Wednesday, May 23, 2007

They Grow So Fast

Milestone portrait sessions create steady clients for life.
Photographers know celebrating milestones in a child’s life with professional portraits is great for both parties. Not only does it create a memorable photo essay of the child’s development, it also allows the photographer to develop a lifelong relationship with the family.

There’s another benefit, too. Each stage in a child’s life lends itself to specific poses, props, backgrounds, presentation, and particular add-on products. Our goal in any session is not only to create a wall portrait and several gift products, but also to educate clients about the many options available to them. We need to give clients reasons to come more often, and creating unique products does this effectively. Such products help keep your look fresh and add variety. Use these ideas to help you separate yourself from other studios.

Infants (newborn to 6 weeks)
Infancy is a wonderful time to create family relationship portraits, which literally bring tears to the viewer’s eyes. Encourage parents to be a part of the session, explaining how it makes the strongest image.

Especially with new parents, allow a little extra time for the mother and father to get relaxed enough to enjoy the moment. And inevitably, sometime during an hour-long session the infant will get hungry. Make a comfortable private area for the mother to nurse the baby; she’ll really appreciate the kindness. Offer her a bottle of water, too. The first few weeks after childbirth are emotionally and physically draining, and such understanding little courtesies help create loyal bonds with your clients.

For this session, most of the images are skin-on-skin, so you must be comfortable explaining what works best. My studio is full of wall portraits that illustrate the difference between clothing-on and bare skin portraits.

I show clients the power of an image that focuses on nothing but the moment, even while the infant is sleeping. With samples, clients quickly see that they, too, want to create a piece of art. We provide tube tops in all sizes for the mom who wants skin-on-skin but is uncomfortable posing topless.

Oh, and remember to prepare your clients for the possibility of getting wet. Infants are like mini machine guns, constantly firing from one end or the other. I tell parents I’d feel bad if the studio didn’t get a “blessing” from their baby, and assure them that we’re accustomed to doing a ton of laundry every day. They laugh and are more comfortable when the inevitable happens. Be ready with wipes, cleaning supplies and paper towels—and don’t just stand there, help with the cleanup! It shows compassion and your clients will think you’re a superhero.

By now the baby has mastered smiling. He recognizes Mom’s voice and responds to her cooing. I strongly prefer for the baby to look like a newborn at this stage. Poses that work include a basket shot with baby nestled in his own blankets and the traditional tummy shot. For many clients, this is the first session, so I try to include the parents in some relationship portraits. Photographing little vignettes of the baby’s hands, feet, tummy, and a tight close-up of the face ensures an add-on sale that mom cannot live without. We always showcase these images in a complete framed set.

The best attention grabbers for children of this age are small rattles, black-and-white baby toys and mom’s voice. Try to get the baby to look into your eyes, and once you have his attention, do not look away. Speak softly to him, saying his name and words parents often say to babies, like “sweetheart.” Try short sentences such as, “Who’s the sweetest baby?”

6- to 7-month-olds
This is where working with babies really gets fun. We inform our clients that these portraits work best when the child is sitting up. This shows the child’s advancement, differentiates these portraits from the earlier ones, and expands the posing options. Now we can use age-appropriate props that reflect the child’s interest and personality. For a classic look, you can pose little boys with a sailboat or blocks and little girls with flower wreaths and beads. But the classic nude shot is a must. A baby sitting bare on a blanket, photographed from above, can make a fantastic image. When taking such portraits, always make several comments to the parents to remind them to turn the baby so that the camera won’t catch any private parts. I joke that I like them, but I don’t want to go to jail for them! This always makes parents laugh, and they see that I, too, am a concerned and caring parent.

By this stage babies respond to the tickler with giggles. They love games like peek-a-boo, and pretending to sneeze usually makes them laugh. This is also the age at which children start to have stranger anxiety. If the child is clingy, sit on the floor while keeping your distance, and let mom continue to hold the baby. Start to play little games while keeping the child’s attention on you. Mom can slowly inch away until the baby doesn’t mind her absence. Explain that it’s important that she not push the baby away from her to get the image. It can cause the child to panic and make the session much harder. Tell mom that anytime her baby needs a hug, we’ll stop so she can give him one. Hugs assure the baby that everything’s okay. Still, babies often cry, but you can win back their attention with simple toys or bite-size crackers.

