I love photographing small children and animals but when you incorporate them together it is a real challenge. I was once told by a well established photographer that most difficult thing to photograph is you guessed it, children & animals. You lose a little control of the how the image will turn out but I feel you will have a better opportunity to capture a real compelling storytelling photograph when you put children and animals together.
I found there are a few tips to help to make the photo session go smoothly, well at least as smoothly as possible.
Make It Fun. This is very important for children. To many times in their young lives their parents have taken countless photographs of them and are always saying "smile, stand still' turn this way, look at the camera, stop fighting, don't make faces etc.."so they are already conditioned to thinking that photo sessions are an unpleasant experience. You have to explain to them before you begin that this is going to be a blast.
Make Sure You Have An Assistant. It is very necessary to have someone there to help you. You can not manage the children and the pets by yourself and then worry about the camera. I recommend someone other than the parents as they worry to much about how the child will behave, but someone that the child knows or someone experienced with children and animals will be necessary to proceed. Animals as well as children pick up on the energy of the people much easier than we adults do so everyone needs to stay cheerful and calm during the whole session. A good assistance is priceless.
Set Your Camera Settings Before You Begin. It is important that you have your camera and any other equipment you are going to use ready before you interact with the subjects. It is also important that you are very familiar with your equipment because you are going to be very busy watching the children and pets and will not have time to worry about your camera. Children and pets move quickly and you must must be ready to shoot.
Have A Plan But Be Willing To Trash It. Having a plan of what you "hope" to capture is important so you know how to start the session but be prepared for what will actually happen. I try and have some ideas in my mind what I want to capture but I know if they do not work out to just go with what is in front of me rather than keep trying to make my plan work. Sometimes the kids are interested in what you want them to do, but the pet wants no part of it. So you have to be ready to regroup and come up with something else. Be flexible and ready for what comes naturally.
Make Sure The Children & Animals Get Along. Most children love animals but not all. Some are afraid of dogs, horses or cats and will shy away form them. Make sure the child enjoys the animals you will be working with. Their own family pet would be most ideal. But they should enjoy being with the animal in order for this to work. If they are afraid the animal will pick up on that and not want to be in their energy and may coward away or try to leave the situation. So kids that love animals is your best bet when you want to create a photograph of them both.
Take A Lot Of Breaks. Once you begin your session it is very important to give your subjects lots of breaks. Children and animals loose interest fast so your best shots are going to happen right away. Don't keep pushing to get what you intended. It has to happen naturally in order to get a compelling photograph. But remember when you are taking a break, keep you camera ready. Some of the best shots happen when animals or children are just off on their own doing what they do. I always try and keep a close eye on what is going on around me when they are taking a break.
Don't Say Smile. You need to forget those words and also if the parent is there please instruct them that you will take over the responsibility to get them to look good for the camera. Nothing is worse than a forced smile in a photograph, and children know just how to do it. So just try and talk to them and make them laugh at something rather than instruct them to smile. Animals, well their a bit easier, a high pitched noise for a dog, or a rattling of plastic for a horse is enough to get their attention. Cats are a bit more particular and harder to get their attention but it can be done with a feather or something fuzzy moving back and forth. Plus doing this will get the children's attention also.
Looking At The Camera. Although my favorite shots are when the children or animals are not looking into the camera lens, you are still going to have to take some of those for the parents and for a good portrait. If you have an assistant trying to get their attention make sure they are standing behind you so the subject looks in the cameras direction. Sometimes I ask small children if they can see the little green monster inside my camera lens. But be careful with that because they will really look intensely at the camera and be to serious. Best practice is for you to make them laugh at you and then take the shot.
Have Props But Don't Over Do It. With children and animals it is nice to introduce props in the photos to make them a bit more interesting. Like flowers, old chair, simple toy, but be sure not to over do it. The photograph is about them not the props and you do not want the prop to be the focus of the subject in the photograph. So even though you may have a beautiful large garden full of blooming flowers, your subject is what we want to see not the beautiful garden. So use props mindfully to make them look natural in the photograph. Also watch you background for trees or fences coming out of your subjects heads.
Get Low And Then Get High. Yes you will feel like you need a strong drink after the session but that is not what I mean. It is important to get on the level of the pet or child when photographing them. You need to get down to their perspective so the viewer can feel what it is like to be a small child or pet. But it is also good to change things up once in awhile and get very high looking down or very very low to the ground. I admit I get so involved in shooting and watching that I forget many times to try a new perspective. It is best however to get the necessary shots first and then go into creative mode. Wide angel lenses are fun, but if a horse is involved be prepared they can really distort their heads. I have had some good results with wide angle on horses and dogs but it takes practice. 85mm to 200mm is best for horses and portraits. It is also nice to have some environment in the shot, so for instance when you are in field or park or beautiful city. Don't stick with just a portrait type of shot, switch to landscape and put the subject to one side.
Well I hope this was helpful and you will get excited to go out and try this challenge of photographing children and animals together.
Here are a few images of my last session I did with this darling littler girl and a beautiful dog and old horse. It was a blast.
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