Imagine you’re a little kid, and you’re meeting a new grown-up for the very first time. You’re probably feeling a little shy and unsure, especially when the new guy is pointing a big, scary, black-eyed machine and a bright flashy light at you.

So what do you do? You smoosh your face into your mom or dad’s leg and hope it all goes away. When that doesn’t work, you try crying. Or maybe you just batten down the hatches, close your eyes and pretend you’re at Disneyland.

I’ve been at this a while, and I’ve seen how kids react to strangers. It’s a hard-wired instinct for healthy kids to cling to their familiar adults; we should be more worried about young children who don’t understand safe boundaries, and who immediately take to any adult who tries to make friends.

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Some kids know that if their parents say it’s “ok” to talk to a stranger, then it’s “game on”, but others need some extra coaxing.

Child portrait photography requires a connection between the photographer and his subjects, which is why I recommend that parents plan to arrive at the studio at least 15 minutes early so their kids and I can develop a rapport.

The Warm-Up Period

Before the portrait session, I like to hang out with the kids and their parents so that everyone has a chance to relax and get comfortable. When I first introduce myself to your child, I try to get a sense of the “vibe” he’s putting off. This often gives me an idea of how the photo session (and the rest of the introduction) will play out so I can fine-tune my approach.

I’ll ask your child about her interests, and try to engage her on her own terms to boost her confidence in the situation. Does she have any pets? What are their names? What’s his favorite cartoon show?

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Does she have a favorite song? If I don’t know it, I’ll try to get her to sing it for me. If she’s brought a favorite toy (which I recommend) she might want me to interact with it at first before she comes out of her shell.

Often, playing a couple quick games of tic-tac-toe or rock-paper-scissors will break the ice; one, I found myself watching a series of K-pop music videos while my six-year-old subject quizzed me on each band member’s name and personal stats. (Talk about earworms. I had Girls’ Generation songs stuck in my head for days!)

Sometimes kids get wound up when they’re nervous, so this is a good time to let them blow off some steam. If I give kids a tour of the studio and allow them a basic understanding of lighting and camera equipment, their anxiety tends to melt away and often, they’ll ask me questions about my gear throughout the session.

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Even babies respond more openly once they recognize my face. I don’t know why, but infants tend to warm up to me pretty quickly with smiles and laughter.

I refuse to believe it’s just gas. I mean, come on. I’m awesome, right?

The Transition

Once everyone has settled down and become acquainted, and you’ve wrangled your child into his first outfit, I like to let the kids take the lead in the studio to get things rolling. This is a good time for little pranksters to get their “funny face” shots out of the way (though sometimes, to keep things upbeat, we’ll throw in a few mid-session mugs) and to let them choose poses or props.

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As they begin to relax and feel confident as the focus of everyone’s attention, the photo session usually unfolds as naturally as your kid’s smiles.

Sometimes, usually before an outfit change, we’ll take breaks and let your kids grab a snack, goof off for a bit or continue a game we started before the session.

Preparing for Your Session

Sometimes we grown-ups forget that professional portraiture is an alien experience, whether it’s staged in-studio or on location. Our kids are used to having smartphone cameras held up in front of them on a daily basis, but most kids today aren’t growing up with professional cameras and studio lighting as part of their lives. This, and their short attention spans mean it’s up to us to keep them engaged and interested in the process, and eager to come back for future sessions.

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I’ve posted another article on my favorite tips and tricks for keeping those smiles genuine, and in both blog posts, I can’t stress enough how important it is for parents to do a little homework in advance of their session. Besides picking out outfits, my clients should consider jotting down their child’s favorite toys, books and movies, as well as other smile-inducing prompts unique to their kid, to help make the portrait session fun, light-hearted, and anxiety-free.

This “cheat sheet” and the extra time set aside before the session begins are my most important recommendations for ensuring a stress-free, productive shoot resulting in images that really show your child’s true personality.

Are you ready to begin planning your child’s portrait session? Give me a call at 910.444.0162 and we’ll set up a time choose a print or album package you and your family will enjoy for a lifetime. And remember: You can use those “funny face” shots to embarrass your daughter when she introduces you to her first boyfriend!