Getting a toddler to sit still for a family photo is a pain in the ass and a waste of time. There are some decent studio portraits out there, but the family photo ideas that parents end up valuing tend to be of kids being kids. And kids aren’t static creatures. They are often at their best and happiest while going batshit in a field or clamoring around on rocks in the run up to a knee scrape. Smart parents learn to photograph these moments — not for the Instagram likes but for the mantelpiece (and a bit for the likes).
“You can’t get toddlers to do anything so you have to start there,” says 12-year veteran of professional family photography Sarah Sloboda. “Instead of working against nature, start with the fact that they’re not going to sit still.”
Sloboda notes that much of the advice around taking pictures of kids runs completely counter to what parents have traditionally done: put the kid down and urge the kid to stay still and smile. “You have to be a little bit flexible on your composition,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll see this photo in your mind and you’ll want your kid in it, versus getting where the kid is and seeing where there’s a photo.”
This way of thinking about kid pictures is very much connected with street photography, according to Sloboda. The best in that field compose a shot first and then wait for people to come into the frame. “It’s a little less painting a picture and a little more organic.”
But that’s not to say you can’t lure a child into settling. Sloboda suggests a couple tactics, the first of which is briefly withholding attention or conspicuously focusing on props or scenery. She notes that parents can bank on a kid’s curiosity and on a kid’s interest in DSLR cameras, which might be a new thing for them. Playing with the settings on a camera and setting up a shot without the kid in it can actually draw them in.
“Kids kinda can’t handle being left out,” Sloboda explains. “Pretend they’re not involved and they’ll find interest on their own. Then you’re in.”
Parents can also lean into younger children’s’ propensity to mimic. If they’re hoping a child will do something specific, like sitting on a bench or interacting with a prop, parents should do it first, without discussing it, and inevitably their kid will join them in the activity. Eventually, the parent can step away and capture a perfect picture. But, the key is to keep interacting, minimize the weirdness of the act of taking a picture and be quick.
“Hold a phone slightly down away from your face and keep talking to them while you’re pressing the shutter button,” Sloboda says. “Ask them questions. Get them thinking, imagining and enjoying themselves while you’re clicking away.”
Not much changes when it comes to using a self-timer so the whole family can get in the picture. Here again, Sloboda encourages parents to interact with the kid after setting up the shot. Sprinting from the camera to pose before the shutter clicks becomes a game.
“They can’t resist,” says Sloboda.