It’s funny how times change.

When I started portrait work in 2001, I was terrified of toddlers.

Toddler boy making disgusted face instead of posing with his family for a photo with his newborn baby brother.

Those highly mobile but pre-communicative little people –I couldn’t figure out how to control them. How was I supposed to get them to stay on the backdrop or stay still long enough that I could get a good close-up, let alone any good photo that included their face.

There were a couple of problems with my approach at that time. Yes, I was not as experienced with them yet. Yes, I was not as technically proficient as I am today. And most of all, I was coming at it from the wrong angle.

I was expecting to control them, when my job is to play with them. My job is to be their best friend. Anyone who has spent time with toddlers knows that all I have to do is make friends, and they won’t want to leave me alone.

A photo of two toddler boys, brothers, 2 and 3 years old, rough housing on mom and dad's bed and laughing

Capturing an image like this takes both skill and trust. The kids need to be playing with me in order to capture such authentic expressions.

I also had another problem. I was bringing them into an unfamiliar environment and expecting them to do something that is really hard – even for adults.

I was expecting them to be themselves. But I was expecting them to do that while staying within a 16 square foot space.

Why? So that I could get a nice clean white background behind them. I have a feeling you are starting to see the problem here.

And what about those crazy faces? All that emotion, and all that movement? I was limiting myself to the “sit still and smile for the camera” rigamarole. I wasn’t opening myself up to the infinite ways toddlers are showing me their joy. And their lives.

Two lifestyle photos of a toddler in his home playing

Over time I have changed the way I approach working with toddlers. I come to them. I make sure we are somewhere they are comfortable, and used to being. I never walk into a room and say “Hi, are you ready to get your picture taken?”. And I strongly encourage parents not to talk about picture taking, either. It just stresses us all out, and we don’t need that! Instead, I walk in and say “Hi! My name is Serra, what’s yours? How are you doing? What’s that toy you are playing with? It looks really fun!”

Now that I know these secrets, toddlers are one of my very favorite ages to work with.

The fact that they haven’t spent a lot of time in the world of “knowing” means they are free to be authentic. As long as they feel safe, they try new things, dance in public, climb the highest pile of rocks, carefully assemble their favorite toys with full focus, look at things from all kinds of perspectives, laugh with abandon, and cry without shame. And it isn’t my job to think of any of the “poses”. What a relief! You mean – I get to be myself, too??

I couldn’t think of a better subject for my work.

A little girl focuses very hard while blowing a bubble from a bubble wand.

This was the first time she had successfully blown a bubble! (I taught her how just a moment before, because I was blowing them and she wanted to do it)

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