Balance The Attention You Give Them
If you shower your subject with attention when they first meet you it won't always work in your favour. Many children will be apprehensive when they first meet someone new, particularly when they're holding a camera, and if you are too in their face they may not like it. This doesn't mean you should ignore them, though! Do take the time to say 'hello' then spend some time chatting to their parents and this should encourage the child / children to approach you. It also works with loud, confident children who may need a little time to calm down before your shoot begins.
Try sorting your backgrounds, clothing, props etc. and curiosity will more than likely get the better of them and they'll soon be getting involved.
If you are working with a very shy child it may not be as easy. Again, keeping your distance and not invading their space will help but do remember it may take them a little longer to come around.
Don't Be Too Strict With Clothing Choices
One way to get children on side is to give them a little bit of control and one of the easiest ways to do this is with clothing. This will keep them happy and also help build a relationship with them. You can take this one step further by asking them about favourite toys etc. as well as other clothes which you can then take a look at and choose with them. This gets them involved and enjoying the whole shoot process rather than refusing to cooperate.
If the parents worry about your decision, quietly let them know that the outfits can be changed / adjusted later on, plus if face shots will be your main goal, the outfit doesn't really matter as you won't be able to see it in the final shot.
Hunt For Locations With The Children
Once they're in their chosen outfits it's worth encouraging children to direct you to specific areas you want to shoot in. For example, if you're at their house, this could be the garden, playroom etc. Asking for a 'clever guide' to show you around often does the trick, plus it stops them thinking that the whole experience is going to be boring and full of instructions.
If they show willingness, let them help you set the scene too as this will keep them involved and interested in the whole process. If they prefer to be playing with toys etc. while you set-up leave them to it and just say you'll call them when you're ready. This will prevent them from becoming bored and also emphasise that you're not there to just boss them around.
Setting The Scene
If you can, find an area that's shaded as the light will be soft and even. It's also worth using a box, seat, table or something similar which will act as an anchor point for the child/ children you're photographing. Why? Well if you sit them on the floor, chances are they'll move or even get up and walk out of shot. If you give them something they can sit on, they'll focus on it and stay in position for longer. It doesn't really matter what this prop looks like as you won't be able to see it in the final shot – it's just there to keep them in place. Just remember to position a parent out of shot who can reach for them in case they decide to jump or even fall off their seat!
Direction And Positioning
Always get your 'safety shots' first before you let them loose. What this means is you need your 'smiling close-ups' before you shoot candidly, capturing them playing, running around and generally doing what children do best.
Try not to force them to do things they don't want to as this will only result in annoying or upsetting them and you won't have much luck in capturing the smile shots their parents are after. For example, if you want them to move their arm or turn their head but they won't, just shoot any way and come back to the shot you want later on.
If you're photographing more than one child at once, ask them to lean their heads together and where possible start by photographing them together. If one of the children is very young they may not want to play ball straight away so start by taking shots of the older child and the younger one will often come into shot of their own accord.
When working with more than one child always ensure their heads are in the same plane of focus for your 'safety shots' and experiment with positioning once these are in the bag. For shots where their faces are close together an aperture of around f/5.6 should be fine. For individual shots, try f/4 to throw the background out of focus so all attention falls on your subject.
When it comes to lens choices, a long zoom lens will help you capture better expressions as you can stand further away and zoom in rather than having to be closer to your subject which can be intimidating.
Always give clear instruction and ask their parents to help you by positioning themselves behind you and pulling faces that'll make the children smile. Do make sure the parents stand at the same level as you so it looks as though the children are looking at the camera.
You need to get your subject(s) to laugh naturally as this will produce a natural smile. If you directly ask them to smile you'll probably find a fake grin appears on their face(s) and this isn't something you want to capture.
Don't overlook shooting images where they're not smiling at all, though, as this will show off their eyes more, plus their parents may like some images of their offspring looking more calm and wistful.
For more tips, take a look at Annabel Williams' website - a techy free zone full of hints and tips for taking better photos and improving your confidence.