I am Mom to two “differently wired” boys who I’ve been photographing since they were babies (they are now 8 and 5). They have always been my most challenging subjects. This post is specifically for parents of children who might have special needs or are simply a bit more challenging than their peers. These are tips for how you might apply my approach when taking photographs of your own children. Because as much as I would love to photograph every family all the time, you should be able to take beautiful photographs of your children outside of hiring a professional photographer, too.
* Please note that I use images in this post are of children who don’t necessarily have special needs, but who still benefited from the techniques described. The reality is, all children need understanding and respect, especially when it comes to photographing them.
Tips for Taking Photos of Children with Special Needs
1. Keep them engaged for eye contact
Eye contact can be tough for most kids, but children with special needs can often have even more trouble looking at the people they are interacting with. And everyone knows that the best portrait is when the person in the photograph is looking directly into the camera. It’s something I always strive to capture, even if a child isn’t easily convinced to look in my direction. My oldest son is often so fascinated by everything going on in the room that his eyes are constantly wandering around, jumping from spot to spot, even if he’s having a 1-on-1 conversation with me. The best way to work through this is to actively engage in a conversation about a topic that the child is wildly interested in. Right now, my boys can talk about Pokemon and video games non-stop.. and if I ask them questions about those two topics, they are willing to stay in one spot and occasionally look at me when I ask them questions and have silly responses to what they tell me.
2. Allow them to move around
If you child has sensory needs (this is a topic I am constantly learning more about), they might not be able to sit still for prolonged periods of time. High-energy children absolutely need to move around. Asking them to stay in one spot is not only unrealistic but can also cause them to get upset. I fully realize that it’s that much harder to capture an in-focus photo of a child when they’re moving, but it’s worth the effort (and dedicating some time to learning how to nail focus). The best approach is for you to stay in one spot (which is exactly what I do in the Studio, because everything is set up for one specific area) but allow your child to run around the room and come back to you when they’re ready. This takes patience. And you have to be ready to spend that time waiting.. which is honestly the hardest part of the whole thing. Children want to interact and participate, but they also need to be able to do that on their own time. So allow them the space to move, run, and jump, so you can get much better photographs in the end.
3. Take special care with sensory needs
Not only children, but adults can be sensitive to smells, certain lighting, and moving air. If you’re outdoors, your child might not like wind making the little hair on their arms move, so allow them to wear a long-sleeved shirt or cardigan, even if it’s not what you were planning originally. Considering that bright sunlight might hurt their eyes (make sure they’re never facing the sun directly), certain textures might bother them (wet grass, sand, gravel, water, etc), and smells could be perceived much stronger and more irritating, try your best to reduce all potential irritants as best as you can. But the biggest part of this is to listen to your child. If she’s complaining about something, don’t just brush it off. Make sure you can accommodate her needs, move to a different area, change her clothing as needed, or simply wait for a different time altogether.
4. Plan for breaks
Children with special needs might get tired easily, may not have the core strength to sustain prolonged sitting, and need to take breaks so they don’t get overwhelmed by the process. As a parent, be sure to have their favorite snack and drink ready so they can step away and recharge at any point. Allowing children to get comfortable in a new environment, step away if needed, and know that there’s no pressure to perform is the key to having a successful photo session.
5. Minimize distractions
There’s a reason why my Studio is mostly white, with minimal decorations and clean surfaces. It’s important for an interior space to be calming, especially for special needs children so they don’t get overwhelmed or distracted. This is something that affects me as well, which is probably why I’ve designed the Studio that way. This also might be another benefit of taking your child to somewhere other than your home for photographs, they will be less inclined to do other things and will have more attention for whoever is taking their portrait.
6. Put the child’s needs first, always
As parents, we always want our children to perform well. And that sometimes translates to insisting on them sitting, smiling for the camera, or behaving a certain way. Whether you’re taking photographs of your child at home, on vacation, or at a professional photo Studio, you never want to put photographs above your child’s needs. If you child doesn’t want to smile for the camera, make sure that they know that they don’t have to smile (if you’re trying to get a natural expression, you don’t want them to smile on command anyway). If they don’t want to sit, let them walk around. If they want to sit on a particular chair or spot, let them, even if it’s not the idea you had in your head for that perfect picture. I always approach a photo session with a child as a long-term project. It’s not important to win the little battles or get into a power struggle over who’s in charge. The little things don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that the child is treated with respect, feels heard, and enjoys the process. Because nothing is worse than having a child all of a sudden start to dislike taking pictures. You want the experience to be enjoyable enough so that they have a healthy relationship with photography, have fun doing it, and view it as something positive, always.
I didn’t know for a long time that my children were “special”. They just seemed harder than other people’s babies. Only recently have I discovered that a lot of the accommodations I make for them and the daily concerns that are at the top of my mind aren’t typical. My kids taught me to have the kind of patience I didn’t know was possible. Although I still get frustrated. Every. Single. Day.
But most of all, I learned that every single child is different.
And it’s unrealistic to work with everyone in the same way (children AND adults alike!). There’s nothing wrong with a child that has strong preferences, needs we might find baffling, or strong feelings we might not comprehend. Providing understanding, trying to see things from their perspective, and treating them like a human being who deserves our respect is the approach I find works best.. and I encourage you to do the same.