How to Photograph a Two-Year Old |Minneapolis Children's Photographer

by: Tera Girardin on

Photographing a two-year old strikes fear in the hearts of parents and photographers alike.  Over the course of my photography career (and my parenting career!), I’ve had a lot of experience with this age (and when I say two-year old, I’m referring to 18 months until age 3 or so). They are a challenge but oh so rewarding – if you can catch them! It takes patience, a little understanding of the psyche of a toddler and a go-with-the-flow attitude.

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It all boils down to letting the two-year old do what he wants. I’m talking just for the portrait session, not all the time or you’ll have a whole lotta problems on your hands! A two-year old has a new found independence with walking and talking. It’s an exciting time for them! To see the world through their eyes is such a privilege and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy photographing this age. But their world truly revolves around themselves - “me, mine and no” are often favorite words. They are pushing the limits of this new found independence which is part of why it’s a joy to photograph them – their exuberance, curiosity and innocence are hallmarks of this stage.

You have to understand this basic principle:  If a two-year old doesn't want to, it won't happen. And if you force the issue, you will lose!

I find befriending and being more of a playmate is a good approach. Now, you can coach, guide and trick them into doing what you want. But if it's not of their own free will, then you will enter into meltdown territory. Avoiding the meltdown is the key to good portraits.

There are things that both the photographer and the parents can do to ensure a good portrait experience when working with a two-year old.

What can photographers do?

First, gain their trust. A two-year old is usually slow to warm up to new people. Start by greeting the parents and don’t say hello to or even look at the child at first.

Once they’ve seen mom and dad treat you as a friend, they will be less leery. You can say hello at this point but you have to get down to their level and don’t come on too strong. “Hi Alex! My name is Ms. Tera, we are going to have some fun today!” They will either retreat behind mom’s leg and you’ll know they need more time. Or they will show you whatever prized possession they have in their little hand – then you are in! And it’s time to go to work. Quickly!

The window of cooperation will be short. Be prepared with the shots/props/location ideas you have in mind. Be flexible and let the child dictate what you will do. Your equipment should be ready to go because the two-year old has the patience of a flea.  Read the child’s mood. If she is feeling shy, photograph her teddy bear first. Show her the back of the camera if you are using a digital camera.

Obviously as photographers we strive to get our subjects in the best light. That means you have to figure out how to get the two-year old to the right spot. They move around a lot and could care less about what you want them to do. But they are curious creatures too, so an interesting toy or special chair can keep them occupied long enough to stay in one spot. A simple ball, block or plastic flower works well (something you won’t mind is in the photograph). Bubbles can work well too but sometimes the very independent two-year old will want to do it themselves! So you might want to save this for the end as it might get messy!

I find a “container” helps keep the child in place for just long enough to fire off several shots. I have a small square stool that toddlers LOVE - it's just the right height and they often climb on it before I even ask them to. Climbing on it is so very satisfying. It has a handle hole in the middle and they love to pick it up and carry it. I always let them choose where to put it (again, back to making it their idea). And I ask "Can you sit on it? Can you stand on it?" and make a big to-do when they do. Standing on it almost seems a little naughty so they are very willing to do that! OR if they aren't that interested, I sit on it and say something like "Oh, I’M going to sit on it - it's MY turn." Two year olds are so very self-centered they can't stand missing out on claiming something as "MINE."

Be patient and let the child go off if he needs to. Maybe he needs a break! Drop the camera for a bit and see what happens. Pull out his favorite toy and let him get lost in playing.  Then you can resume and get some great natural action shots.

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Some other interaction ideas include (these all depend on the child’s level of communication skills):

Tell the child, “I’m only going to take 3 pictures. Can you count them?” This works well for the child who wants to see the back of the camera after every shot.

Ask the child if they can make an angry face? Sad face? Happy? Surprised? Etc.

“Can you say, no? Say, no. Now say Yes.”  Most little tikes are happy to say no and get a kick out of it. And if they  say “yes” it will be a much more natural type smile than saying “cheese.”

Ask mom what the child’s favorite song is right now. Typically it’ll be one with finger movements which is always cute. If mom is going to help sing, have her hover immediately behind you to get thebest eye contact.IMG_3456-5x7_1

“I’m going to photograph your brother (or mom or dad, etc) now. You have to step out of the way.” This reverse psychology sometimes works! They will want to be a part of the game – sometimes. There is always the child that is glad to be excused.

Or if you are close to wrapping up, “We’re all done!” and then snap a few last shots. Or simply take a break and talk to mom for a bit. They may want the attention back on them and you can get a few more.

