How to photograph playful kids in motion

A child playing in Autumn leaves
Photo by Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

Childhood is an amazing time, filled with laughter and mischief. As a parent or grandparent, you want to capture some of these moments to look back on as the kids grow up; unfortunately, kids can be really hard to photograph. They have mood swings, don’t like to sit still, and absolutely hate posing in uncomfortable clothes. Before you start shooting, have a look at the following 12 tips to ensure your photographs will capture the essence of each child, without being clichéd, out of focus, or full of tears.

Leave the studio

If you’re trying to chase the cuteness, the best way to do so is by leaving behind the restraints of the studio. Kids are often at their best (and cutest) when left alone to their own devices. Let them roam free and see what happens. Plus, natural light makes the best photos. If you absolutely have to use the studio, make the space as fun as possible with dress up options, fun props, and picturesque places to climb and hide.

Shoot on their level

Get down on the ground and watch them play. If they climb under the table, follow. If they get lost in the brambles, be prepared to brush the burrs off yourself. You never know when a child is going to suddenly light up with glee, so if you’re standing behind a tripod, you might miss the moment. Getting down low will also create the impression that the viewer is seeing the world from the child’s perspective. Plus, kids love it when adults act silly, so if you’re having trouble getting a smile, watching the photographer crawl around on the floor might just do the trick.

Set them up for cuteness

Sometimes you have to give the perfect shot a little extra push. If you want to ensure photographic brilliance when it comes to kids, one of the most effective methods is to set them up. Introduce them to a kitten or puppy and let the adorable interaction take its own path, let them rip apart a freshly baked cake with their fingers, give them shoes that are much too big to walk around in, or dress them up as their favourite storybook character.

Take multiple shots

This is key to capturing great photographs of kids. Take as many as possible and then weed out the duds. Kids are like emotional rollercoasters; their facial expressions can change in the blink of an eye and often go from happy to sad to mad to mischievous all in the same five-minute session. Using the burst option (or just taking one photo after another) will let you watch as the changes occur, and will result in a variety of amazing options. Shoot with Canon’s Rebel T5i—a dynamic entry-level camera with five frames-per-second continuous shooting and great autofocusing technology, so that for stills and videos, capturing kids in motion will always be clear.

Always say yes

Kids are infamous for their hatred of the word “no” (unless they are the one saying it), so in the interest of great photography, always say, “yes.” Letting kids use their imagination is often the best way to keep them happy and entertained, so if they want to dress up like batman and rescue Gotham City during your shoot, it’s probably best just to let it happen. Plus, kids make the best faces when they are playing pretend.

Bring props

Kids get bored easily; if you want to keep them happy during the photo shoot, bring a few items to keep them busy. Dress-up clothes are sure to inspire shutter-worthy moments, and also allow you to have some control. Provide clothes, hats, scarves, and boots that enhance the child’s cuteness and reveal something about their personality. You could also bring along favourite toys, games, animals, musical instruments, or even snacks. A simple moment of play often ends up delivering the most natural shots of the session.

Keep the camera running

Sometimes kids can be difficult. Sometimes they will scream and cry and refuse to smile even once. However, these moments are often worth capturing as well. If the child is in tears because she doesn’t want to pet the kitten, or is mad because you don’t want him taking off his pants, keep shooting and see what happens. These moments of imperfection can result in fascinating photographs that not only tell a story, but also a glimpse into the hilarity (and ridiculousness) of childhood.

Be prepared for movement

Kids have trouble sitting still, so be prepared to capture them in motion. The best way to ensure your photographs will be in focus is to have a fast shutter speed. Try out a few speeds and make adjustments as necessary until you find the effect you’re looking for. A speed of 125-60/sec often works great, and to freeze motion use a shutter of 250/sec or more. If you’re not sure which speed is best, you can always try a ‘sports mode,’ which is designed to capture movement.

Let them interact

If you’re photographing more than one kid at a time, more often than not all you need to do is sit back and let them interact. Siblings are so comfortable with each other they often distract one another from the camera entirely, making each shot natural and in the moment. As many parents know, kids are at their cutest when they don’t realize they’re being watched, so make things as ordinary as possible and let the kids be themselves.

Keep it short and sweet

Kids have a short attention span, so there is no way they will sit though an intensive photo shoot. If you’re outside watching them play, it’s probably safe to just keep shooting, but if you have everything set up for an indoor or on-location photo session, make sure to get things moving right away; the longer you wait, the more likely it is the kids will get cranky.

Let them help

Kids love to be independent, so let them participate in the creation of the photograph wherever possible. Let them pick out their own clothes, decide which props they want to use, or where they want to play. If everything seems like it was their idea, they will be less likely to give you a hard time during the shoot. It’s also a great idea to let them see some of the photographs as you are shooting; kids love to see pictures of themselves and will be more interested in the process. If you’re really struggling, let them take a few photos of you first, to make the entire thing seem more like a game.

Have fun

The best way to take some amazing photographs of kids is to just have fun. Make the kids laugh, be silly, and above all—don’t lose your temper. Stay calm and remain patient until that last photograph has been captured. Kids respond well to a friendly face and are more likely to act naturally when they are having a good time. It can be near impossible to get kids to cooperate exactly how you planned, but if you’re flexible and able to relax and have fun, you’ll find it’s actually quite easy to photograph kids.

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