Five Photography Tips I Learned From My Toddler
Yes, you read that correctly. My toddler. My two year old toddler, taught me five very important things about photography.
Before I jump into that list, let's make sure we're on the same page. You see, I didn't realize my toddler was teaching me these things as they occurred. The realization came after many disastrous photo shoots with my little man. I had no idea he was schooling me the entire time. And let's also note that I first learned these lessons from a mommy perspective, not a photographer's.
Believe it or not, we adults can be pretty dense sometimes. We try to make things harder than they really are. We often set our expectations WAY too high when it comes to our kids. So, it was quite a while before I realized my "Lucas Lessons" could benefit me as a photographer and not just as his mother.
Ready for that list???
Well, I would love to tell you that you will be one enlightened individual after reading this post. Unfortunately, all five items are pretty simple. The problem is that we (adults, parents, teachers, etc.) already KNOW these things, but we don't apply them in our everyday lives. So follow me here. Read the list. Then take a moment to reflect. Would life with a toddler be easier if you applied these five items daily?
1. Be Patient
For the first year of Lucas' life, he was a dream to photograph. Once he reached the age of sitting up, it was a pretty simple process. I just placed him where I wanted him, made sure his daddy was behind me making silly faces, and clicked. Done. Everyone gets to go home as one big happy family. :) Then he learned how to use those legs to go where HE wanted to go...and it all went downhill from there. Most of our shoots ended with daddy sweating after jumping around and acting like a fool, and mommy nearly in tears because I didn't get that one perfectly posed image I had mapped out in my mind.
Well, it took me a year of stressing out over his shoots to realize that I just need to be patient. He's a toddler. He's curious. He wants to explore! What was a I thinking, taking him somewhere new and expecting this magical moment of photographic bliss??
You know those V8 commercials? The ones where they slap someone on the forehead and say "you could have had a V8?" Yeah, you all know what I'm talking about. The day I finally realized that I needed to lower my expectations and be PATIENT with my toddler was one of those moments.
We (Nick and I) took Lucas to a family owned pond about 20 minutes from home to take a few late summer shots. Honestly, he had the most adorable Polo shirt that I just wanted pictures of him in. On the way there I told Nick that I just wanted to let him walk around and play and see what I could get. Well... those are some of the best images I had captured of him in almost a year. I didn't rush him out of the car and start pushing my camera in his face, clicking away like a maniac. I watched him, I let him run free, and I patiently waited for that magical moment. You only need one. Just one, to get that wall hanger image we all strive for. We were literally there for 15 minutes and I had a plethora of images to choose from (insert my V8 moment here).
In a nutshell, my toddler schooled me that day. It's like he was saying, "hey mom, just let me play for a minute and I'll give you that picture you want" the whole time. Prior to this shoot, I didn't think I had a minute to spare. If I didn't get that "money shot" immediately it was a travesty!
So often I want to tell my clients this... just be patient. Sure, your little one is fussy now and you're seeing dollar signs, fearing that you've wasted your money on this shoot. But give him or her a minute. Children need time to take in their surroundings. If you arrive at the shoot with this rule of thumb in mind, I promise you'll be rewarded with those dreamy images you desire. Here's one that my little man gave me on that very day.
2. Be Prepared
Oh boy. This means more than one thing. For starters, if you have all these special props you plan to use (typically happens with first birthday shoots in my experience) then have them ready to go. You cannot expect to arrive at your shoot and THEN put together your happy birthday banner... it's not going to turn out well for you. Here's why: kids get bored. Now, every kid is different but it's been my experience that children under the age of 10 can usually hold out for about 30 minutes of great photo shoot behavior... then you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Another angle on this is to be prepared for catastrophe. Hey, it happens. You go right ahead and plan out those amazing beach portraits with your three year old. Warn him real good not to get in that water... see what happens. I would place a hefty bet on it that your little one ends up in the ocean, splashing about and having a ball, before that shoot is over. I would also bet that THOSE pictures are the ones you will cherish forever.
