Proven Tricks and Toys for Kids and Family Sessions, by Sandy Puc'
A majority of the portraits I capture involve young children, who almost always present their own unique challenge. Simply getting the young ones to the studio can be a challenge in itself for Mom or Dad, so it’s to your benefit to go out of your way to make the session a positive and entertaining experience.
To help pave the way, keeping a stash of these items and using some of these tactics can really make a difference in your next session involving kids and families.
The Feather Tickler
This little device can actually be used with kids of many ages. From a soft tickle on a six-month-old’s toes, to full-on tickle torture, it ensures the appropriate smiles. Keep in mind, however, that younger children (six months to four years) can be afraid of it, so take it slow. If you pick it up and the child has an instant smile, feel free to tickle away. If they look concerned, try whispering to them that you are going to tickle Mom. They are sure to laugh.
The Treat Box
There truly is a fine art to bribery. It’s important to never offer a treat until you absolutely need to. Within three minutes of a child entering my studio, I usually know if I'm going to have to bribe him. If he is in a great mood, I don’t mention any rewards. But if he isn't, I mention to him that he can earn up to three treats throughout the session, based on his behavior.
During the session’s final shot, I grab a handful of candy, hold it up, and say, “Okay, say please!” That guarantees that the last shot captures a great smile! Tip: Use a dry candy like Smarties, so the child’s tongue isn’t stained and your studio stays clean.
This goofy toy has saved my neck a thousand times. Its ugly face and loud squawk can settle many wild children. It can also be used to startle a busy toddler. To do this, I stay farther away and make a little noise. The toddler will usually become serious and stop moving, allowing me to capture a soft and serious look that can be hard to come by when working with a rambunctious tot. In fact, more often than not, the chicken scares the child just enough to settle him down.
Older children think the chicken is hilarious. With little boys, we use it to play a toss-the-chicken game. Our chicken has even made it into a number of family portraits, and is always a great way to get a serious dad to smile.
There are always a few phrases that I reserve until I absolutely have to use them to help evoke those great smiles. A couple of my favorites are: “Okay, everyone. Look right here and say ‘Mommy is a monkey!’” and "Daddy wears diapers!"
Be prepared when using either of those phrases, as the kids will laugh and smile, but will then turn and look at Mom or Dad to confirm the fun. Be prepared as soon as they turn by asking, “Hey, your Mom isn’t a monkey, is she?” or, “Your daddy doesn’t wear diapers, does he?” This brings their eyes back to the lens for the shot.
Balls and Toys
When using balls and toys to evoke a smile, you must be very careful; younger children may not want to give the toy back. If that happens, you may be stuck digitally removing the toy later. Have the child throw the ball to you—or get him to throw it at your feet to make you dance. Remember, the child’s eyes will follow the ball, so when you catch the ball, be sure to hold it right above the camera.
Give Me Five
When children give me five, they slap my hand and I bounce back to the camera saying, “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Once they realize that you were playing, they will try harder to get you to cry.
If you’re looking for a subtle expression, consider hiding a snack within an object. If you insert a treat in an open book or inside a flower or prop, your subject is sure to stop and look for it. This will create a thoughtful and serious look as the child focuses on the task at hand. These images become timeless treasures, and often the final wall portrait.