What can parents do?

Relax and let the photographer do her job. Go with the flow during the session. The two-year old (and any age for that matter) can sense when you are stressed out or frazzled. Which 99% of the time results in the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve. So stay relaxed and they won’t know anything is up!

Let the photographer know ahead of time the temperament of your child, what he likes or doesn’t like.

Don’t set your expectations too high. If you want your daughter in an heirloom dress that your mother wore but your daughter hates wearing dresses, it’s not gonna happen. Well, it could but it won’t be the warm fuzzy image you have in your head.

At this age, keep the outfits to one – MAYBE two.  This really depends on how your child handles changing his clothes. Most don’t like it. I tell parents to start with the most important outfit first and a second outfit may or may not happen. To lessen the changing, consider just changing the shirt. Another way to get a different look is to use a hat. Or dress-up clothes can be the second outfit – pettiskirts, superman cape, whatever crazy outfit your child loves!

Make sure the outfit you do select is comfortable for the child. Being distracted by clothes they do not like will end up with poor result.

Think outside the box and collaborate with your photographer. Maybe your two-year old’s favorite activity is finger painting. Make that the theme of the session instead of a traditional sit and smile session. Or do a combination of traditional and then a fun activity – eating popsicles, or something equally messy. Your child will enjoy themselves and you will end up with portraits that reflect your child’s true emotions.

Hang back during the session so your child knows you are around but not the boss at that moment. It’s confusing to the child if the photographer is trying to engage the child and both parents (and grandma too!) are off to the side saying “smile!” It’s hard for them to know who to listen to so a lot of times they will shut down and ignore everyone.

Don’t over prepare your child with a play by play of how they are to act days beforehand. “Let’s practice your smile!” This will surely backfire. The only thing you need to tell them is “My friend Tera is coming over to play with us today and take some pictures.” And leave it at that! No big deal! They won’t feel anxious and act out.

Don’t bribe! It’s ok to reward your child at the end just don’t promise anything before or during the session. The two-year old is generally too immature to understand that IF/THEN concept. “If you sit nicely then you get a treat when we are done.” They will hear "treat" and want it immediately and beg for it incessantly until you have to give it to them to avoid full meltdown mode. Now your photographer has to try to shoot around the sticky treat and a lot of your portraits end up being eating shots. Bribery works great with older children but not at this age.

Bring your child’s lovey (or binky or blankie or whatever you child holds dear). Let your child keep it for a while until she is comfortable. I’ll often snap a few images with it because even though parents want that yucky, smelly blankie left in the car, they will treasure that image when their child has outgrown their lovey. A lot of times a child will trust a photographer more if she is allowed to keep it. Creative cropping or even playing a game with the lovey will prevent it from being in every shot.

As a last resort, use a small, non-messy snack to get the child to stay put for a few last shots.

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Ok, let’s talk naughtiness. Your portrait session is not the time to get into a power struggle with your child. You may have to pick your battles for the sake of good portraits. However, you should step in if your child is acting up so much that he is becoming destructive or safety is an issue. If the behavior doesn’t stop, the session should come to an end.

Avoid scheduling your session during a time when you know your child won’t be at their best. Early afternoons are typically naptimes for this age. AVOID this time as it will not result in the best images. Usually a morning appointment works best – children are fresh and happy.

Also, reschedule if your child is sick. This shouldn’t even have to be said but a lot of times parents have waited for weeks for their appointment and hate to change plans. But your session will not result in the images you want if your child is sick. It’s not fun for your child, yourself or the photographer.

Siblings and family sessions

It’s hard enough to capture a two-year old alone but often parents want a family portrait or maybe with the new baby who has arrived. Again, same rules apply and we have to let the two-year old dictate the pace of the session.

When a new baby arrives it can be a trying time for a new older brother or sister. Two-year olds can be hot and cold about a new baby. Sometimes they are scared of a crying baby or they are annoyed at all theattention. You can’t expect a two-year old to embrace such a strange creature!

With a family session, creative posing can come into play. The toddler can sit on dad’s shoulders (which usually makes them happy – but not the timid ones!), stand on the little stool with the family crouched all around, mom and dad sitting with the toddler giving a hug piggyback style, or even turn that little two-year old troublemaker upside down and everyone will laugh. Again, it helps to think outside the box for this situation.

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So a two-year old portrait session can be a pleasant, even fun experience for everyone. Just relax and follow the child’s lead. Play and enjoy the world through the child’s eyes!

Photographers, you are welcome to use this information for your clients – please link back to my site with proper credit given.