7 Key Tips for Photographing Children Documentary Style

People Photography, Photography Tutorial

Written by Karin van Mierlo
Karin is a pro photographer with a bachelor's degree in photography bringing 25+ years of experience to your table. She is the driving force behind Photography Playground and loves to write and teach about all things photography related. She is the developer of the Fearless FrameWork, a holistic method of learning photography.

How-To Guide for Photographing Children 

I still remember being photographed by my mom as a kid vividly. In those days photographing children in a documentary style wasn’t very common. So she was doing what everyone else did and as a result her kids photography style was far from natural or anywhere near documentary style. 

She would have me and my sister posing in front of buildings, in the middle of bridges, next to a tree or in a field of flowers. If we wanted to make her really happy we would ‘naturally’ reach out to the flowers and smell them.

Let’s just say I was not a big fan of this approach as a kid. And now as a photographer no fan either!

I don’t know what came first but from a young age, I’ve been leaning towards real moments. Was it the result of my mom’s posing directions or is it my nature? I guess it’s a combination of both. 

If your kid is like me and doesn’t like to pose but you’d love to capture their unscripted life, their character and the true moments of your life together keep reading! 

The defining element in kids photography in a documentary style is your mindset as the one who is photographing children. Sure a nice camera helps but it’s you that makes it fun for them or not.

It’s you who is documenting life as it unfolds. And how you approach that is what makes the difference between lifeless photos and the ones you’ll treasure 20 years from now. 

So let’s get down to business! How do you photograph children documentary style?

#1 Have Your Camera Ready

Once you start to see your kids from a photographic point of view you’ll start to see more and more opportunities. When you’re prepared you won’t miss the meaningful moments.

You need to be ready to expect the unexpected which as we all know always happens when kids are involved. And having your camera close by with a charged battery and an empty memory card is the bare minimum. If you wanna go further prepare your camera with the best camera settings for child photography. 

Shoot in Raw

Start by photographing in raw. This will give you more wiggle room when you’re post processing your pics and a lot more creative freedom. Go here for an in-depth article about all the advantages of shooting in raw.

Shoot in Shutter Speed Priority Mode

Take control of your camera in shutter speed priority mode and select a shutter speed of at least 1/250. When things are moving fast you should select a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster. This will make sure that the photos will be crisp and sharp. 

Don’t be afraid to select a high iso if that’s necessary to get the right shutter speed. It’s better to have a little grain from the high iso than a blurry photo because your kid was running around and your shutter speed was too slow.

Go here to discover more about capturing motion in photography.

Limit Yourself

Limit yourself in the gear you have ready. One lens will get you a long way and you won’t lose precious time changing lenses. A 50 mm full-frame is the best lens for child photography because it’s a diverse, small and light lens. 

Limiting yourself in gear will also expand your resourcefulness and creativity. So have your camera ready with one lens. 

Stay Away From the Preview

Try not to look at the previews at the back of your camera while you’re shooting.

You’ll be missing ‘now’ moments while you’re checking ‘past’ moments.

Of course, you can take a quick glance to check the exposure. But other than that keep shooting and interacting with the kids.

photographing children, photographing kids, child photography tips, tips for photographing kids, how to photograph kids | Photo: Jumping boy  Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

#2 Use Natural Light

Make use of natural light, the light that is available to you. Please, please, please …….. don’t use your flash.

Look for places in and outside of the house where the light is abundant. And watch how the light is illuminating your kids and their surroundings. 

If there isn’t a lot of light available don’t hesitate to crank up your ISO. It’s better to have pixelated images that keep their atmosphere than to have good detail but no atmosphere because of the hard frontal light from the flash. 

Discover more about how to photograph in low light situations here!

#3 Shoot a Lot

Especially with children, things can evolve quickly. Situations change from one second to the next.

Expressions will be present for a fleeting moment. Moments come and go in an instant.

That’s why I want you to shoot a lot. Don’t make only 1 photo and then stop. Go with the moment, shoot through it so to speak. Keep your eye behind the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter until you’re sure the moment is gone. 

In digital cost is no longer an issue. You can make as many photos as you think is necessary to capture the essence of the scene. You can always cull later in the editing phase. 

Click here for lightroom tips on culling your pics. And when you’re done culling don’t forget to give them some tender loving after care in the Develop Module in Lightroom.

photographing children, photographing kids, child photography tips, tips for photographing kids, how to photograph kids | Photo: Brother and sister on a bike  Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

#4 Go With the Flow

In the ‘life as it unfolds’ approach, it can be a challenge to steer clear from rehearsed looks or fake smiles. A lot of children have a standard reaction to being photographed, they give you their ‘camera face’. That’s not what you’re after in a documentary photo session. You want them to be their true selves.

There are a few ways to deal with this. But let me start by saying that telling your kid to act naturally is not one of them. They’ll become even more self-conscious. 

Ease In

I think it’s important to ease in the process of photographing your children. Don’t be all in their faces with a camera all of a sudden. But interact first, have your camera ready and then start making photos.

This makes for an easy transition. One they’ll hardly notice so they’ll just keep doing what they were doing.

