©Tracy Sweeney

Free Rein

If you want to connect with a child, kneel, says Tracy Sweeney. It’s one of many tricks she learned in her first career as an educator, when she often knelt at students’ desks to put them at eye level and at ease.

To fuel her career as a teacher and professor, Sweeney earned a master’s degree in education and pursued doctoral work in curriculum, instruction, and technology. To fuel her passion for photography, a hobby that sparked while she taught high school English, she first signed up for a photography workshop then later devoured YouTube videos while breastfeeding her newborn twins. She made and shared so many quality images of her children that her Facebook friends assumed she was a photography pro, she says.

Before long, Sweeney no longer wanted to work at a brick-and-mortar institution, choosing instead to follow what she felt had become her calling. She quit her professor position and opened a child and family portrait studio, Elan Studio, out of her home in Bristol, Rhode Island.

“Somehow all that came together in crafting this business,” she says of her background. “Ultimately, I work only with children and families and so I operate my business in some senses in the same way I talked in front of a classroom—instructing the children, guiding the children, supporting the children, and in the midst of all that, taking pictures.”

Here, Sweeney shares some of her best tips on child and family portrait photography.

©Tracy Sweeney
Capturing Authentic Expressions

Sweeney’s goal is for viewers of her portraits to be almost able to hear the giggle they see in the photos. To nail authentic expressions—something at which Sweeney excels—it’s essential to build a connection with the client, Sweeney says. And by client, she means the children, not just the parents.

Set parental expectations. Before the session, she explains to parents that she will be directing the session, so they can sit back and relax. Their only job is to bring the child to the session wearing the clothing they’ve decided on for the portraits. This gives Sweeney space to bond with the children.

Build rapport. Depending on conversations parents have had with their children before the session, children may feel pressure to perform or to smile for every photo. To put them at ease, Sweeney doesn’t begin by making photographs. She starts by kneeling at their level to speak with them, making eye contact, and asking uncomplicated questions (about their day, about school) that are easy for a child to answer.

Give positive feedback. Once she begins making photographs, Sweeney boosts children’s confidence through verbal articulation, assuring them they’re doing great and never applying pressure. If a photograph doesn’t quite work, she moves on.

Find joy through movement. Sweeney’s idea of posing isn’t actually posing, she says; it’s movement. She asks her child subjects to skip, hop, do a cartwheel—“things that are really free and natural.” Because these activities are aligned with most children’s natural state of being, it’s easy to capture authentic expressions of joy.

Capture sibling relationships. Most parents want images of the siblings together, but Sweeney notes that she can’t assume what siblings’ relationships are like: “That takes a little bit of an assessment when I begin a session.” Some kids are comfortable cuddling and touching; others aren’t. But a photo of a sibling foot race can be just as touching as a photo of siblings piled up on the grass, she notes. “I will ask them what they like to do for fun. Do you guys like to race each other?” If they start arguing about who is faster, then a foot race is on—perhaps even a silly slow-motion race.

©Tracy Sweeney
Selecting Locations

Sweeney is fortunate to live in an area with four distinct seasons as well as a variety of environments, including the beach, forest, open fields, a colonial farm, and a harbor. Typically, she asks the client which of her images drew them in to get a feel for what type of background might be best for their portraits. She considers three things when selecting locations.

Light. Sweeney photographs with natural light only, never using additive sources, so she prefers early morning and evening golden hour light. But occasionally those times don’t work for a small child who’s too tired for portraits after a long day at the beach, for example. In that case, she’ll select a midday location where she can tuck into the shade. “I can make dappled light look really magical,” she says. 

Texture. Because she uses prime lenses and photographs wide open, specific backgrounds are not as important as the textures those backgrounds can offer. “That’s what allows my subjects to emerge from the images.” Foliage, rocky ledges, a concrete wall—it doesn’t take much background because the focus is on the children.

Space. Sweeney tries to avoid crowded locations because she wants children to run free and explore without worrying about other people in the area. And since she prefers movement over posing, Sweeney needs a greater area for subjects to navigate without interruption.

©Tracy Sweeney
Taking it Underwater

After installing a pool at her home in 2017, Sweeney became inspired to create underwater portraits. She purchased a specialized casing for her camera and delved into online learning. She uses only her own children as subjects. “I don’t take on client sessions for this,” she says, as she views her underwater work as an artistic venture and a personal exploration. She relishes the peaceful quiet of making photos beneath the surface and has learned some important lessons from the experience.

Give subjects instructions ahead of time. Since there’s no talking while the photos are being made, she gives her kids instructions above water before they plunge in. She gets in the pool first and has them count to three after she’s gone underwater before jumping in themselves. That ensures she’s in place for the wonderful moment when they plunge in the water and the bubbles are swirling. She also usually gives them a purpose—for example, to swim toward a toy at the bottom of the pool. A weight belt helps to stabilize her and keep her from floating to the top while she’s making photos.

No puffy cheeks. Kids tend to puff out their cheeks when they hold their breath underwater, so she instructs the kids to relax their faces as much as possible.

Eyes open, sometimes. When subjects can open their eyes underwater, the results are lovely. But some people’s eyes are very sensitive to saltwater or chlorine, which is something to keep in mind, she says. If that’s the case, goggles can be a fun prop. “That can always be adorable.”

©Tracy Sweeney
Banking on Business

Social media marketing is a help, but by and large Sweeney’s clients are repeat customers who visit year after year as well as referrals from those clients. Here are two ways she ensures that word-of-mouth referrals thrive.

Focus on the session experience. Rave reviews about her photos are wonderful, but clients gushing about the experience is pure gold, Sweeney says. “It doesn’t matter if I take the greatest photos, if the experience is terrible, if everybody is stressed out, nobody is going to refer me.” That’s why she prioritizes connecting with subjects above all else and encourages them to be the kids they are by doing cartwheels on the beach and having foot races.

Offer mini-sessions. Sweeney holds mini-session events four times a year, with themes that reflect seasons and holidays. She announces the mini-sessions on social media so that regular clients keep an eye out for the forthcoming email, where they click a link to sign up. The sessions are limited to one day and sell out quickly. They give her the opportunity to reconnect with repeat clients throughout the year. They’re also a great way for new clients to get a taste of her work, potentially inspiring them to sign up for a regular session.

Photographers have to be careful not to overdo it with mini-sessions, Sweeney says, since it’s difficult to convert a mini-session client to a higher price point when they have ample opportunity to get photos at the lower rate. That’s why she limits her mini-sessions, makes them specialized to a particular holiday or theme, and gives loyal clients a heads-up beforehand. “It’s really been a wonderful way to serve my longtime clients who will come back for a [regular] session but also like to sneak in for more specialized themed sessions” throughout the year. 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor.