You’ve bought the supplies, filled the back pack, labeled all the things, made the lunch, picked out the outfit, done the hair, felt the feels and now there is one last thing to check off on the list before you send them on their way: The first day of school photo.
You just want ONE photo of them holding the sign, giving their biggest grin and sporting that cute outfit. It should be that simple, but this task can be the most stressful part of your morning. It's a challenge for many reasons, it's a new morning routines, everyone has the end-of-summer blues and there are a lot of emotions packed into that one day. As a photographer and mother myself, I’ve compiled some tried-and-true tips and encouragement for you to help make that first day photo a positive memory you can always look back and smile on.
Choose the right location.
The first thing you want to think about is where to take the photo. Avoid direct sunlight and find a nice, shady spot with even lighting. If shade is limited, you want to have the sun behind your child as opposed to in front. No one enjoys looking into bright lights and being told to keep their eyes open! If a photo outside isn’t possible, head to the room with the most windows, open up all the blinds and place your child in front of the window angled slightly towards the window looking out. A great way to find good lighting is sticking your hand straight out in front of you, palm facing towards you and study how the light falls on your hand. Angle it different ways to find where they would need to stand for the most even light.
Have your camera ready.
Next step is to make sure you know your picture taking device. You don’t want to spend those precious minutes you have your child ready, fiddling with your phone settings. This should all be figured out in advance. Take a few test shots, make sure you remember to set the exposure to your child, which is done on most smart phones by simply touching the subject matter on the screen. This is especially important for outside images where your phone will try to set the exposure to the bright light outside, hiding your child in the shadows. Simply tap the screen where you want the camera to focus on and everything should fall into place. If it’s not working, get a little closer to your child or try a new spot.
Use a little bribery.
Posing. This is often a time when parents find themselves stuck on repeat saying phrases like “smile nice!" “I just need one nice smile!” “Please give me just one nice smile!”. Here’s the thing, if someone told me to “smile nice” my reaction would be “I AM!” In the angriest voice possible. The key to avoiding complete havoc and stress over one simple photo on the first day of school is to make it a fun experience. Okay, I’m sure you're rolling your eyes right now and thinking "no kidding". Don’t worry, I have a few fun photographer hacks I use with children of all types and personalities that work like a charm. Once I find something that works, I roll with it and milk it for every second of joy and laughter it gives me.
One of the first things I tell parents is photo day is a safe bribe-friendly day. Have your child's favourite little treat, or a special little gift pre-arranged and communicated. This provides motivation and an end game for them. Plus, the first day of school is a nice occasion for a little extra special treat before you send them on their way. Maybe it’s that cool pencil case or fun markers they just had to have that were a little bit more than you would typically spend on school supplies, or maybe it's a cute, soft companion to help get them through the day. Heck, Toy Story 4 taught us that apparently even a spork can bring a child endless joy.
Make them laugh.
The window of cooperation for a photo like this is typically no more than 2 minutes, so you'll want to work fast. Place your child in that perfect spot you picked out ahead of time. Get that cute sign ready (these are great because it keeps their hands busy) and start snapping. Instead of saying “cheese” or “smile nice” I like to use other more fun words for kids to say that still end with that “ee” sound. Suggest that they say something like "Monkey”, “Money”, or “I love my mommy” (I had to try, right). Some quieter kids don’t necessarily love shouting out a word, so for these kids I try out my stand up comedy. I’ll put something silly on my head, or make a goofy face and challenge them not to laugh. The more you let go and have fun with it the better the response will be. For those stronger-willed children that don’t necessarily enjoy being told what to do (I have one of these) we play a game called pose for pose. I let them give me a pose or two of anything they want, then in return they do the pose I’m hoping for. This gives them an opportunity to get their silliness out, be creative and express themselves.
Now, if we’ve gotten this far with no luck, I pull out my last resort. This is something that seems to get any child of any age, I’m not proud of it, but you just want one nice photo right? Something about the phrase “Who tooted?” works like a charm. Yes, getting a nice photo may involve resorting to potty jokes and that’s okay. Try to make it short and only pull it out for the very last stitch effort because it won’t take long before things get really silly and that’s when you want to pull out that bribe and get them off the potty joke train.
Be realistic and patient.
My final bit of advice is approach it with love and realistic expectations. You know your child best and if the perfect photo doesn’t happen, that’s okay, too. Use this opportunity where you have your child’s attention one last time before they are on their way to have fun. Make memories, be silly, have some laughter together. So what if you can’t read the sign, or your child's hair is a little out of place, or they're making a goofy smile. You'll both be able to look back on the image fondly, and maybe you’ve started a first day of school tradition that they will look forward to. They get to laugh, they get a little treat, and they have mom or dads love and attention to give them that extra boost before starting a new year. Best of luck and happy snapping!