Photographing toddlers with their endless curiosity for all.the.things, short attention span and super speed can be challenging! But Vicki Cardilini is a CLG Advanced Grad with loads of experience capturing her now two year old granddaughter Hazel, and today she’s sharing some fantastic tips! Read on to learn how to plan and shoot a toddler portrait session so that your little subject wants to be involved, and get great photos! Oh and don’t miss the BONUS tips for camera settings!
I adore capturing Hazel as she’s my granddaughter and a cute little model! I chase her around often with my camera, but it’s challenging getting good shots now she’s two! There is no prompting or directing for a two year old.
So my advice is to set up a fun activity they love to contain them to a small area, and so they’re happy to have their photo taken. The activity needs to provide moments where they stop so you have opportunity to capture them in focus. You’ll get great looking photos if the activity is photogenic, too. For example giving a toddler your phone to play with might stop them in their tracks, but it’s not an interesting activity to capture. Think drawing, painting, playdo, gardening, water play, nature walks, etc. Anything that brings colour, texture, engagement and natural smiles.
Then you pretty much just have to be ready with camera in hand and follow your toddler around.
I decided to set her up to water the herbs, as she loves to do that. I also knew she would be in one spot for brief moments when I could capture her.
These little people are beginning to discover they can make decisions, including saying no! Generally speaking toddlers need to feel they have a say in things, especially when it comes to food and clothing. So to get them willing and excited about the shoot, it helps a lot to involve them in part of the planning process. Specifically… what they will wear.
A great tip is to choose 2-3 outfits that will work for your vision, lay them out and give your toddler the choice. It’s really important to take them out of the wardrobe, so they can’t see other outfits they might prefer. If your vision is for a classic blue striped dress, and your toddler spots her favourite Dora t-shirt with a small stain from yesterday’s breakfast… it might be over before you’ve begun!
Hazel loves her sunglasses so I offered her the option to wear them, and with that she ventured outside with us happily.
She was pretty quick and had her watering can emptied just as I would get into position! So I had to get what I could as quick as I could! For that reason it’s essential to be really proficient with manual mode and your camera so you can change settings fast without stopping to look at buttons and dials.
Before your toddler starts the activity, quickly take some test shots and get your settings sorted. Depending on your toddler’s attention span, you might have a very small window, and you don’t want to waste it mucking around with settings.
You can also save time by working out the best position to shoot from for a nice background before you bring your toddler in.
Related: Get Out of Auto Mode
I’m always experimenting in my photography, and on this particular day I decided to use complementary colours as a theme. Colour is a really powerful compositional tool that can help you easily create the kind of scroll-stopping images you see on Instagram.
We were in lockdown so the location was limited to the backyard. But it’s a very simple space filled with grass, potted herbs and a beautiful lemon tree. So I knew I wanted her to wear red, as it would contrast dramatically with the very green backyard. She already had a gorgeous little red dress in her wardrobe, and luckily Hazel agreed to wear it, and it popped beautifully.
If props are used, make sure the colour is in keeping with the surroundings and clothing. This simple tin watering can works because it’s a classic design.
One of the key elements in all professional portraits is a well isolated subject that pops from the background. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to clear unneccesary clutter because it creates chaos and distracts from the subject.
My biggest challenge was shooting with a clear background, as there is some clutter around the back deck. So I positioned her facing the deck, with her back toward the clear background of the uncluttered backyard.
Related: How to Make Your Subject Shine
When shooting outdoors, always be mindful of where the sun is situated. If the sun is high overhead, it will create unflattering shadows under the eyes. You also won’t get any catchlights which you need for gorgeous sparkly eyes!
Related: How to Get Sparkly Eyes in Portraits
Shoot early in the morning, or late in the day when the sun is low in the sky. The sun will be diffused by the horizon and give you more even, flattering lighting. This time of day is known as the golden hour as the light often has a warm, dreamy hue.
Related: Golden Hour Photography Tips
If you can’t avoid shooting in the middle of the day, front light them to avoid harsh shadow lines. To avoid the squints, shooting them looking down, or pop a hat or sunglasses on them.
Alternatively if it’s a cloudy day, you can shoot at any time. It was midday when I did this shoot, but the sun wasn’t a big concern as it was overcast. Cloudy skies act as a giant diffuser, creating beautifully soft light. However, even when it’s cloudy it’s still important to be conscious of where the sun is positioned relative to your subject. It can still impact how light falls on your subject. So check for unflattering shadows, for example under the eyes. Also, even when it’s cloudy, the sun can still make your subject squint if they’re facing it.
For this particular I used my Nikon 35mm 1.4 lens. 35mm allows me to get in close to showcase Hazel and the action clearly, whilst still including the environment for context. For a similar look, you can use any focal range from around 18 to 35mm.
Related: What Lens Should I Use?
Another key ingredient of professional portraits is focus. Getting sharp, clear faces and eliminating unwanted motion blur comes down to your camera settings.
A fast shutter speed is essential when capturing an active toddler. If it’s too slow, their movement will result in blurry photos. I always aim to shoot at least 1/320 when I’m shooting Hazel, as she’s very busy! As I had an abundance of lovely diffused light for this session, I was able to shoot with a very fast shutter speed of 1/640.
Blurry backgrounds is another way you can isolate your subject, and we do that with aperture. The wider your aperture (smaller f stop), the blurrier your background. But don’t make the mistake of shooting too wide… when toddlers are moving it’s very easy to end up with soft focus on their face. When I photograph Hazel I use an aperture of f/4 so that her face is nice and sharp.
If you’re new to manual mode, f/4 is a sweet spot that will give you good focus on your toddler’s face, and a blurry background.
I always change my perspective and move around my subject. Don’t shoot everything from your own standing height. I shot from above to showcase the activity, and got down low to shoot her at her eye level. Get in close and capture details, and step back to take wide shots for context. Including lots of negative space is a great way to highlight your toddler’s size relative to the world they live in.
Ask questions that encourage them to point or show you things. This is also a more effective way to get them to look at your camera, rather than constantly interrupting their play by asking them to look at the camera, which can be counter productive.
Once Hazel became bored of the gardening activity, she wandered away to play in the yard with the dog. Rather than trying to bring her back to the activity, I just went with it and followed her around. It gave me a lot more variety of shots, and Hazel was still having fun!