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Capturing Authentic Children Portraits

Lesson 3 of 20

Recognizing Specific Challenges Quickly To Get The Best Out of All Subjects

Tamara Lackey

Capturing Authentic Children Portraits

Tamara Lackey

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Lesson Info

3. Recognizing Specific Challenges Quickly To Get The Best Out of All Subjects

Lesson Info

Recognizing Specific Challenges Quickly To Get The Best Out of All Subjects

Recognizing these specific challenges quickly, rapidly. I don't want to spend 40 minutes trying to figure out who these kids are. I want to be able to read them right away and jump right into a shoot. The first one I want to talk about is the superstar. That's the dynamic child, the one who's just awesome to photograph. They jump in, they're there, they're ready. You hear a lot of times, "Did you see that? "Did you see that? "Get this, get this." A lot of practice posing. In regard to the fact that the energy they're bringing is fun, and you know right away you're not gonna have to combat the fact that they don't want to be there. They want to be there. They want you to photograph them. They want to be able to shine. That's amazing. You have this subject who's there, who wants the focus on them, who can really bring it, and that's a lovely thing, but if they're coming with other people, you know, like, siblings, you have to figure out how to make that work together. I'm gonna show you,...

in a little bit, this specific child. I photographed her in Dubai. She came with her brother, and she had this very outgoing, fun personality, and her little brother did not have the same personality, and even though we wanted a photograph of them together, she wasn't really into that 'cause she didn't want to share the frame. I'm gonna show you that in a little bit, but the thing about this child is, sometimes, you have to work towards that natural smile because they're giving you this pre-conditioned look, and it often looks a little bit like this. "Like, I'm trying to do the right thing. "I'm smiling. "For my whole life, someone said, 'Cheese,' "and I know, when they say, 'Cheese,' I do this." I get this face so often, the strained jaw, the way their eyes aren't lighting up at all, they're just kind of giving you what they think you need. The difference between that and this is simply the way that you're pulling out that personality. You're not saying any words that are preconditioned. I never say, on a photo shoot, "Cheese." First of all, it's 'cause I'm vegan. (laughs) No, but I never ever say, "Cheese," on a photo shoot because I know I'm gonna get that preconditioned look that I do not want. I want this authentic exchange, so I'm not using basic trigger words 'cause I'm gonna trigger that, and that's not what I'm here for. Now, what about if you have a super-smiley, on it, wants to play kid, but you're looking for a shot like this, you want something just a little more subdued, mellow, maybe a bit more soulful? What is the trick with the child who's bringing you that? How do you get from that to that? You wear them down. You wear them down. The best shots I ever get of superstars and the dynamic child when I want to show a spectrum of expression is usually an hour and a half, two hours in. But we're having fun the whole time. They don't hate being there. They're having a blast. I'm gonna wait it out 'cause I'm gonna be patient. I've planned accordingly. I've prepared the client accordingly, how long this is gonna take, and I know that, after a certain amount of time, they're gonna zone out. They're gonna be pretty much done. The game was fun, but now the game's over, and that's when I get shots like this. One of my biggest tricks is, don't use trigger words. They're gonna result in the same sort of expressions that they often will give every time a camera's out. Play around with them, use those moments, but wait it out, wait it out so you can get the other side of them that is also part of them 'cause none of us are all one thing. The other thing I love about this superstar is that, if they are responding to the environment they're in, and they are basically jumping around and saying, "Get me on this chair, get me in this window, "get me over here," what I'll say is, "Let's take all of that out and just go really close on you. "We don't need all of that. "Let's just go really tight in on you, "and your face, and your expression." Then they respond to that like, "That's a great idea, I'm awesome." That's one way I combat the child who wants to go everywhere 'cause they want to see what they look like here, and they want to see what they look like there. I just want to hone you in. I want to work on expressiveness with you, and this is how we're gonna do it. This child I mentioned earlier. This was an interesting study in light because I'd photographed her, I was doing a workshop in Dubai, and the way the workshop had been scheduled was outside of the way I normally do my workshops, which is, I'm shooting at the best time in the morning and the best time in the afternoon as best as I can, but this one was set up so that the shooting was at 1:00 PM. 1:00 PM under the sky in Dubai. (laughs) We're in the desert, and it's kind of the worst time to shoot, so what we did is, if you see, underneath her, that is a reflector. I lay a reflector down, I have her lay on the reflector. Even though I'm thinking about some complicated lighting things 'cause I've got to figure out how to fix this, I am never losing my exchange with her because, once I do that, once she loses my exchange with her to lighting, I'm not gonna be able to get my authenticity anymore. She's gonna go right back into the (hisses) look. I'm setting this up, I'm rolling her away from the sun, I've got a reflector on the other side getting that great catch light popping up, and I'm having her exchange any sort of interaction with everybody who's standing there. There are several of us standing there, so she'll look up at this person, she'll look at me, she'll look over there, and in those moments, I'm getting those in-between moments. Those in-between moments are when I'm getting this authenticity between her poses. I'm shooting frequently, and I'm worried about things like lighting and stuff. I have to figure that out, but I'm not breaking the exchange we're having to do that. Too often, I see photographers get lost in their settings, lost in the lighting setup, trying to perfect everything around them, and then they go to photograph the child, and the child is just drained of every kind of expressiveness that you wanted to get in the first place. This girl, she loved this. She loved being the center of attention. She had 26 outfit changes. We were having a lot of fun, but we wanted to get a shot with her brother, and she wasn't into it, so what I did is, I took the bag, I didn't have any stools or props, we were out in the middle of this open area, so I took this -- Honestly, I think this was the one green park that we could find nearby. I took the lighting box, the bag that had had a lot of our strobes in it, zipped it up, moved it over, tried to work just on composition. I told her, "I am setting up a shot where "to the left is the bushes, "to the right is this kind of fencing area, "I'm gonna put the box right here, "and you're gonna be right in the middle. "You're gonna be right in the middle of the shot, "and then we're just gonna throw your brother in." Right? So we end up getting this. She's right there, I throw him in. "Just grab his hand real quick." Then I've got to really quickly get his attention, and he's fine, he's neutral, he's cool, but that's the way I'm gonna get that shot. Have you guys ever had those photographs, where you're taking a photograph of one, and they push the sibling out of the way? I get that a lot. "No, no, just me." (laughs) Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. (laughs) How do I mix it up so you feel like it is