Lucas taught me this lesson during a stylized Halloween shoot. First of all, I broke my first rule. I was NOT prepared. I needed a good 5-10 minutes to set up my little scene. Being the genius that I am, I already had Lucas running around in his Halloween costume... complete with candy bucket (what was I thinking?). Once I got everything set up, I was ready for my little Frankenstein model to do his thing. Too bad he wasn't. He ran around like a little crazy monster and did just about everything except sit in front of my scene like a good little toddler and smile for mommy's camera. He knocked over my pumpkins, sat on the wrong prop, ate the candy in the bucket... the list goes on. '
I finally sat back on my haunches and accepted the chaos in front of me. I chose to appreciate the adorable little booger running around so full of life in front of me, and snap THAT picture instead. The result: one of my all time favorite pictures of Lucas to date.
3. Keep it simple
In this day and age of Pinterest, it's easy to set high expectations for photoshoots...especially ones involving your kids. I'm guilty of it too. I've done my fair share of pinning, followed by multiple trips to the craft store where I spent way too much money, all in an effort to recreate the image I saw online. And that's perfectly fine. I'm not here to tell you that it's a waste of time because it's not. I've captured some adorable images of Lucas that I felt like made all of my hard work, stress, and money spent worth it.
So where am I going with this? Well, what I'm trying to say is that you don't NEED all of that "stuff" to get an image that you love. In fact, when I scour through the multitude of images I have of my fella I find that it is the simpler settings that I prefer. Those are the ones I want on my wall. They are less distracting. More of the focus is on him instead of everything going on around him.
Everyone is different. Do what you feel will make you the happiest when it comes to your child's shoot. I've had parents show up with nothing, fully depending on me and my props to make it happen. I've had parents show up with a carload of items they wanted to use. The end result for both was satisfaction. Both clients knew what they wanted and they were happy with their images. That's great! But- the key point I'm trying to make here is that both sets of parents were happy because the subject in the images...not the props that were used.
You see, what we really want are priceless images of our kids. To achieve that you don't need to break the bank or spend half an hour setting up an adorable, pinterest motivated scene. It took me a while, but I learned this lesson too.
Lucas' first birthday was Dr. Seuss themed. We're a little book crazy over here. I spent weeks planning out his birthday photo shoot. We literally had to drive my husband's truck to the location because of all the props I demanded were necessary. Don't get me wrong, I love all the images from his birthday shoot including the elaborate ones. But you know what? My favorite image was the simplest. All it took was that cute little smile, a monogrammed birthday shirt, and a Dr. Seuss hat. Bingo! That's the wall hanger. THAT is the image that immediately comes to mind when I think of his first birthday shoot. Not the ones with all the balloons, the special ordered Dr. Seuss banner, the matching chair, etc. They're all wonderful (to me) but it wasn't necessary. I see that now. Maybe you will too, have a look and decide for yourself.
4. Rewards are OK!
I don't know about you, but I'm TIRED of all the media attention focused on "good parenting" by way of organic foods or kids having to earn their cartoons. Give me a break. My child just finished his supper of fresh fried fish (straight out of the river) and sweet potato fries, followed by a Scooby Doo marathon. Why? Because it makes him happy. He doesn't have to earn his cartoons by picking up his toys. He picks up his toys because I tell him to. Period.
Did you eat candy growing up? Mmmm hmmmm. And I bet you turned out alright. So why do we feel so guilty for giving our kids a cookie, or a piece of candy once in a while?? News flash!! It's not going to turn them into raging candy machines that never eat another vegetable for the rest of their lives.
I wanted to crawl into a hole and die when I gave a client's son a dum dum after a very well behaved photo shoot. His mom was not happy with me. It never even crossed my mind. It's a dum dum. Kid's love dum dums!! Long story short, I still bring suckers for the kiddos but I'm sure to always ask parent permission first. And that's the right thing to do... it's your kid, so it's your decision. But- sometimes kids need a little motivation for photoshoots that they could really care less about.
In the grand scheme of things, is that sucker really going to hurt (assuming their not allergic of course)? You scheduled your shoot months ago, spent your hard earned money on a cute new outfit, plus the session fee. You plan to spend more money when you purchase prints for yourself, family, and friends. You arrive at the shoot and "uh oh" little Johnny isn't feeling it. Do you really think you can bully him into faking happy? "You're going to smile because I told you to" probably isn't going to work. Sorry. But you know what will? That's right.... a dum dum. Tell that little stinker there is a dum dum (or other favorite treat) waiting for him after the shoot and BAM! You have yourself a model in the making folks.
