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The key is to make photo sessions fun; create a scene for your kids and let them act it out. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)
TravelTraveler Magazine

How to Photograph Kids

Reader Question (this time, from Traveler Associate Editor Amy Alipio): How do you best photograph kids on location? I find it impossible to get all my children in the shot, in focus, and not making goofy faces.

My Answer: Getting really great photos of your kids — especially when traveling — can be challenging and requires a complete change in your approach and expectations. Here are a few tricks to make it easier:

Getting all the kids in the shot

When traveling, many people like to document their children in front of recognizable landmarks, but I say this is a recipe for boring pictures. Instead, take the picture in a place where there is something to keep their interest. For example, in Rome’s Piazza Navona there are always-on water fountains that kids find fascinating. It will prove much easier to get them together if you photograph them there instead of trying to get them to pose in front of the Colosseum.

Most places have similar kinds of kid magnets. Pay attention to what your kids find interesting and have the camera ready. I would much rather have a photograph of my kids actively experiencing a place than a dime-a-dozen tourist shot.

Getting them in focus

Focusing on kids requires either a multi-thousand dollar sports photographer’s camera or, the budget option, a little bit of anticipation on your part. While most modern cameras aren’t fast enough to capture an in-focus image on the fly, they do offer a pre-focus mechanism that is triggered by releasing the shutter halfway.

Here’s the trick: Train your camera on a spot where you hope to photograph your kids when they eventually settle down and engage the pre-focus. Then wait for them to move into the frame, and push the shutter button the rest of the way down to instantly capture the moment.

Getting them to look like your kids

In an effort to prevent awkward smiles and funny faces from creeping into posed photographs, I ask subjects to relax their mouths, then close their eyes and open them when I count to three. This strategy is nearly foolproof when it comes to folks who have developed a “camera smile” that they flash whenever a lens appears.

But for the special few who default to funny faces, I have a special trick: the fake out. Frame up a scene or have your kids sit for a portrait, and when they start making faces, just sit there with the camera ready until it starts to feel uncomfortable. Chances are you’ll outlast them; that’s when the really interesting stuff starts. You might not get the perfect smiles you were hoping for from your children, but the photos that emerge will be a more meaningful expression of their personality.

Getting them to (want to) cooperate

Taking advice about shooting pictures from a photography-obsessed dad may require more work than you’re willing to put in, but let me tell you how I’ve been able to solve the photography problem while raising my two kids.

Step 1: Get them on your side.

I started this process by providing my then three-year-old daughter with disposable cameras whenever we traveled somewhere. The disposable era is all but over; now you can get a perfectly useful digital camera for less than $50 without trying too hard (or you could always give them your obsolete one). The trick is to let them use the camera with little supervision from you — but then spend time discussing their results. They’ll be quick to understand that half the fun of taking photographs is looking at them later — and, hey, they might even start cooperating when you want to take a picture. Another trick? Kids respond well to reciprocity — and reward. Let them take your photo first, then turn the lens on them.

Step 2: Get them to ignore you.

Take lots and lots of pictures — more than you think is possible. This is really the biggest tip I can give. I know, you don’t want to be that guy who carries his fancy camera everywhere. So, get a small camera, have it handy, and use it wherever you go. If your kids get used to the presence of the camera, they’ll eventually learn to tune it out. The result? Candid pictures that truly capture the experiences you share together, as a family.

If you have younger kids who are used to having a camera around, try turning your photo sessions into a game by having them act out simple scenes. Getting them to concentrate on a silly script can help them forget their own agenda, and help you achieve your vision.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.