just you when we pull somebody else in? I showed you this image earlier. This was the pose she gave me. We got to this, close up, tight, but this is the pose she gave me. If you just glance at it really quickly, this is straight out of camera, if you glance at this really quickly, what you see is, yeah, she's smiling. What else do you see? Not the most flattering angle of her. It's actually, kind of, if you look, that mouth, it's a strained expression. You can actually see, it's more like this. You see that her eyes are kind of there. They're not lit up. What am I thinking I need to do to respond to this superstar who is giving me her practiced pose? By the way, practiced poses are harder to combat now than ever because so many kids, at a pretty young age, are already doing their selfies on their iPads and their iPhones, and I've seen some pretty young kids on Instagram. They're already watching it, and seeing how to do it, and seeing other people do it. What used to be kind of this is becoming more and more like this. (laughs) You know? You've gotta kind of fight back, and she was giving me some of that, like she thought this would be a great pose. So I go ahead, and I click the shot. I'm never gonna say, "No, not that, that's terrible." We're gonna keep the momentum going. I click the shot, and then I say, "That's amazing, let me try a couple things. "Let's maybe pull your scarf up and in a little bit. "Let me change my angle. "I'm gonna interact with you the whole time I'm doing this. "Let's just cut everything out of the shot," 'cause we're not in a spot where it's that inspiring, and then we go close up. The whole time, I'm engaging her, so now we have a real smile. Her eyes are totally different. I still made sure everything else was there, lighting, detail, et cetera, but that's the end result. The other thing I've noticed, when we're talking about those superstars, and the way they exchange energy and stuff, if you can bring together siblings in a way that you're responding to one here, the other one's over here, and it's all you ... Here's a style I'll do. There's two kids like this, and I will physically jump here. "Okay, you are me." I'll physically jump here. There's a lot of activity, the way I shoot, and everybody should do it their own way, but if I'm literally having him there, and having him there, and I jump back in the middle, I'll get this great exchange that they're having with each other, but I need to find that. Even though I've got a smiley kid who's giving me a lot, and has a great look, and he'll respond to anything I want in a pretty natural way, I still want to get that zone out shot at the end. In his case, I actually didn't have a lot of time to wear him down. We were doing this for a Nikon production, and it was a pretty timed schedule, and I was not gonna have two to three hours on this shoot, but I wanted to get that different look. The way this was achieved was stepping back with a very long lens, and having them just wait while we had a conversation, and then glancing over, and a couple of us saw it at once. Right there, that's a shot, and that's what we got. If you can't wear them down, and you don't have the time that you want for whatever reason, you ignore them. You ignore them, you go away, they kind of take a break, get bored, and you get that different look, because you can ask across the board, which shot do you like better? I love that shot. This is a great shot. Oh, I love that shot. It's not always the big, cheerful, fun one that you like. It's sometimes that slowing it down. The other thing about the superstar is slowing them down. If you want an image with family, and they're jumping around, all that sort of stuff, a shot like this, where you're just saying, "Give me whatever you got. "I don't care, you set it. "You set the expression. "Show me what the best look for you is." Those in-between shots, right? That's where you get that. My style, in terms of all the photography I like to produce, is heavily focused on expression. I want to get really beautiful, flattering shots. That is how I see a shot like this. I think that's really beautiful. I love the look, I think it's flattering. But I also want to get this, the moments where I'm calling them out, and I'm getting these expressions that are the in-betweens, nobody knows they're being photographed. You can kind of do both. You don't have to be, "I want to do the in-between moments, "raw and unposed," or, "I want to be the one "who's getting beautiful, flattering shots." You can mix them up as you go. Let's talk about the interactive child. The interactive child loves the give and take of exchanges. They want to tell you these great facts. They want you to respond, they want you to ask a question, they want to respond, this is a really common type of child in terms of, they're inquisitive, they're interested, they ask why a lot, they're often super intelligent, and you can use that to be able to pull them out and have them have exchanges with you. I actually photographed this little girl on a posing class I did for CreativeLive. I think it was Children's Posing Guide, just a couple of years ago. She was the perfect example of, she was there, and she would kind of smile a lot, but when I actually engaged with her, we got very different looks, just simply by the way I exchanged my expressions and the words we used back and forth. The image on the left is where you're holding the camera away from yourself, or you're pulling away from the camera, and you're keeping her engaged with you, but she's looking off this way or that way, and that's a method I use a lot to get a different look. This one is her just mirroring. "Give me this." Mirroring, meaning I show them what I want by how I actually show them, and then they respond by mimicking me as if they're looking into a mirror. They're going to do what I'm doing. I get that expression because I change the way I look. It's sometimes, especially with the interactive child, the give and take, it's significantly more effective to mirror with them what you want than to tell them what to do. When you tell them what to do, they're just processing, and they're pulling it. When you mirror, I'm giving it, you take it. That's what's coming back and forth. The interactive child also responds beautifully to games. If I have a kid that's just in my studio, on a backdrop, and we're just photographing, and there's really not a lot more to it, they don't want to be there anymore. They are bored. They're not interested. I actually pulled this from my posing playbook. This is using just art board, or V-Flats, to trap the children in. Trap them in, we made up a whole thing about a spaceship. The dad was shutting it in. "Say goodbye, you're going away," and the kid who runs away is laughing 'cause it's fun now. Now they're engaged. That shot is up against a V-Flat, just in the middle of a room where you're pulling a light over and shooting really quickly, but you have to engage them somehow. Another thing I do is, I say, "Now watch this, "do this, give me that, respond here. "What's your best face?" They just get it all out. They're just being big and goofy. You get this great collection of images, and at the end, you get the smile, like, (laughs) "That was awesome." That will be your final shot. The biggest thing, I think, with the interactive child, this is my daughter, my youngest, she is very much that personality type. She wants to talk to you. She wants to hear what you have to say. She wants to ask a question back. She wants to figure things out. When we set out, and I went to do a photograph of her, and I see this a lot, she was like, "Um, I don't know what you want me to do." Genuine, honest, "I don't know what you want me to do." I'm like, "I want you to spin around 20 times, "come back to me, and count to five as fast as you can." "Okay. (laughs) "I did what you said, I made it a game, "we had interaction, and now I'm gonna genuinely "give you a great look."

