How to Get Great Children’s Portraits During Playtime

Children are both photogenic and notoriously difficult to photograph. They can be shy or behave differently than usual, making portraits seem ‘set up’ or inauthentic. Getting a great candid shot can be challenging, but if you succeed, that photo could be treasured for years.

One way to make children’s photo shoots more fun and natural is to combine it with playtime. The goal of play is to make the child feel relaxed, resulting in more genuine shots. The photo shoot may last longer than planned, but the process will be more enjoyable for everyone–making the final portraits more meaningful, too.

If your goal is something else besides natural, candid portraits (for example, you want an efficient shoot), then you may not want a full-blown playtime. However, even if you can’t have a long, play-oriented shoot, you can at least use elements of play in your regular studio shoots. Whichever approach you choose, here are seven tips to help improve your children’s portraits through play.

1. Go outside.

Play isn’t a button you can switch on or off. If you tell a child to “go play,” they may end up just hanging by their parents’ side. Instead, encourage playtime by choosing an environment that’s naturally playful. Fun and familiar outdoor locations like forests, parks and beaches are all great choices. Just by leaving the studio, you’ll raise your chances of getting an excellent candid portrait.

Malgorzata Kapustka – magic forest… Tredegar House…
Malgorzata Kapustka girl playing by water

Malgorzata Kapustka – ..yellow carpet…
Malgorzata Kapustka girl picking flowers

Malgorzata Kapustka – .. The Sound of Ocean …
Malgorzata Kapustka girl on beach

2. Use the child’s favorite toys.

If going outside isn’t a possibility, you’ll need to rely on toys to bring out a child’s natural playfulness. While you can (and should) bring a stash of toys, it’s also a good idea to ask the parents to bring the child’s favorite toys. You can only guess what a child might like, whereas parents know every preference in detail. Even babies have favorite toys. One might smile at a stuffed animal, while another prefers balls and rattles.

Malgorzata Kapustka – Christmas lights…
Malgorzata Kapustka Christmas lights

jordan parks – watching
jordan parks baby on grass

3. Bring classic toys.

When creating your toy stash, make sure to include classics like blowing bubbles, magnifying glasses, and spinning tops. These toys are both reliably fun and incredibly photogenic. Their timelessness will also prevent your portraits from looking outdated in the future.

While the family should still bring any toys they want, your own toy choices should be limited to the most photogenic. After all, the child’s own toys will have memories and nostalgia attached to them, whereas the toys in your studio are ultimately just props.

Laurens Kaldeway – Magnif(eye)
Laurens Kaldeway magnifying glass

Aznin Taridi – Did you ever see a bubble?
Aznin Taridi blowing bubbles

4. Get out of the way.

Nothing stifles play like a hovering adult. Avoid standing too close, and try to be subtle. Definitely don’t tell the child what to do. If you want to try a different toy, give it to one of the parents to introduce. Removing yourself from the scene will give you a higher chance of seeing and capturing natural behavior.

If the child isn’t acting how you’d expected or hoped, view it as an opportunity to discover their personality. Many photographers want to see joy and happiness during playtime, but some children are more thoughtful and reserved, even while playing. They may not grin at the camera, but they’ll still show other emotions worth photographing, like curiosity and diligence.

Krutika Joshi – Joyful scream !
Krutika Joshi colorful children portraits

Vikas Sandhu – Child’s Play
Vikas Sandhu child writing

Manuel Buetti – Straighten
Manuel Buetti Straighten Picture

5. Prepare for a lot of movement.

If the child you’re photographing ends up playing quietly, you’ve lost nothing by preparing for more movement. However, if you’re hoping the child will stay still… Don’t depend on it. Approach the play-oriented shoot like a sports game. There may be inactive moments, but the greatest emotions and best shots will probably involve movement.

Malgorzata Kapustka – … a foggy day …
Malgorzata Kapustka feeding squirrels

Richard Ricciardi – Bubbles and Fun – Berlin Germany
Richard Ricciardi Bubbles Berlin Germany

6. Look at their hands, feet and body movements.

If you spend the whole shoot trying to capture the child’s facial expressions, you could end up feeling frustrated. The child is playing, not modeling for you; it’s natural for them to look away. Instead of focusing on the face alone, step back and look at the entire scene. Feet, hands and hair can be worth photographing, too.

jordan parks – cartwheel
jordan parks cartwheel

jordan parks – 10 am
jordan parks kids swing

jordan parks – el mapache
jordan parks boy opening door

7. Follow the child’s lead.

If you’re used to being totally in charge of a shoot, this back-seat position might be unnerving for you at first. Remember that you’re not trying to direct the child’s behavior. You want them to feel at ease and accepted. If they want to run around, great! If they want to read, that’s also great!

You’re an observer, not a manager. Unless they’re about to damage something valuable, like your camera gear, remain relaxed and open about what’s possible. You might find their creativity and ingenuity more inspiring than anything you had imagined beforehand.

Greig Reid – Son reading Batman comic
Greig Reid Son reading Batman comic

jordan parks – exploring
jordan parks boy exploring

These photos were selected from our Flickr group. Next time you get a great shot of a child playing, share your photo with the group so we can admire your work!