“You saw the opportunities in their antics.” It’s emblazoned on my brain…one mom’s observation is now my rally cry going into portrait time with children. A mom shared this sentiment while being wowed over the gallery of her children. She wondered how it was possible for the gorgeous portraits before her eyes to have resulted from the chaos that inevitably characterizes almost every childhood portrait session I’ve encountered in the last 9 years. I can’t tell you the number of times moms have been in tears, certain that the portraits they dreamed of weren’t possibly going to result from the session they witnessed. Three seconds I assure them, that’s all it takes to create amazing child portraits. Now let me explain!
Every time a mom is on the verge (or full on in) of tears, I remind her of the same thing. At an average shutter speed of 1/200th of a second in studio, if I fire my shutter 600x in 90 minutes, I literally have recorded 3 seconds of time. 3 seconds! By no means does this mean I spray and pray for a good result. I set the scene, woo the child into it and stay ready, at a hair trigger notice, for when the magic begins. And it happens fast so I stay laser focused and eager to spot the magical moment I know will inevitably result. I know where I’d like each set up to go, but the key is being flexible for what might naturally develop.
In my experience, children swing between shyly reticent, openly defiant, exuberant jumping, clinging dependence, silly goofing, stubborn resistance, eyes on the prize for their plans alone… like a pendulum. Just give them a few minutes, it’s bound to change, whatever state they are in, good/bad/and all that lies in between. We set a plan, they have their own. I find the opportunities in their antics and catch the moments that often go unrecorded but are incredibly precious to parents because quite frankly it’s very challenging to create these portraits.
I’m often asked what the most important elements are to powerful portrait creation. Assuming technical competence to change manual camera settings/lighting on the fly based on where the child may lead you, I answer: flexibility, creativity and observation. Flexible to change on a dime based on where the child may be leading you. Creativity to make that new spot/situation work. Observation to be aware of what intrigues a child, what makes them giggle, what makes them uneasy, what makes them watch you when you are largely hidden behind a big piece of gear.
For instance, these little peanuts were being wooed to the edge of the pond to watch frogs hop in. They got entranced when they found wild strawberries growing that they were accustomed to eating while on walks with their family. I let go of the original plan, for this precious moment of child like wonder that mom and dad must have seen played out so many times…
Or these peanuts who I encouraged to sit on the boxes, but got super intrigued with climbing inside them…this magic was just awaiting!
Last year, while at the Philedephia Museum of Art I came across one of my favorite Mary Cassat portraits…I stopped and marveled. I’ve seen it countless times in books and yet here was the original. I couldn’t believe it! I was moved to tears. Can’t totally explain why, but that’s why art is so important. It allows us to feel and connect in ways that our hearts long for, but we can’t always name. I realized while the big smile has its time in place in the portrait world, I am always infinitely more drawn to these thoughtful moments that speak to the honesty of who a person is without the mask that anyone says they should be wearing.
I’ve brought this blog topic up to moms quite a bit over the last year and am thankful to have finally gotten a chance to create it. My sincerest goal is that this helps to take the pressure off of moms who feel like there’s no way their children would cooperate for portrait time. That’s on me, not you. 3 seconds…that’s all I need! 😉