Class Description

Each child is unique and needs different techniques to draw out the most authentic portrait. Acclaimed family photographer, Tamara Lackey, talks through how to quickly identify the characteristics of a child and the posing techniques and direction that can lead to a fun session with great results. She’ll cover:

  • The 6 basic personalities that children may show up to a photo shoot with
  • How to draw out a shy child in front of the camera
  • Tips for photographing the children who don’t want to be there
  • Gear and accessory considerations for family shoots
  • How to build to a natural pose

Have the confidence and the technique to capture an authentic child portrait in every session no matter client or their mood!

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Tamara Lackey Posing Book Discount

Nations Photo Lab Discount

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes



Tamara Lackey brings amazing energy to her teaching and shooting style. She shared a ton of tips and tricks for capturing the true character and personality of each child in both individual and group portraits. I have always found it to be particularly difficult to capture portraits of multiple children that are composed to be both visually interesting and true to their unique story. I learned so much about directing and communicating effectively with child subjects, and how to use my gear and other tools to streamline the process and keep it all fun for the family. No matter how much you think you know about photographing children, this class is an asset that you will not regret! Thank you Tamara Lackey!

Heidi Mikulecky

I love Tamara's tips for working with common personality types found in children. I also love that class allows you to be "fly on the wall" during her photo shoots. It's so helpful for me to see how other photographers engage their subjects (especially children). Tamara brings a ton of energy, excitement and playfulness to her shoots. It opened my eyes to how fun (and how exhausting) a photo shoot can be when you give it your all. Great class!

Sara NAomi

This was an amazing class. Photoshop has been a huge learning curve for me during the past year and it was so helpful to see the quick and easy way you used levels to bring down brightness/hotspots. I will definitely be using it to improve the "ear" on the portrait that you critiqued. Thank you soooooooooo very much Tamara and CL for providing such great content!