Toddlers are cute as can be, and totally unpredictable. I absolutely love the challenge of capturing them. Beyond the camera gear, here are the tools I really rely on.
Grab their attention
The attention span of a toddler is more fleeting than your ever-texting teenage niece. Engage them with silly noise-making toys, goofy faces and playful conversation. Be super generous with praise for whatever you’re asking them to do. Professional photographers sometimes hire a ‘baby wrangler’ just for this purpose. You could ask mom or dad or an older sibling to step into this role. Keep a bag full of toys within arms reach that your helper can switch up when one is losing its charm. Have them stand right behind you and hold the toy right over your lens so baby’s gaze is aimed at camera. Get ready for those wide-eyed giggle faces!
As much as you want to elicit those smiles, over-stimulation is a recipe for disaster. Use your noisy toys and goofy faces sparingly so they retain their magic. The expressions toddlers make on their own are often the winning shots anyway. I also find the more folks you have intent on making a baby do something, the less likely they are to do it. Limit the people who are with you to those that are a great help and ask others to wait nearby and out of sight. Sometimes this even applies to mom and/or dad (your spouse?). Tread carefully with this approach in case any attachment issues come up, but if they can quietly leave the area, that may give you the perfect opportunity to get your shot.
Contain their energy
Toddlers like to explore. A lot. If you want to photograph them in one spot, try making a small X on the ground with masking tape or placing a sticker where you want them to stand. Ask them if they can stomp on it, find it, hide it, etc. Inevitably they will drift from their mark – some more than others! So just make game of it and keep bringing them back to that spot with your words. Channel your inner pre-school teacher!
Take lots of breaks
Is their energy or good mood starting to wane? On a recent shoot we had a super smart 18 month old actually tell us, “I need a break”. We were all in stitches! But, when it’s break time, it’s break time! You’re better off letting them do their own thing for a while and offering a bottle or snack, than suffering the consequences of a temper tantrum. Once you get to a toddler’s breaking point, they are little balls of emotion and no amount of reasoning will bring them back. Shoot over. Even if you are miraculously able to sooth them, they may be beet red by then. It’s better to have a few opportunities to shoot than just one long one where you never quite get your shot. Trust me – you’ll be happier too!
Find your inner Zen
A calm photographer makes for a calmer baby. It’s a challenge not to react to their all-over-the-place energy. Work to keep things light and playful. Use an assertive but controlled voice only when you need to. It’s not just your tone of voice or your words that matter either. While toddlers are learning language at an alarming rate and surprising you with the brilliant things they say, non-verbal cues still rule. They will pick up on your body language and stress levels readily. So, when things are a little out of control, realize that it’s par for the course and improvise. Even the same baby can be unpredictable from one day to the next. On professional shoots, we’ll have a ‘backup model’ whenever possible for this reason. If you’re photographing a particular child (or your own), obviously this is not an option. But you can choose to change your game plan or opt for a better day.
What are your favorite tricks for photographing toddlers? Any funny meltdown stories? Did you capture those moments too?