I began my career as a portrait photographer before I began my career as a parent, but even then, children were always my favorite subject. To me, everything about children is poetic, and using my camera to frame each lilting and lyrical detail is what ignited my interest and fueled my passion to cultivate a career in photography.
I reveled in capturing the little things that delighted me about my tiny subjects: soft, gentle faces, plump fingers, smooth skin and wispy hair. As I began to have my own children—two very photogenic daughters—my take on children’s portraiture evolved. Seeing things as not “just” a photographer anymore, I began to see my subjects through the lens of motherhood, which was a more multifaceted perspective. I began to notice, with a greater appreciation, the entire story behind each child, which also included scraped knees, untied shoelaces and bedhead.
Because I was living, day in and day out, with my own young children, I experienced, witnessed and appreciated each fleeting phase of childhood, from big milestones to small moments. I recognized the importance of all of it, and, through the parenthood lens, everything became photo-worthy.
What I saw as important and even beautiful were so many moments I hadn’t noticed before. All of these things began to catch the interest of my camera lens, and a new idea of portraiture came into focus. Capturing authentic portraits of my own children helped me to do the same for my clients, and, somehow, the work itself became more creative, fun and satisfying. Although there aren’t real rules to follow when capturing portraits in this way, there are plenty of tips and tricks and things to look for as you shoot through a parent’s perspective.
Let Kids Be Kids
I recall my own father sitting me on a rocking chair, insisting I sit still in order to capture pictures of me. I, too, would use this approach in the studio—oh, the variety of chairs found in the studio—but when shooting around my house or out on location, I found it much easier and more photographically productive to just let kids be kids. Giving children the freedom to move around on their own terms allows them to naturally pose themselves, which almost always makes for an authentic and interesting portrait opportunity.
Kids are funny. They’re expressive, uninhibited, quirky and often messy. Whether it’s mismatched socks, extra accessories, face paint—or even their dinner—the things children wear and how they wear them can add layers, literally, to a portrait. Allowing for the absurdities of childhood, no matter how unsightly they may seem, can accentuate both the personality and the essence of your young subjects.
I’ve been photographing my children on the beach annually since as long as I can remember. Each year, I attempt portraits of them that reflect something about them that particular year. In one example, with my daughter being really into dance, we shot a number of dancing and jumping shots. So much of this speaks specifically of her and of this place: untamed, wild, expressive, beautiful—all things that speak of this beach and of my free-spirited daughter. And doing a monochromatic conversion made the image artsy and timeless.
Find Poetry In Motion
Allowing kids to be themselves usually rules out them sitting still for very long, if ever. But there are a million great moments to be frozen in time, right in the midst of motion. You can either use the movement to your advantage, actually allowing for some blur (on purpose), which can lead to an unexpected and even whimsical portrait, or you can stop the motion, capturing an unabashed expression in the midst of a playful moment.
Hair, clothes, props, surroundings can all help to create the story behind the person in your portrait. Traditionally, in portraiture, our subjects are well groomed and coiffed, while our surroundings are serene, as not to take away from the subject at hand. But with children, wild can be wonderful. Consider allowing natural, wild beauty to emerge and frame your subject accordingly. You may be surprised at how beautiful the wild can be.
Give Them Space
Like with any other type of photography, composition can make or break the shot. It can be easy to forego compelling composition in exchange for framing up a traditional head-and-shoulders portrait. But, when you use a little more creativity, compositionally speaking, you can elevate a simple headshot into something much more interesting. Using negative space in an unexpected way can bring visual interest to your image. Plus, if you leverage the space by allowing for other elements to be included within the frame, it could help you tell a more complete story of your subject.
I know the shot of my daughter at the beach will stand the test of time for being a quintessential portrait of my tween. I can’t help but recognize her long, unkempt hair f lying free in the wind as a metaphor of her wild, youthful tween spirit. Capturing that shot on the beach that means so much to my family brings an added layer of meaning and metaphor.
Anticipate The Expression
Instead of chasing your subject around to get the perfect shot (which is totally necessary much of the time), sometimes being more patient and discrete can make your job easier while bringing into view a quintessential portrait. Focusing on your subject, keeping your camera still and just waiting for that moment when he or she lights up the frame with the perfect expression is one of my favorite parent-photographer techniques. Knowing your subject well (like your own children) can help with this approach of anticipation, but even when working with clients, you know that certain things will always entice the most joyful of expressions (bubbles, balloons and sweets, to name a few). You can always use those things to your photographic advantage.
I don’t have my camera lying in wait for every gift my children open, but in the case of a journal that my daughter really wanted, I knew she’d be excited. Even still, I couldn’t have anticipated that much excitement! Having my camera at the ready, knowing an expression would come from opening this gift, paid off when I was able to capture a perfect birthday moment of surprise and delight—every parent’s dream!
Focus On The Details
We all have distinct characteristics that are uniquely our own. Why not embrace them and play up those things in a portrait? Whether it’s something that’s indicative of your subject’s life stage (a missing tooth or a new haircut) or just a certain quality or characteristic of the child (a cowlick or freckles), consider capturing something unique and endearing in your portraiture. Just like time, the moments of childhood fly by. Capturing special vignettes like these will make any parent swoon.
Tracey Clark is the author of “Elevate the Everyday: A Photographic Guide to Picturing Motherhood,” co-author of “Expressive Photography” and founder of Shutter Sisters. Learn more about Tracey and her work at traceyclark.com or find her on Instagram @traceyclark