Traditionally, first-year portraits mark an important milestone for parents. They have survived the mental stress of having an infant, the sleepless nights, the frequent feedings and bottle washing, and countless diaper changes. The child is undergoing rapid and exciting developmental changes that foreshadow a more independent future, and often a bittersweet pang in the parents’ hearts.

The perfect time to photograph a child is as soon as he can stand, but before he can walk. The ideal pose would be with the toddler tilting forward, one foot off the ground. Good luck scheduling that! For non-walking babies, it’s a good idea to have several props for them to lean against. I prefer vintage-looking props such as antique strollers to modern ones.

This is also a good stage to try outdoor photography. A little girl having a tea party on the lawn or a little boy fishing make excellent portraits. Moreover, such settings usually generate much higher sales than studio sessions.

Series sessions are perfect for 1-year-olds. The simple birthday cake series (typically the destruction of said cake) is another great add-on sales booster. This session is so popular with my clients that I am now a certified cake cleaner. Before you decide such sessions are too messy, remember that they generate add-on sales—as much as $300! Any client who makes the effort to bring in a cake will definitely want to add a framed print of it to her purchase. Not a bad deal for a 5-minute cleanup.

Also be prepared with a place for baby cleanup. We have a large kitchen-type sink in the bathroom where mom can bathe her little one. We provide washcloths, infant soaps, towels and diapers, little amenities that clients really appreciate. Of course, we also clean that bathroom before and after the session.

Now is also the ideal time to mention making family portraits in the near future. Perhaps you can offer a free family session if it happens before the child’s second birthday. Family portraits generate our biggest sales averages. We want our clients to start having regular family portraits made early on, so it becomes a habit. Many of our annual family portrait clients stem from baby’s first-year sessions. It’s a super way to turn new customers into lifetime clients.

18 months to 2 years
I believe this is one of the hardest ages to photograph, but it can be the most rewarding. The child understands what he wants but isn’t proficient at communicating his needs. This can be frustrating for both toddler and photographer. The best defense is to keep the child so fascinated with your basket of tricks that he forgets to be demanding. You have to be prepared and think fast. Switch your techniques often to keep the child guessing. Altering the tone of your voice, changing toys, and moving around are excellent ways to keep him engaged.

Plan less time for this session, as most little ones have a short attention span. Once they’re bored, they can easily get frustrated. I keep the poses simple, and I take the session outdoors whenever possible. Outside, when the subject gets bored or fidgety, I can still capture wonderful candid shots.
Some of the best images at this stage happen when the child is busy doing something. A little girl examining a flower and a boy playing with a pull toy are classics. Keep in mind that the child won’t just stand there and hold a prop. I’m always saying “look for the ladybug” or “look for the candy I hid in this toy” to hold the child’s interest in the prop. Don’t expect perfection. Just let the child be relaxed, and you’ll be pleased with the outcome. When a toddler gazes up at you, and you capture that soft little look, you are sure to melt the hearts of her parents.

3- to 4-year-olds
This is my all-time favorite age. Three-year-olds are old enough to communicate verbally and are usually willing and excited to participate. They are full of energy and generally like to make people happy. They still have that toddler look, with chubby cheeks, tiny teeth, and pudgy hands. This is an excellent time to create a “timeless” portrait. Use story-telling props to help create reasons for your clients to visit your studio more often. Our popular set themes include fairies, baseball, fishing, little ballerinas, and other storybook sets. We also encourage clients to bring things that are special to the toddler. At this age children are just starting to use their imagination. Watching them get excited over the props and sets makes the job even more fun.

The best part about this age is the effectiveness of using bribery. Most 3- to 4-year-olds are very familiar with candy. Using simple snacks like Smarties and lollipops can keep the session going.
5 to 6-year-olds This is a huge turning point in a child’s growth. Most children are just starting to lose their baby teeth. The last little bit of chubbiness in their faces represents the final stage in the transition from toddler to child. They are highly interested in what you’re doing, and generally will participate willingly. This is also the stage when subjects start to make the forced “say cheese” smiles, as their parents have been telling them to do whenever there’s a camera present. The child believes it’s what his parents want to see. The irony is that it’s exactly not what the parents want, even though they taught the child to do it!

