One of the greatest joys of my life is being able to photograph children and families with special needs. These sessions sometimes include extra challenges, but the rewards make it 100 percent worthwhile. And, the truth is that these special needs sessions don’t have to be any more difficult than a regular photo session, as long as you’re prepared.

My experience photographing children with special needs started twelve years ago when my sweet nephew was born with chromosomal issues and my beautiful niece was later born with Down Syndrome. Being part of their world has given me incredible insight to the special needs community.

As my photography business started to grow, I noticed more and more of my family sessions included children with special needs. It didn’t take long for me to adapt my workflow to fit the needs of these families. By adding just a few extra steps, I’m able to make these photo sessions run just as smoothly as any other session.

1. Get to know your clients’ special needs before the photo session.

Getting to know your clients before the photo session is of utmost importance. A simple questionnaire is an easy way for your clients to communicate the special needs of their children or their family. This also allows you, as the photographer, to identify the need for further information. In my initial questionnaire I ask a series of “getting to know you” questions that help me understand each family a little better.

Questions to ask on your initial questionnaire:

  • Tell me a little about you and your family. Please include names and ages of children.
  • Please name a few things that each child is interested in (books, movies, characters, etc.).
  • What makes your child giggle (tickling, jokes, funny faces, etc.)?
  • What is your vision for your photo session?
  • Are there any personality traits or special needs that I should be aware of?

Once a client has disclosed that they have a child with special needs, I send over a second questionnaire asking more specific questions.

Questions for families that have a child with special needs:

  • Is there a special toy, blanket, or item that will help soothe your child if he/she becomes upset?
  • Will your child make direct eye contact with me, or will trying to get a typical smiling portrait make them uncomfortable?
  • What is the best approach to use when connecting with your child?
  • Is physical contact OK? (For example, if I want to move hair out of their eyes or adjust their hands or legs, will that be OK?)
  • Do you use a specific reward system at home? If yes, can you please give me a brief description of the system?
  • Are there any sensory challenges I should be aware of?
  • Is there anything else you would like me to know about your child/children?

After I receive the questionnaire from my clients, I always follow up with a phone call. I find that reiterating some of the answers solidifies that I have properly understood everything, and allows my clients an opportunity to elaborate on anything they deem important.

I once had a session with a little boy with special needs, and he loved flags. His mother told me in the second questionnaire that watching flags put him at ease and made him happy. During their family session he started to get agitated. While he was having a quick break, I went to my camera bag and pulled out a flag I had brought along. I held the flag over my camera and the little boy was almost instantly smiling and looking towards my camera.

Doing my homework ahead of time allows me to be prepared. Sometimes the feedback from my questionnaires can give me a simple tool that will make all the difference, as was the case with this little boy.

A family of four at sunset - How to photograph children with special needs

2. Use a reward system to connect with kids with special needs.

I use a reward system for all of my photo sessions, but I find it most helpful when photographing children with special needs. Most families in the special needs community are familiar with rewards or behavioral management systems. During the planning stage of each client’s session, I chat with the parents about rewarding the children after the session. The reward also gives me an additional tool to use while photographing the kiddos. The types of rewards vary for each family and for each child. My most used rewards are: candy, a small toy, bubbles, and balls.

At one of my first photo sessions with a child with special needs, I struggled to get him to connect and trust me. I brought a small ball as a reward for after the session. I ended up giving the ball to him mid-way through the photo session. He loved it, and it instantly changed his interactions with me and the camera. I took wonderful images of him smiling and tossing the ball. The reward allowed him to be distracted and happy while I took pictures his parents will always treasure.

A little girl peeks from behind mom's legs - How to photograph special needs children and their families

3. Allow extra time for children with special needs to engage with you.

Admittedly, any family photo session can become challenging depending on the moods of the littles! When photographing a family that has a child with special needs, I always allow for extra time. You may not have to use the extra time, but it is good to have just in case. This will also allow you to give the children breaks if needed, and it gives you a cushion in case the session takes a negative turn.