If candy or another treat doesn't work for your kiddo, that's fine. Maybe you can reward your child with a trip to the park? A new coloring book? Play time with your phone or Ipad? Whatever works for your kid. What I'm saying is this... the photographer is not judging you for "bribing" your child for a smile. You shouldn't feel like a terrible parent for offering the reward. That photo shoot you planned out and spent who knows how much money on was not your child's decision. It was yours. He or she could probably care less. So what's it going to hurt? Give the kid a treat. :)
This lesson didn't take me very long to learn. Go figure. I caved pretty fast and learned that a dum dum goes a long way with my kiddo. I could insert any number of images here, because Lucas has a camera in his face more often than not. Oh yeah, and he's two. So yes, most of our shoots end with a giddy little boy receiving his sucker or other goodie for a job well done.
Take this image for example. I interrupted a perfectly good zoo trip and asked one hyper little boy to smile for the camera. Telling a toddler to stop feeding the farm animals to go stand near the beautifully landscaped coy pond for a picture?? Atrocious! Um no, not really. It took about 3 minutes out of our fun filled day. Lucas got a slushy. I got this.
5. Have FUN!
Yes, it really is that simple. Take a chill pill and relax. If you relax, your kid will relax. When your kid relaxes, you get the images you want. This was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn. If I was my husband, I would have sat me down a long time ago and had a talk about realistic expectations for a toddler photo shoot. Being the ever patient man that he is, he didn't. Instead, he jumped around like a crazy man behind me in an effort to make Lucas smile in my direction. This worked 99% of the time for us. When it didn't work I found myself being short tempered and irritated with my child.
What are those images worth? If all I remember when I look back at them is how frustrated I was? Those aren't the memories I want to make. So it took a little while for Lucas to teach me this particular lesson, but he persevered. With each shoot he grew more curious, his little explorer side itching to come out. I really had no say so in the matter. I could not physically make him smile for a picture. That left me with only one option. Let him go and see what happens.
What happened was phenominal. My child was smiling non stop. All I had to do was move around and take the pictures. And you know what else? I was having fun! I wasn't stressing out because I was too joyful. I got down on his level. I stopped towering above him, barking out commands. You see, toddlers find joy in the simplest things. Their joy radiates from them in megawatt smiles. Those are the smiles that you remember for a lifetime. And you remember the way you felt when you saw them.
That's how I feel about my latest shoot with Lucas. I wanted an updated portrait to print for grandparents, aunt, and uncles as Christmas gifts. We chose a simple setting, a short walk from my mother's house. Lucas was familiar with his environment, but he had never been to this particular spot which happened to be a trail I rode my horse on as a teenager. As we walked toward the path, Lucas took off, ever eager to explore. Nick and I simply followed behind. I took a lot of great shots in about 15 minutes. The only direction we gave Lucas was a mere suggestion to sit down in the leaves. He didn't do it. He walked around and explored some more. I snapped some more. Then, he decided he would sit down after all. Oh boy...leaves!
Then, something really amazing happened. I let go of my camera. I let it hang from my neck- in ready position- but I let it go. I talked to Lucas about the sticks and leaves he picked up. We chased him down the path. We trudged through the woods on our little family nature walk. Those 15 minutes became more about his enjoyment and less about photos. We had fun.
If you only take one thing from this, let it be my final point. Arrive at your next photo shoot planning to have some fun. Let your child have fun. I promise you'll be glad you did.
Great tips! I have a very energetic 1 year old and I struggle trying to get the perfect shot so this advice is perfect. I also love that your husband helps so much - I often try to take pictures by myself which is REALLY hard!! Love your pictures too!
i love this! i feel like i can relate i often get frustrated when i don't get the shots i want right away and i dont no why its probably because i'm very impatient lol i just need to chill let let them do there thing and be patient because if i'm frustrated there gonna be thanks for the great advice!
I have a 2 year old granddaughter! I can identify with all of this! Great advice!
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