Wednesday, August 29, 2012

7 tips for photographing a child with special needs

Months ago, I read an article in O Magazine about Southern California photographer Marsha McNeely. She's a mom of three young kids, and "has been blessed" (as she says) with one on the autism spectrum. Marsha is the owner and principal photographer of Marsha McNeely Photography; its SpecialT subdivision focuses on sharing best practices for photographing kids who have special needs with other photographers. I asked if she'd share some of her tips here, and she kindly did.

Taking photos of your own kids is tricky enough—look here, stop poking him, please don't cry. You know the scene. Now add a child with a special need to the mix and you've got yourself a real challenge. But as a parent, you see how fast they grow and change and you want to be able to freeze time for just a little bit. And you can.

To have the tangible evidence of these moments in your hands for a lifetime and to share with your kids is just priceless:

"Remember when you were missing those teeth?"
"Remember when that cowlick in your hair was totally crazy?"
"Remember that stuffed frog, you wouldn't let go of it at all that year?"

As the parent of a child with special needs, I want to give you a few of my best practices to help you get those precious and memorable images of your child.

Find your child's happy hour. As with any kid, your special needs child probably has a time of day when they are more comfortable, compliant, and happy. I have seen this to be especially true with children who have special medical issues. Capitalize on that time.

Choose an activity that engages your child. Before my son would engage with us, due to autism, he would engage with his trains. Some of my favorite images of him are of him playing with his trains. They were soothing to him. They were safe and through them, I could see him, in a manner of speaking. I look back on those now and they are more a memory of "Oh remember when you used to LOVE those trains. Look at those sparkly eyes on you!" They aren't anything posed or formal. They are who he was at that moment in time.

And just so you know, the above images were taken with my personal point and shoot camera. Nothing fancy or specialized.

Get your camera out frequently, not just for special occasions. Plain and simple, the more it is around, the less scary it becomes.

Prep for a more traditional portrait. Create a story about having your picture taken and use your child as the main character. Tell him/her all about the things that you do when you have your photo taken—sit tall (or "belly out" as I tell my little clients), show me your nice teeth, etc. Using verbal and/or visual cues goes a long way in preparing them. You can also practice these things before the camera comes out.

Choose a location that is interesting to your child. As you can see, there is a train theme with my kids. They were so happy to be able to walk around and get really close to 'real, live trains' that they seemed to forget that I was there to get some photos of them for our wall! Once I got them placed for this shot (which was a like herding cats since there are three of them), I told them that their cat is probably at home wearing their underwear right now! Outbreaks of insane laughter...snap snap snap. Got it.

Don't forget to reward. Find something that is motivating: a little treat, a toy from the $1 treasure chest. Use whatever their currency is! Be sure to talk about this before you start taking photos so they know what they are working to earn. Use a first/then tactic. "First look at mommy and show me those shiny teeth and THEN you can have ____." I like to use something like a Smartie candy. It's small and dissolves fast. It works pretty well if you are trying to photograph your child for a prolonged period of time. One word of caution, if you are using food throughout a session, choose something that is not chewy like a gummy bear. You will end up waiting for your child to stop chewing for most of his "happy hour."

Get in the picture every once in a while! I am so guilty of always being behind the camera that there are periods of time where it looks like my kids only have a father, sad but true! Hand your camera to a spouse, friend, other relative and on occasion, a professional. You are a very important part of the "picture" too.

This gem was taken by my dear friend Mary of InFaith Design and Photography.

Want to find a photographer in your area who has the heart and talent to work with your special needs child? Visit the Find A Photographer directory.


  1. Love this post! Candid shots are always the best. People get so hung up on the perfect portrait but I think those are boring. :)

  2. Oh thank you for this post! Great tips, and now I'm off to go see the directory! :-)

  3. This was a great post! I especially enjoyed the pictures; you've got such adorable kids! :)

  4. GREAT tips! I hadn't thought of what my son's "happy hour" was, but this is brilliant. Thanks!

  5. Great tips my 7 year old son with autism is deadly scared of the camera.

  6. I have a question. How do you handle photographing children that make little to no purposeful eye contact? What I mean little man (more so when he was younger, he makes far more eye contact now but it is not consistent)would avoid eye contact, or camera eye contact, deliberately, but if I waited long enough, or held one of his beloved toys up near the lens, he would look in the camera's general direction and I would be so happy.

    However, as he gets older and I look back, his more obvious autistic-like behaviors are nowhere to be seen in photos. I would lay in wait, like a photographer on safari, to catch moments that didn't involve hand flapping and had eye contact, but that wasn't truly "him".

    Is it being disingenuous to wait for those more "typical" portrait moments? What if you are photographing someone else's child that might not engage well with the photographer, is it still the goal to get that eye contact photo?

    Am I making sense?

    Mindy~ ( )

  7. Also, a good zoom lens is a great way to capture wonderful, genuine moments without the child realizing it!! I've gotten some great photos of kids with special needs that way.

  8. Also, Mindy.. it depends on what kind of photo you want. Eye contact doesn't have to be part of it. One of my favorite photos is of one of my little guys with autism, sitting on the ground playing with chalk. I love it because it captures him so well, the way he holds his head, the way that he holds the chalk in his hand (his OT wouldn't be proud, but I love it) and the concentration that you can FEEL in the photograph!

  9. Mindy - you have asked the million dollar question and there are a variety of tricks you can use. All of things you said are fantastic ideas and it sounds like it has worked! I also do a LOT of waiting.

    A couple things I have found that help increase the chances of eye contact (and keep in mind that the children I meet are generally seeing me for the first or maybe second time), is to let them check out my camera. Yes. I actually let them touch my professional gear. Lens protected, of course, and body tethered to my neck, but I invite them to touch it and in some cases I invite them to find mom or a flower through the lens. Most of the children who are non-verbal really seem to do well with this.

    I also make a huge effort to connect with that child. Get on their level, don't stress them with the immediate demands of a 'session'. I even do this with my own kids. I also have a funny camera thing called a Lens Bling that goes around my lens. They can be made to pretty much any know character in the universe.

    I also agree with Molly! Some of my favorite portraits do not have the subject looking directly in the camera. I definitely shoot to get those sparkly eyes looking bright and engaged, but if they happen to be looking at a butterfly fluttering by or enjoying the feel of the wind on their face then I am super happy with them. They are just being their beautiful selves.

    If you go, I post about my sessions when a particular technique/trick has worked. Feel free to look around!

  10. Great ideas! Completely agree with you about the not looking, less obvious portrait shots. A friend of mine was actually asked by a photographer if she wanted him to photoshop her son's eyes so he was looking?!! Eeeek!

    I think the taking lots and lots of pics is the way to go. I've found camera phones have been great for this. Not always the best quality but has certainly meant I've been able to capture those moments. There's a case for a phone upgrade eh ;)


Thanks for sharing!

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