Photography Prep session guide

Photography Prep Session Guide

What to expect at your photography session | Surviving in the studio with kids.

Fun. Creative. Experienced. Artistic. Energetic. Whimsical.
Surviving Studio Photos with the Kids original article by Karen M. Cheung

We all remember having formal studio portraits taken as children. Mom would dress us up in bowties or toile skirts. Dad would throw us in the minivan and drive us to the portrait studio. Before we even left the car, there was food in hair, fingers in noses, and siblings in tears. To make the day more manageable for you and the photographer, we have a few tips.

Preparation is Key

Involve the Child – Mentally prep your children for the session, even a week before the actual shooting date. Excite them with descriptions about how they will be getting dressed-up and having their picture taken, just like with Santa. This helps to establish a point-of-reference for the day of. Parents should also be prepared to get in the picture with the child in case the little one is shy.

Clothing - Parents oftentimes like to dress their children in matching outfits. While the matching wear is appropriate for formal portraits, remember that children oftentimes spill, spit, or take off their clothes during the session. Stripes and clustered patterns tend not to photograph well in black and white. Children under a year should not wear turtlenecks or large collars that hide their necks. Keep in mind these photos will be on the mantel for the next 20 years, so choose an outfit wisely. Limit wardrobe changes to one other outfit. Come prepared in the clothing you wish to be photographed in, and bring a spare. Classic wear is always best, such as white T-shirts and denim, or for multiple children, similar hued colored outfits.

Hair – Nix the barrette. Hairspray if need be. Bring a comb instead of using the studios. Trust us on this one. Lots of kids + one comb = bad case of lice.

Work with the Photographer - Set up an appointment with the studio. The more you plan, the better.
Good photographers will introduce themselves to your children. If not, feel free to introduce the photographer to the child. Let the kids know the photographer is your friend, and not just the scary stranger with the lights. Treat your first few minutes with your photographer the same way you would treat your hairdresser. Discuss what your style is (candid, formal), which you prefer (black and white, color), and who the photos are for.

What Works Best for My Child

Premature - Premature babies are highly sensitive to light and sound. Even if the premature baby is one month old, it may not be due for another two months! A preemie’s brain hasn’t fully developed and many researchers agree that over-stimulating the brain with flashing lights and sounds can cause permanent damage. Let the photographer know the baby is premature to give special consideration. The studio session time should be limited to 10-15 minutes. If the preemie can fit in the palm of your hand, do it! It’s good to have a reference point in the picture: you’ll forget how small your baby was in a few years.

Newborn/1 month - If the baby is still sleeping, let the baby sleep. Take this opportunity to capture your newborn the way he or she will spend most of the time. Sleeping babies are always better than crying babies.

2-3 months – These babies start to show signs of smiles. Acting as pseudo-assistant to the photographer, you can help provide the smiles. The best way to get the infant to smile is by gently rubbing the chin. At this age, infants discover their hands and will likely stretch the limbs and eat their fingers. Since they cannot do much else, feel free to ask to have the hands in the shots as well.

4-5 months - These babies are a bit easier to coax into smiling. As the parent, feel free to interject and tickle to help your child laugh. After doing so, step behind the photographer so the child will look in the general direction of the camera. Keep the drool cloth close by and wipe in between shots. The benefit of this age is that they can support their heads.

6-8 months - This is a prime time for infant photos. Their faces are filled out. They just found their toes and will likely try to eat them. They wiggle and laugh. Even better, some at this age can sit up. Ask your photographer for some diaper shots that show off the baby-soft skin. Watch out when taking the diaper off though: certain states prohibit nude baby photography after a certain age, usually at the 6 or 7-month mark. Check with your photographer about the studio policy. It may be best to save those for at-home photography.

9-12 months - Toddlers love the peek-a-boo game. Parents should play peek-a-boo from behind the photographer so the child will look at the camera. At this age, most children enjoy songs and may bob their heads in response. If the child is propped up, parents should stay close to catch the toddler in case of a fall. Diaper shots are usually not appropriate after the 12-month mark.