The best way to head off fake smiles is to keep the child talking. Have him repeat short sentences that are sure to make him giggle—“Mommy is a monkey” and “Daddy wears diapers” are giggle gold mines. I also ask the child if he’s brushed his teeth today, as I pick up my feather duster tickler and threaten to use it on his teeth. Another fun game is “give me five.” I pull my hand away just before they can slap it, saying “too slow!” The second time I let our hands connect, then yell “ouch” all the way back to my camera. They love this game. Acting silly is totally okay.

7- to 10-year-olds
I call this the “scary teeth age.” The face is getting thinner, the body is lengthening, and most children have lost several baby teeth. With all the gaps and crevices, their smiles look like the Manhattan skyline. Be careful—if you press for a smile you run the risk of having Bugs Bunny smiling back at you. This is the time to focus on more serious, thoughtful expressions. Try traditional poses, and stay away from tight close-ups.

11- to 14-year-olds
Somewhere between first acne and braces, these awkward young adults long for someone to listen to them and fill them with confidence. A little attention goes a long way. You can often take an indifferent or nervous child out of her shell simply by mentioning one of her attractive features. Don’t go overboard, a simple mention is more than enough to crack a smile.

You can mention a boy’s attributes for a sweet reaction, but generally it’s better to skip the compliments and harass Mom a little instead. Many times I’ve asked a mother to go get a water bottle down the hall, and when she’s gone, I tell the young man that if his mom licks her hand and fixes his hair one more time I’ll have the hair police remove her from the building. This always creates a bond between the photographer and the subject. From there on out, all I need to do to get a perfect, genuine smile is mention the word “police.” Unlike girls, boys at this age do not respond favorably to the mention of the opposite sex. In addition to eliciting a sour face, you’re likely to lose any trust you’ve earned.

Photographing children is a delight I never tire of. One the biggest rewards is being a part of a child’s life. I often realize with awe that I’ve loved every minute of my career as a professional photographer. How many other jobs offer that?

Specialty product suggestions:
Infants (newborn to 6 weeks)
Brag book: a 3x3 album of 10 close-up vignettes of the baby’s tiny hands, feet, and other adorable features.

Multi-image folio or frame: a series of images illustrating the intimate relationship between parent and child.

Baby panel: a three-view frame with vignettes of the hands, feet, face.

Image box: a photo box of six to 10 matted prints that can be rotated on an easel for viewing.

6-7 month olds
Portrait jewelry: Bracelets and charms with images of the baby are hot sellers with mothers, and both grandmothers will also be happy to proudly display her grandchild. It’s a great form of advertisement for you, too!

Watercolor note cards: sets of personalized note cards with the baby’s image that can be printed in-house. These make perfect birth announcements or baby-gift thank you cards.

Birthday series panel: four 5x7-inch prints in a custom frame.

18 months to 2 years
The essence of childhood: a framed print showing four different views of the child’s face.
3- to 4-year-olds
Making Faces: A collection of personality shots.

5- to 6-year olds
Eclectic: A 4x10 image of three different poses, typically a full-length and a three-quarter shot with a really tight headshot, and just one of the three with the child looking at the camera.
Oil portrait: a 5-year-old’s session is an ideal time to create an heirloom portrait. These “oil paintings” are created digitally but have an old-world look and feel.

7- to 10-year-olds
Emotions: A montage of images showing the child’s interest in sports, hobbies, and other pursuits. The montage comprises three to six images with an emphasis on movement, and for impact, with just one image of the child looking into the camera. Storyboard: A framed collection of images that portray the theme of the session.

11- to 14-year-olds
Element: A high-contrast art image that brings out the powerful look of the preteen. These art prints sell very well. Portrait handbags: Every mom who sees one wants one. Portrait handbags are an ideal way for your clients show off her children, and a powerful endorsement of your portraiture.