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.