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If you were 5 years old, what kind of portrait session would you like to have?

You know what kids love? They love sitting still! They love it when people tell them what to do. They really get a kick out of wearing frilly clothes on a hot day. Kids can’t get enough of having orders barked at them. They really enjoy having to behave, and they really don’t like when people talk to them and trade jokes. Oh, and games, let me tell you about games! Kids just can’t stand them. Kids would much rather be eating cabbage!

Okay, sarcasm practice over.

That up there is not a realistic description of most kids. But parts of it are (unfortunately) a pretty realistic description of most portrait sessions parent’s drag their kids to. No, kids don’t usually like to sit still. They love to be spoken to with respect, and they like to be heard. Kids usually love playing games and talking about all the things they know. They’d usually rather wear their scrubby clothes and they really don’t get what the big deal is about all this pictures hubbub.

As I’ve said on this blog many times before, when it comes to a portrait session with kids, the kids are ultimately in charge. Strong-arming them usually destroys the very qualities the images are trying to preserve: Their positive spirit and happiness to engage their loved ones. And, bribing them often has a similar effect. Bribes leave kids so fixated on what they’ll get when the session is over, that they don’t engage while the session is happening. In both cases, they don’t want to be there. As much as it feels like your child will be able to grasp the benefits of your bribe, or avoiding your threats of punishment, they really can’t.  For a little kid, right now is usually the most lucid thing in their minds, especially if they don’t like what’s happening right now. They haven’t learned how to dislike the current moment, and happily tolerate it at the same time.

Now, we could go into a whole self-help style parenting book here about why that is, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, and what to do about it, but I’m not a child psychologist. I’m a photographer. So honestly, I don’t know. My guess is as good as yours. But I’ve learned a lot over the years about what this means for a portrait session, and how to deal with a child’s inextricable independence that they begin to exercise as soon as possible.

The answer, as far as portrait sessions are concerned, is this: Have a portrait session that your child would enjoy.

You, as a parent, have a goal in the portrait session: To preserve the likeness of your child and as much of their childhood spirit as you can, at a special time in their lives. Your child, on the other hand, has a different goal: Feel good, get attention, have fun. So, you ought ask yourself, if you were five years old, what kind of portrait session would you like to have?

No, I’m not suggesting you bring your 5 year old kid into the decision making process—if you do, there’s a good chance your portrait session will turn into a slip n’ slide party or something. Rather I’m saying, as a parent, decide in advance to provide your child with the things that will make them happy in those moments. Sessions on playgrounds. Freely distributed treats throughout. Games and toys they love. Clothes they’re comfortable in. Respect and attention from parental figures. A photographer who will engage with them like a human, not like an adorable prop.

As a photographer with a lot of experience photographing children, it can’t be overstated how important it is to win a child’s cooperation during a session. I like to play with my pint-sized subjects and let them lead the way. It’s much, much better for the parents to say ‘yes’ to almost everything the child wants during the session, while letting me play the deal-maker. For example, Suzi might suggest a photo she thinks would look great, I can then enthusiastically agree, and then propose that if we do her idea, we’ll do mine next. Sure, this slows things down, but Suzi is on my side! Suzi isn’t itching for the session to be over, she’s having fun.

Now, the fact of the matter is, when your child partners with your photographer, you might not get the kinds of photos you expected. Maybe while browsing Pinterest, you forgot that your child wasn’t a prop you could set around wherever you wanted without an objection. But, you know they’re not props (or, you’ll discover they’re not about 15 minutes into your session). These are little human beings with rich, complex inner lives. They are not yet fully developed, but that is not going to stop them from expressing who they are. Kids don’t usually act like anyone but themselves. And that’s a very good thing, if you embrace it; if you appreciate them for who they are.

So, as you’re considering hiring a photographer for a family portrait, or just to photograph your child, keep this in mind. Choose a photographer who will work with you and your child in this way. You really need someone who is as committed to making the session enjoyable (for everyone) as they are to making the images beautiful.

If you’re interested in learning more about our family and child portraits, check out our portrait photography services page for more info!