Photographing children, illness as in most people, has a lot less to do with my equipment, lighting and props, than with my rapport with my subjects and the environment I provide or seek out for them. The environment has just as much to do with the subject’s comfort and demeanor as it’s actual presence in the shot.
For example, these girls are sisters, they were rolling around a platform of down and pillows, ribbons and bows, frolicking together, like they might on their own bedroom floor. As is ideal, I was eventually just a guest to their fun, instead of a photographer trying to illicit some trained response from them. Their smiles are genuine because they are smiling for one another, not for me. The pillows and ribbons are never seen in the shot, but are as important as the girls themselves.
On the viewer’s left is the older of the two sisters, not looking at the camera. In traditional photography, the subject’s lack of eye contact with the lens could have been seen as a flaw and this print may have ended up on the darkroom floor. Modern photography is much more in tune with seeing people as they are, as natural as possible, which is most often captured when they are not intently staring at the camera. I would say my best portraits are those where my subject is looking elsewhere. No where is this as evident than with children. If a child is looking at me, they are thinking of me and what I am doing. There is nothing endearing about that. If they are looking somewhere else, we are more likely to catch wonder and curiosity or if we’re very lucky, happiness. Children grow and change daily and parents are always taken with a photo that really shows them as they are everyday, an image they want to capture. It so happens this older sister is also the shy one, the one who “looks away.” True to her personality, the younger sister is not only more outgoing, but more affectionate as well. The older sister’s hand reaching up to touch her shoulder might seem a distraction, but in fact, it was her trying to politely distance herself from her baby sister, who was all too happy to snuggle up. She actually said to me; “She’s touching me.” Naturally, we laymen wouldn’t know this by looking at this picture, but we must always remember who the client is. Their mother knows these things instinctively and she was the client.
Most of all, when shooting children, no tool is as important as time. You may even have to convince parents to accept a larger appointment block, but be sure to point out their stress will be less if they know that time is not an issue. Children will photograph best when they have had a chance to warm up to the photographer, adjust to the environment and really be themselves. Once this has been achieved you’ll want plenty of time to enjoy their comfort zone and have a safety net for unexpected surprises. Children are after all, delightfully full of those.