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Photo: Laura Popiel

Photo Session Tips with Special Children

This "short list" of tips is a brief summary of various things to consider before and during a photographic session with a child who has a disability or serious illness. This list is by no means complete. More extensive guidance can be found in Photographing Children with Special Needs, the official SKPA course book available on this website. The Accreditation Study Guide is also an excellent source of review for the workshop and enhanced comprehension of Photographing Children with Special Needs. Portions of the study guide can also be used for taking notes at >accreditation workshops or recording additional findings encountered during subsequent photographic sessions. 

  • Prepare for a different photo session experience when photographing a special child. Actually, "preparation" is the key to success. Depending on the disability (or ability), wheelchairs, low levels of communication (lack of response to your direction) and other possible less-than-typical behavior may be in play. Also prepare yourself to expend more physical and/or emotional energy. Keep in mind that your experience may be also exceptionally grand. One photographer said, "I left the home feeling like I was walking on a cloud."
  • Learn about he child and the disability prior to a photo session. Find out as much as you can about how the child communicates, if props can be used, level of ability to sit or stand, type of disability, etc. Interview the parent and, if possible, the child. This will save time in the long run and also make your job a lot easier as well as provide superior results. Spend time with the child before the photo session to let him or her understand that you are no stranger to the family, allowing him/her to witness a friendly interaction with the parent prior to the shoot.  
  • Allow more than normal time for a session. However, sometimes you may have to work faster than normal because of the child's short attention span or physical limitation. The ideal venue for a special needs child may be in their own home or outside (to allow for freedom of movement and natural lighting). Understand, however, that some special children are more sensitive to heat or cold.
  • Work quickly but have patience. Children with special needs may have unexpected behaviors that will try your patience. They may be easily frustrated and tire before you accomplish what you had anticipated; accomplish your primary objectives first.
  • Explain to the child what you will be doing and ask or alert the child first before you attempt any interaction. Be careful about contact; some children do not like to be touched. Don’t use food as an incentive unless encouraged or provided by the parent. 
  • Relinquish control. Prepare to let the child take the lead. Many children may not be able to smile on demand or pose in a certain way or even look at the camera. It may be necessary to remove the camera from the tripod and hand hold it. If the child is able, allow him to hold a personal object that provides comfort or holds attention. Consider the household pet as an option. 
  • Be flexible. Prepare to alter or put aside some of your favorite technical approaches. Use a faster speed to capture unanticipated movement. Flash is not recommended, but consult with the parent. A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is recommended for staying out of the child's immediate area.
  • Use a camera baffle to hide you and your camera and also attract attention.
  • Try to capture the spirit of the child. Rather than striving to achieve the ideal pose and smile, relax and follow the child’s lead and movements. Be on guard to click the shutter when the child shows emotion or interest. 
  • Prepare your studio and equipment. Clear the path of cables, cords, and objects that could obstruct the child’s path. This must be done for the safety of the child as well as for the protection of your equipment. If on location, be sure to check it out ahead of time to evaluate lighting, placement of your subject, background and angles. A 50mm or 24-70mm lens might be recommended for photo shoots in the home in order to eliminate background destruction.
  • If a background or 10 x 20 drop cloth is used, allow for plenty of movement that may not be adequate for your subject's movement. On the other hand, many children may be more comfortable on the floor. Work with the parent ahead of time to consider the best options.
  • Lighting. Allow for continual or unanticipated movement. Continuous daylight balanced lighting in a soft box has had proven results. This type of lighting (see below) is provided by F. J. Westcott
  • These are only a few suggestions. It takes 6 hours to complete SKPA's one day training course (also available on CD). It is understandable that there is considerably more to be learned about photographing children with serious illness or disability than is contained on this page!


Why Hide a Disability?

A disability is what makes a child who he or she is. It does not need to be hidden in a photograph. A child who uses a wheelchair may rarely be seen without it (except in bed). The child (or the parent) needs to be consulted on photographic options. The correct term for removing a child from a wheelchair to conventional seating is "transfer."

This young man is obviously proud to show off his stunning red wheel chair on this "zed card." Zed cards are used as a type of business card for actors to present to agents for marketing purposes. This boy wants to show off his "punk rocker" image for possible acting jobs. (Photo by The Picture People)

Please enjoy and celebrate the beautiful images found on the pages of this website. SKPA welcomes you to become involved as a volunteeradvocate, passionate photographer or supporter. SKPA is recognized by the IRS as a charitable nonprofit organization.



Use Less Invasive Lighting for Sensitive Children

Children with Disabilities are often super-sensitive to temperature as well as change in light. Here is suggested order of preference for lighting choices:

  • Natural lighting (not in direct sunlight)
  • Cold continuous lighting (as shown here) is the preferred studio lighting. Hot lights (not used much any more) are the worst.
  • Strobe (not flash) would be the next down the line as a lighting choice. But children with autism react adversely to strobe and it could also trigger a seizure.
Options for Westcot Lightig (Choose cold continuous studio lights) Westcott Soft Box Attach a a Westcott Micro Apollo to a Speedlight (off camera flash) to soften effects of the flash  

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