Photographing Young Children with Low-Key Lighting – Tutorial

Tips for Photographing Children – Part 1

There is no doubt that photographing young children can be a challenge, and never more so than when using a low-key lighting setup.  So why bother?  Because the drama and richness inherent in this type of lighting is SO worth it and because it’s unexpected for high energy children’s photography. For the purposes of this post, young and active will be defined as children between the ages of one and four (toddlers).

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

The good news about this type of lighting is the comfort and ease with which it can be set up.  You only need one light and a dark background.  Most of the time I use black seamless paper or dark gray seamless paper. To provide the widest possible latitude for movement on the child’s part, the light should be positioned as close to the center as possible.  See diagram:

I prefer a soft box for this particular situation, as it provides a more directional, slightly ‘harder’ light than that bounced out of an umbrella.  This does not mean you cannot use an umbrella.  As a matter of fact, you could use a white, translucent shoot-through umbrella to great effect.

Okay, let’s say you’ve got your victim…er subject lined up.  So now what?  Well, just tell that two-year to go on out there to the ‘middle’ of the background and do something interesting while you photograph them.  Sure thing Mz Photog, but…what’s a background and where’s the middle and what am I supposed to do out there all by my lonesome?  I am about to introduce you to the very best friend you will ever have.  Meet Mister Smiley Face:

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

Draw him on the ‘sweet spot’, your pre-determined perfect lighting zone.  Might as well go ahead and draw him in with a sharpie marker, so toddlers can find it easily, and make him at least one inch in diameter.

This next step is very important.  Make sure the child knows about Mister Smiley.  Get down on their level and show them ‘their’ smiley face.  Make a big deal out of it.  If you have a fresh roll of paper, you might even wait until they are in the camera room and draw it in front of them.  In any event, make a big production of Mister Smiley Face, emphasizing it is just for them.  You now have a way to direct the toddler.

This may seem overly simple, but trust me.  I have been photographing toddlers for almost 20 years.  They don’t know from backgrounds and lighting zones, nor do they care to learn.  They have other things to do.  Like moving around.  A lot.  All over the place.  You will save yourself and the child an enormous amount of unnecessary stress if you have a non-combative, non-confrontational way to direct them.  It allows you to remain in position to shoot and allows them a certain amount of freedom and distance from you. If you’re very clever, you can get some killer shots of them looking for ‘their’ smiley face.

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

Mister Smiley Face works well for slightly older children, in the four, five and six year old range, as they love having a ‘mark’ to hit.  It’s a wonderful, stress free device that can easily be erased via Photoshop. Another great device for keeping busy toddlers in place is anything they can climb into, such as THE BOX.

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

I found this box at Pier One and knew immediately it was a great prop.  It’s heavy, well made and has a lid that will stay open and won’t fall and chop off little fingers.  The great thing about the box is, if they won’t get inside it, they’ll get on top of it.  Either way, they’re in your lighting sweet spot and all’s right in the world.

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

If you don’t have a box, try a simple stool, like this one I purchased at IKEA for under $20.  The plain, simple lines and blond wood make it an unobtrusive prop.  Don’t assume the possibilities are limited with this type of prop either.  I’ve had kids turn it over and sit in between the ‘legs’ or even try to crawl through it, which affords a great opportunity to photograph them peaking out.  Just make sure you and your light source are closer to the ground when photographing this way.

Photographing children with low key lighting tutorial.

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

High Key Studio Lighting – Tutorial

Low Key Lighting – Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Headshots – Tutorial

Photographing Babies, Birth to One Year – Tips and Techniques

How to Set Up a Photo Booth in Your Home

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

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  1. Thanks for the tips, this was VERY helpful.

  2. Very well described. Really helpful.

  3. Thank you so much for your informative and common sense advice. Hopefully I will someday be able to say “I’ve been photographing kids for twenty years”!

  4. deborahwolfe says

    Hi PD – Glad to be of service and thanks so much for dropping by!

  5. I want to focus my photography on children and the information you have provided is exactly what I’ve been looking for — thank you so much!!

  6. deborahwolfe says

    Thanks Jennifer! Glad I can help : )

  7. I can’t wait to try this new technique with my son 🙂

  8. This was very hepful! Thanks so much!

  9. Thanks for this, I’m doing a shoot with a 2 year old boy tomorrow decided I had better get some tips on how to keep his attention and how to keep him from wandering off.