a photographer.
Ann Worthy Stephenson is a respected newborn, child, maternity, and family photographer who creates beautiful images from natural lifestyle portraits through to studio fantasy creations. She runs PhotoWorthy Images in the Caterbury town of Kaiapoi. Visit photoworthyimages.com for more of her work.