1 year - The best way to handle your active one-year-old is by making the session into a game. Bring a small hand-sized bouncy ball and roll it to the backdrop so the child can “fetch.” In the moments when you have the ball, say, “Look at the ball” and place it near the photographer’s head.

2 years - These are the terrible twos – at home and at the studio. Most two-year-olds refuse to sit with siblings, particularly newborns. Good luck trying to get a picture of the two smiling and hugging. [Refer to the multiple-person sitting tips below.] The main objective of the parent is to act as goalie when the child tries to run out of the studio. Make it into a game, and the child will think it is fun and not torture.

3-5 years - Most children at this age have some experience with organized daycare or schooling. Parents can encourage school-like behavior with similar verbal queues like those heard in school. “Listen to Ms. Jane” tends to help the child associate the photographer with a teacher-like figure. To help the children sit still, parents can also say, “Sit criss-cross applesauce.” This age group can sit for anywhere between 15-20 minutes.

6 years + – Children at this age tend to do well and can sit for about 20 minutes. Any more time, though, makes children a little fidgety. The same school-like language, coupled with compliments, helps this age group enjoy the studio session.

Multiple-Person Sitting – The best way to make these photos work is to sit the children down by age, oldest to youngest. Make sure the photographer is ready and focused, and drop the last kid down. The maximum time for these multiple children photos is about 2-8 minutes. Then have the photographer shoot individual shots. For family photos, have the photographer do the group photos first, in case things go sour. Just keep your vision of that beautiful holiday card in your mind.


What to Do When Things Go Bad

Do Not Plead - “Can you please sit still for Daddy? Nana really wants these pictures” usually does not work at any age before your kid can drive a car.

Threaten if Need Be - “No TV tonight” sometimes appeals to parents and temporarily gets results. “I’m going to get the manager” is a personal favorite and usually works for children with authority figure issues. Children respond to threats for a few minutes. Results, like their attention spans, dissipate within minutes. The reward system sometimes can be a better alternative.

Bribe – It Works - Although some parents oppose bribery, the system seems to work for children, particularly 1-2 year-olds. Simple bribes, such as Cheerios, goldfish, and chocolate, work best if given immediately. The downside to this tactic is the crumbs-factor. Parents should stay close with a wet wipe.

Compliment a Lot - “Look how nice you are sitting. You look just like a little lady” works for ages 3-5. Compliments for this age group are one of the most effective ways to have the child sit for the session. Think about the children you know at this age. They love telling you their age-equivalent in fingers. Commenting on how grown-up the child is encourages similar behavior and helps them to focus on simply sitting still.

Make a Game out of it - Children take their cues from their parents. If you seem to be enjoying the photo shoot, the kids most likely will too. You can engage children with songs. Most kids under the age of one love the “Happy Birthday” song. Sing it! Who cares if it’s not their birthday; it distracts the child long enough for the photographer to steal some shots. Preschoolers also respond to the ABC song and the “Elmo’s World” theme song. The old saying, “Say Cheese,” often produces fake smiles and should not be used. An alternative is “Say stinky cheese,” which usually elicits laughter.

When to Call It Quits
One out of ten times, the session will go horribly. Recognize that this does not reflect anything on you as a parent. If your child is mildly tearing, it could be humorous and tell the photographer to keep going. Something could come out of it. If the child is banging their head against the floor, biting the photographer, or cursing, it is time to throw in the towel.
Set up another appointment, even with another photographer if need be. Sometimes kids do better the second time around after having some practice.
More times than not, you will walk away with photos of your children. As long as you believe these photos are better pictures than the ones you already have at home, you’ve succeeded. Congratulate yourself on a job well done and display the photos as a well-deserved badge of honor.

Originally published on August 20, 2006

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