Working With Kids And Animals

“Never work with kids or animals”…said so many people, always, forever…..

But kids are my wheelhouse, and there’s nothing cuter than kids with animals! I see their point, though. Kids=chaos. Animals=chaos. Kids x Animals = whoa…….

Sessions with kids and animals can be super cute and fun! For little kids though, it can end up being more of a lifestyle session than portraits. That’s fine if it’s what you’re after! I’ve been enjoying doing some animal composites this season though, and I’m finding the results are sometimes a bit more magical than the real deal could have been.

girl and rabbit meet at sunset
Could this kind of calm, thoughtful interaction really happen outside of fairy tales–no less in front of an audience of kindly coaching parents and an imposing camera lens?

I shared this image (the girl in the yellow dress) on the Relish Facebook page, and I received a handful of requests for similar shoots. Folks were disappointed when I told them, “yes we can do this, but just so you know, there wasn’t really a bunny at the shoot!” I get it–it’s a super cute thought to see your kids get to play with a real bunny and have pictures of that. But in reality, that situation can be more stressful than cute. A real bunny can easily get scared and run away. She needs careful, gentle treatment, and may get nervous and nibble fingers or have an accident on that beautiful little dress. When real animals are in the shoot, I find that tensions can run high.

With a real bunny, we had to be confined to make sure she didn’t get lost, and both bunny and child were in constant motion. Daddy was trying to keep Evi from standing up and the bunny from jumping out of the wagon.

My daughter got a bunny this spring and I wanted to do a photoshoot for Easter. I made a nice flat spot in a grassy planter for her to hold the bunny. I set up my reflector. But I put her in the grass and she pitched a fit. She didn’t want to sit in the planter. The bunny climbed up the grass and wanted to chew on the tree bark. It was not picturesque. Plan B was putting them both in the wagon–not my vision for a nice color palette, and I had to quickly improvise the backdrop by changing my angle to something less than ideal. The bunny ate grass, and Evi petted her. It was cute. Super cute.

But these shots have barely a hint of the aura of wonder I was able to create in that first image, where I didn’t have to worry about the bunny escaping, and the little girl could be given a simple task without being distracted by the erratic activity of a live animal.

I asked that sweet little girl to look for ants in the bright yellow leaves that the sun was backlighting. She was calm. It was mellow. When I got home, I saw that shot and thought “that’s a perfect spot for a bunny!” …I had a perfect pose from her, and I was able to blend in a bunny in a perfect pose, in a perfect position.

I love this lifestyle image of a little girl with her new baby sheep. Images like this have more of a documentary feel, and are a lot more difficult to achieve with smaller animals.

So… yes, we could bring a bunny out for little kids’ sessions. I do have a real bunny, and she’s super sweet and friendly. But it wouldn’t be very fair to that timid little creature. The reality of live animals in a session is a lot more chaotic and less picturesque than it plays out as in the mind’s eye. I’m not saying I’ll never do it–I gladly will any time if folks have their own animals they’d like to include! But to make something like the really magical composite above, I need to be able to have more control than a real “kids x animals” experience can usually give.

Even when the animal really was at the session, those shots are also often composites. The animal and the child so rarely do the right thing at the same time that I often blend multiple shots to create one final image. With over 20 years’ experience with Photoshop and photography, I can create a full composite that is even more magical, and nobody has to get tinkled on.

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Dream Big Dreams

See that it’s possible.

I feel pretty lucky that I was born to live in this time. The age of global information brings a lot of new complications to our lives, but it also allows light to fall on a lot of things that used to stay in shadow.

When I was in college, I was the first woman to arrange music for our University’s marching band. A friend was the first female drum major. When we were kids, the band didn’t allow female members at all.

We blazed through these firsts without giving them much thought, and that is amazing. We didn’t feel like pioneers, it just felt normal. Thank goodness for change! It has become much more widely accepted for all of us to follow our hearts, even if we don’t fit the traditional mold.

My little daughter is in love with airplanes. When she goes out wearing her tiny bomber jacket, people call her a cute little fella. Female pilots are still considered somewhat remarkable–women aerobats actually compete separately from men even now.

So, we watch a lot of documentaries about women pilots and we go to air shows whenever we can. I want her to know that people like her can do that–that it’s not reserved for someone else. Maybe as she grows older, her interests will change. But we’ll always be there to support her vision and help her find ways to follow her ambitions, even if there’s no example before her to follow.

Times keep steadily changing, and by the minute, it becomes less and less remarkable for anyone to do just about anything they want to do. It’s pretty exciting. And knowing where we came from, I’m so happy when I can lend a little boost to help her envision herself following her dreams.

“She believed she could, so she did…”

How To Photograph Small Children Without Frustration

This moment never happened.

Little ones don’t usually think sitting still for a picture sounds like fun. It may be possible to barter a few fleeting seconds (literally, seconds) with a two-year-old, but realistically, photography takes more time than that.

So. When I do a session with little kids, I don’t worry so much about getting them to hold still. I like to set them up in a situation and get them to play and have fun. It’s up to me to do whatever acrobatics are needed to capture the perfect moments that ensue. I shoot many frames to get a few, and when there are multiple people in an image, it is likely a composite of several original shots.

You wouldn’t necessarily think this was two different shots, but sometimes, that’s what it takes!

If you have a session scheduled with your kids, don’t stress too much about how they act when you get there. Straight out of the car and feeling pressure to “be good,” little kids probably won’t be able to sit still and smile for the camera right off the bat.

A little shy at first… what a beautiful image came of it! Big smiles are beautiful but they aren’t our whole story.

As a photographer, I expect this. The best way to handle the situation is, if they’re being silly, be silly right along. If they’re being reserved, capture that mood and give them time to get a feel for the situation. These are things kids do when they’re uncomfortable. A lot of times, that little bit of space held for them leads to them settling in and becoming a lot more relaxed.

Sister wanted some individual attention while brother settled in. I could tell it made her feel really special.

Long story short, making beautiful images of little kids sometimes requires thinking outside the normal conventions of portrait photography. Let them be kids. Get them playing and laughing and then surprise them with a squeaky toy behind the lens. Let them run circles around you. Tell them about the bunny in the camera that they’ll see through the lens if they’re looking at JUST the right moment…

Your patience and forbearance (and the photographer’s skill in Photoshop lol) will pay off 100 fold.