As photographers we are so used to running our family photo sessions a certain way — pose like this, look at each other, smile, etcetera — but with children with special needs, I have learned to slow down and have more patience. Giving the kids breaks to play or have a snack can make a big difference.

Allowing for extra time also gives me the opportunity to document the children being themselves at the end of the session. These are usually the images that make my heart swoon.

How to photograph special needs children - A father and son share a moment

4. Put mom and dad at ease by telling them the photo session flow ahead of time.

In my experience, parents that have children with special needs tend to be a little more nervous about how the photo session will flow. After having a few sessions with kids that had trouble transitioning, I quickly realized I could help these kids and parents be more prepared if I gave them the session flow ahead of time.

I now send an email the week before the photo session with the basic session information, plus the timeline and session flow. This allows the parents to prepare their kids with what to expect ahead of time.

Here’s my photo session flow for families with special needs:

Traditional family portraits > lifestyle family pictures > traditional portraits of the kids > lifestyle pictures of the children together > individual portraits > documentary pictures.

In my email, I also mention any games I may play to get the children to engage during the session. Providing this information ahead of time not only gives the parents a chance to talk with their kids, but it also gives them a chance to give me feedback. If they think their child with special needs will not respond to or like one of the games, they can tell me, and we have time to amend the plan.

Here are a few games to play with children with special needs:

  • Red Light Green Light
  • Telephone
  • Run and jump into mom’s arms and give her as many kisses as you can.
  • Who’s going to get tickled?
A mom and daughter laughing - How to photograph special needs children
A little boy in golden light - How to photograph special needs children
A family poses on the beach — How to photograph families of special needs children

5. Know when to call it.

Photo sessions with families with special needs normally run the same as every other family photo session if you’ve prepared in advance, know what to expect and made any needed adjustments. However, I have had photo sessions with children with special needs that I just couldn’t make work.

During one of the more challenging sessions, I had a child with special needs that absolutely refused to participate. The parents tried to get him to engage and I used every trick I knew, and it just didn’t work. This sweet little boy was not having any of it on this day, and no amount of rewards, coaxing or begging was going to change his decision. He didn’t want me — the photographer — or the camera around. He didn’t want to play games or hug his mama. In fact, he didn’t want to do anything! I had to call it quits and reschedule the session. I was not going to force this child to have his pictures taken.

You know what? He was more than willing to participate on the rescheduled date! He engaged and did all the things I asked him. I do not know what was going on the first time, but I knew I had to call it. Maybe just letting him leave the first time was enough to gain his trust for the rescheduled photo session. I will never know, but I’m glad we didn’t push him.

A little girl with special needs rests her chin on mom's shoulder

Choosing a location for photos with children with special needs

  1. Look for a location based on the needs of the child. For example, if your client has a child with sensory issues, then it would be best to avoid locations with loud noises.
  2. Look for locations that have space for children to safely explore.
  3. Consider the child’s personality. If the mom has mentioned that her child is shy or easily distracted, then a busy park is not the right place. Search out a private spot where the child will feel at ease.
  4. Listen to your gut. If you have doubts about a certain location, it is probably not the right one.

Photographing families with special needs has truly been a blessing to me and my photography business. I have learned valuable lessons that have changed the way I prepare for all of my photography sessions. These precious families have blessed me in so many ways. I hope that these tips will encourage you to let go of any apprehension you may have about working with a family that may have some extra challenges. Doing the leg work ahead of time will prepare you for most any situation when photographing children with special needs.

All photos by Karyn Olsson

More advice for photographing children, babies and families with special needs.

Photographing children with special needs is a very rewarding experience, but may come with challenges. Here are a few more Click articles to help you capture the beauty, truth and challenges of any client.

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Special needs kids: Documenting the highs, lows, and moments in between

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