Don’t Interfere

Once they’re playing and you’re photographing try not to interfere or interrupt. Don’t ask them to repeat something funny or cute or epic because you missed the shot. Chances are they’ll do it again so have patience and anticipate the moment they do. Also don’t try to make them do things like looking at the camera.

Photograph whatever is happening in front of you, go with the flow and have fun together. 

Put Your Camera Down

When your kid still has a strong reaction to being photographed I guess there’s no other way than to actually stop photographing.

And consider for a second why he or she is reacting like that. Because you know maybe the kid just doesn’t feel like being photographed at that moment and that’s fine. Maybe he/she’s not feeling her best and he/she’s uncomfortable and self-conscious in front of the camera. 

You know, we’re so used to the omnipresence of cameras and being photographed. But we all, including our kids have the right to say no to being photographed. So put your camera down, play for a bit and try again later.

You’re in this for the long haul, right? There are years and years ahead of you full of photography opportunities with your child.

If you want your kid to be comfortable and happy in front of the camera you also need to respect him/her if he/she doesn’t want to be photographed. 

photographing children, photographing kids, child photography tips, tips for photographing kids, how to photograph kids | Photo: 2 brothers peeing against a wall  Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

#5 Don’t Be the ‘Fly on the Wall’

In documentary photography, the thing you always hear is to be ‘the fly on the wall’. I’m not a big fan of that idea, to be honest.

The idea is that people forget you’re there. I’ve never found this to be a good approach. Not when I was photographing my own daughter but also not in client situations like weddings or Day in the Life sessions. 

When I’m photographing the most important thing for me to do is to connect to people. And that goes both ways. People also need to be able to connect to me as the photographer. Otherwise, how are they gonna feel comfortable with me around making photographs? 

When you try to be invisible it’s more difficult for the people you’re photographing to make a connection with you. I mean, how are they supposed to connect to a fly on the wall. 

And this may be even more vital when you’re photographing your own children. You do not want to disappear behind your camera. What you want most is for your kids to forget your camera, not you. 

#6 Capture Your Perfect Mess

Of course, it’s great to photograph the big moments in your kids’ lives. You know the ones! The first Christmas, the first day at school, the epic birthday party and other memorable moments. 

But real life happens in the in-between moments. And they may not be picture perfect. I know for sure a lot of them aren’t.

It’s those messy in-between moments you look back to in 20 years with a smile on your face. The beautiful mess that makes up the life with your children. You’ll have no trouble remembering the big moments but it’s the little moments you forget. And they are the most precious ones.

Taking photos of the little, messy and raw moments is so much more meaningful. Having photos of bathtime pandemoniums, messy dressing up sessions, blue moments, pure joy, chaotic dinners, scraped knees and tears rolling down a face is priceless. When you’re photographing your kids it’s awesome to capture those authentic candid moments

photographing children, photographing kids, child photography tips, tips for photographing kids, how to photograph kids | Photo: Girl playing at the beach  Copyright Karin van Mierlo | Photography Playground

#7 Work Your Point of View

Photographing little ones from an adult’s point of view makes them look smaller. Especially for portrait photography, the angle from above is usually not the best way to go. But getting down on your knees and photographinging at their eye level will immediately improve your photos.

And lowering your point of view is not the only thing you can do. You can walk around and shoot the scene from different angles. Or you can come close to indulge yourself in storytelling details and go wide and show us what building a castle looks like in your home. As a result you become a more active and involved photographer and you’ll create more diverse photos.

Go here for more info on point of view and composition.

Let’s Recap!

  1. Have your camera fully loaded and ready with the proper camera settings. Select raw in image quality and shutter speed priority in exposure mode. Shutter speeds of 1/250 or faster will make sure your pics turn out nice and crisp. 
  2. Make use of natural light only all the time. If the light is limited select a higher iso.
  3. Dive in the moments and shoot a lot. Cull your pics to a presentable selection in Lightroom. 
  4. In a ‘life as it unfolds’ photo shoot, it’s important to ease into the process of photographing your kids. Go with the flow and don’t interfere or interrupt. Respect your kid if he or she doesn’t want to be photographed. There’s always another day.
  5. Make your kids forget the camera, not you. You’re part of whatever is evolving so don’t try to be the ‘fly on the wall’.
  6. Don’t shy away from the beautiful mess and raw emotions your life is made of.
  7. Photograph from different points of view. Get down to your kids’ level to capture their point of view, come close, go wide and walk around. 

Final Thoughts: Relax and Experiment!

Enjoy and cherish these moments where you’re able to see your kid’s life from a different point of view. Capture that happy chocolate face, photograph a chubby hand covered in whipped cream, or shoot the joy of them making a mess in the bathroom.

Keep shooting, try out different things, experiment and go with the flow. If you are not happy with the results you’ll have learned a thing or two to try again tomorrow. Because it will take practice to become a better kids photographer and you’ll need to develop a different way of looking at your kids. 

But I assure you, it’s very rewarding to put in the effort. Years from now your kids will love all the goofy, messy and little moments you captured in their lives. By then the photos have become triggers for long-forgotten memories. I know my 28-year-old daughter still leafs through the photo albums I made for her from the first 18 years of her life. 

Go here if you want help on how to make a beautiful photo album.

Now let’s hear from you! Let me know in the comments what your biggest challenge is when you’re photographing your children.

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