There’s an age – usually from around 18 months to 3 years old – that I like to call the ‘Age of No’. If you’ve met anyone in this age group, you’ll know what I mean.
Toddlers are going through a really important stage in their development and are testing boundaries and generally working out where they fit in the world which is perfectly normal and sometimes even adorable until you try to get them to do something that you want them to do. This can sometimes include posing for photos in the studio 🙂
There’s no magic bullet for getting a toddler to cooperate in the studio – which is sad but true. I’d pay a lot for that super power. However, I’ve been doing my job for a lot of years and there is some stuff that works and some stuff that definitely doesn’t. In the case of this family, the youngest member definitely didn’t want to play ball until I invented a game of catch the squeaker. The resulting image, I grant you, wouldn’t win any formal posing awards but it’s an image where he’s happy, smiling and it’s full of life which kind of sums up that family.
What Works with a Toddler in the Studio
When they arrive at the studio, I’m very well aware that’s a new environment and they might not know me. I never just chuck them into the studio on their own and expect them to perfect. There’s always a bit of an warm up time where they hang out in the studio with their parents to get the lie of the land – even if the parents aren’t planning to be in the photos themselves. Then we gradually move the parents out of the picture but always keep them close at hand just out of shot so they don’t feel abandoned. While we’re in this settling in phase of a session, it’s really important that we keep the energy really positive and fun – nothing freaks a toddler out like telling them not to be scared or not to worry – they probably hadn’t thought there was anything to worry about until we said it but they sure will afterwards.
Generally speaking, it’s best not to really talk about what’s expected of them at the studio before they come. If they think there’s a weight of expectation on them or there’s something for them to be wary of, they come into the space with that in mind and they’re much more likely to opt out of the experience. If they come in with no expectations, they tend to be a bit more open to things and willing to go along with whatever we have planned.
If a toddler pitches a fit and says they don’t want to be in the photos, generally speaking (and as long as they are safe) the best approach is generally to ignore them and carry on with their siblings and parents taking photos. After a bit, they tend to get curious and want to take part. There’s lots of ideas that I have once I get them in the studio to make taking photos into a game so they don’t feel like they’re doing anything but having fun and I’m very good and working very fast. We change ideas and positions a lot so they don’t have time to get bored and cotton on to the fact that they’re being accidentally compliant! It can make it feel like a bit of a work out for us adults to keep the energy levels right but it’s over pretty quickly and it gets the job done. You don’t always get a superbly technically posed shot but then that’s not really what family life is about is it? Connection rather than perfection is definitely a phrase that applies here.
I also find that it’s usually best not to ask them to comply in the first place but more to tell them what we’re going to be doing. That sounds really mean but if you ask a question, then you can’t be surprised when you get no as an answer. So think more ‘this is where we’re going to sit now’ rather than ‘would you like to come and sit here?’
What Doesn’t Work with a Toddler in the Studio
Every kid is different and you’re going to know best what will motivate them but as a general rule, bribes of any sort that rely on delayed gratification don’t have a great success rate. Such as ‘do this then we’ll get a toy’ or ‘sit here then you can watch something on my phone’. They do work great with older children (I have no problems with bribery for them!) but for toddlers, they generally can’t see the benefit of it. The same conversely works with ‘threats’ – I use that term advisedly – I mean more like ‘if you don’t do this, you won’t get something later’.
Ditto offering food in exchange for sitting or doing something – they might well sit on the chair if you get them a snack but then you get photos of them chewing with their mouth all full. Or you get – and this is part of the diabolical brilliance of toddler logic – they will sit on the chair or whatever for the smallest of milliseconds and then get off to claim their reward as they have fulfilled their part of the bargain. I mean they’re not wrong…
Reading back as I write, I’m now wondering if this comes across as a bit terrifying to think about bringing your toddler to the studio and that’s definitely what I mean. I’ve had hundreds of toddlers in the studio who get great photos both on their own and in a group and have a ball in the process. There’s just a few tips here that you might find useful when you’re getting ready for your portrait photo shoot.