At least once a week, I hear the following from a friend or acquaintance: How do you get your children to act so natural in front of the camera? Whenever I pull mine out, my kids whine / cry / run away / throw their dirty clothes at me.
In short, it all comes down to this. I don't ask them to perform for me. If I don't interrupt their concentration with my camera, they have no reason to resent it. Granted, this takes time. If you're a parent seeking a better relationship between your camera and your children, here's your challenge: For the next month, continue photographing your little ones, but don't direct them or ask them to smile. Don't even ask them to look. See if around week two, you don't start noticing a difference -- both in the way your children react when you pull your camera out, and in the quality of expression you're able to capture.
I've always photographed my own family this way, and I take this approach to clients' homes as well. For families with camera-shy (or camera-awkward) children or parents, it's quite brilliant. Within the first 30 minutes, all parties have all but forgotten about me and are able to be themselves -- and that's when the magic happens.
Obviously, the story is a bit different with school photos. I spend no more than two minutes with each child, so expecting them to forget about my camera (and the backdrop . . . and the garden shed I've set up in . . .) is too much to ask. But rather than churning through the session with demands of "cheese" or the same canned joke, I try to honestly connect with each child, in the hopes that they will reveal a bit of their unique little spirits to me.
Some are quite shy and reserved with me no matter how charming and funny I think I am, and others are total hams with very little encouragement. But I find that in general, parents appreciate a true expression in their child's photo more than a "just say cheese!" smile. And when the pressure to capture a coerced grin is off, the children can just be themselves. After all, the goal is to capture what these small humans genuinely look like, not just the face they make when they're acting.
Below is just a small sampling of my time last week at the magical and beloved Starbright Preschool, where the children and I discussed (1) the merits of filling your shoes with whipped cream, (2) whether it would be easy to teach a rainbow dragon to hide in your ear, and (3) why our dogs never seem to load the dishwasher or pick us up from school.