There's an adage which suggests that your life will be easier if you choose not to work with children or animals. Eh... I disagree. While photographing both children and animals can be highly demanding and occasionally somewhat frustrating, it's also wildly satisfying. Some of my favourite photos in my archive are of my nieces and nephews or of the animals that have galloped and jumped and hopped and tumbled and gallumphed and snoozed through my life. And I've had immense fun doing it. Seeing as the holidays are pretty much upon us, thereby increasing the chances that you might want or need to take photos of small people, now seems as good a time as any to present you with the Photocritic guide to photographing children. There are two crucial attributes to photographing children. First, patience. You will require it in bucket-loads. Second, you need to remember to think like a child. I doubt that you sprang fully-formed from your father's thigh, like Athene, so cast your mind back and try to remember what thrilled and bored you and interested and irritated you as a little one. By getting into their mindset, you'll give yourself heaps more opportunities to capture great photos of them.
With those two factors at the forefront of your mind, let's move on.
The best photos of children come when you get down to their level. Apart from it being so much easier for little people to relate to someone who's on their level, your photos won't take on an awkward, condescending air. Sure, every now and again photographing from above works a treat, but mostly it's about capturing life on their level. That means getting down on your knees or belly and seeing the world from your subject's-eye view.
Give them something to do
If you want natural smiles and pictures of unhibited child-like joy, for heaven's sake do not attempt to pose a little one and elicit a grin with the power of 'cheese!' It might look terribly sophisticated to have them dressed in their party outfits and posing as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, but I doubt that's an accurate reflection of them or the most fun way they've ever spent 20 minutes.
Let them play.
If they're opening presents, you have plenty of opportunities for looks of concentration, puzzlement, wonder, and excitement flooding their faces.
Be quick with the exposure settings
They're going to be moving fast—children usually do—so unless you want motion blur in your photos, it means that your camera will need to be moving fast, too. Think about a fast shutter speed, a fast aperture, and a fast ISO if you need it.
With a large aperture you can let plenty of light onto the sensor, which will allow for a fast shutter speed, and it'll keep the background blurred, too. You might not necessarily want an out-of-focus background, but if it's cluttered or untidy, it will draw your viewer's eye to your subject.
As with any other portrait, the eyes need to be in focus when you're photographing children. It's the first place your viewer will look and if the eyes are out of focus, her or his interest will wander. Rather than using one-shot auto-focus, you might find that your purposes are best served by either continuous auto-focus or intelligent auto-focus to keep the subject sharp even when it's on the move.
When you're setting up a shoot, sure some studio lights might be a good idea to help get the photos that you want. But for those times when you're sitting on the floor surrounded by scraps of wrapping paper? They're probably not what you want. I'm not that fond of on-camera flash around babies and small people, either. It can be far too harsh and startling for them. Make the most of the light that you have, and bring out a reflector if you need one.
If you're not enjoying yourself, neither will the kids whom you are trying to photograph. And why should they? Smile, talk to them, take an interest in what they're doing. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed they'll be, which makes things better for everyone.