Parents of Special Needs Kids – 10 Tips for Family Photo Sessions

I recently have been thinking about my special needs friends and clients. One of the things I’ve learned from them that I took for granted previously, is that special needs families continuously have to make assessments – risk/payoff analysis’ about whether or not an outside experience is worth it on any given day. Birthday parties, church attendance, dinner invitations, photo sessions, etc. are all experiences that can seem risky and honestly, just not worth the stress sometimes.

It makes me sad though, to think about special needs families not getting professional photos done and documenting the changing phases of their lives through professional quality images. As a mom of teens, I am well aware of how quickly the stages pass and before you know it, you’re in a new season and you can never go back.

Special needs families, your hesitations are understandable. You have so many other things to focus your daily efforts on. I just don’t want you to look back and regret not getting professional photos done because you weren’t sure if you could have a successful experience. I want to encourage you that professional family photos are *worth it* and you *can* get the images you will hang on your walls for a lifetime!

To help alleviate the angst and apprehension of the photography experience, here are some tips written just for you!  (And since a photography blogpost is boring without images, I am sharing some images of past sessions!)

1.  Embrace more of a “lifestyle” family photo session than a traditional “posed” one.

Ask your photographer to follow your family around having a park date or exploring a forest preserve or any other activity your family would enjoy together. Shots can come spontaneously while you play so that there isn’t the pressure of “hold still, look at the camera, smile”. Before you finalize your choice of photographer, make sure you see images like this in your their portfolio. Good quality candids are not as easy as it seems. They take a trained eye, a skilled photographer, and super fast reflexes! Getting whole family “posed” portraits can still be accomplished at different times throughout the shoot as opportunities present.

2.  Find the right photographer for your family. 

Compassionate and patient – Look for personal referrals from your friends to find out if they’ve worked with a photographer in the past who is great with kids.

Flexible – Ask the photographer if he/she is willing to spend extra time if your special needs child needs it. It doesn’t hurt to ask if they will charge more for this. Better to know up front and alleviate that concern.

One who takes a personal interest in working with you for a positive experience – Let the photographer know the basics about your special needs child in the initial email. You want to look for a photographer that follows up with questions and wants to learn about your child and how to make a great experience for you all. 
3.  Once you’ve booked your session, email the photographer briefly about each of your kids – their personalities and what exactly you appreciate most about each of them. 

When the photographer can see your children through your eyes, that’s where the magic happens. Take the time ahead of the shoot and help the photographer get to know your kids, your relationship with them, and get a sense of the family dynamics they will be seeking to capture. 

4.  Highlight any special considerations and for your special needs child/children.

  • What music do they like? (Often times, music playing during the photoshoot can really help special needs kids feel comfortable and be themselves!)
  • What makes your child thrive? Some kids come alive when they tell jokes or blow bubbles or throw paper airplanes . . . what makes your child extra happy?
  • If applicable, what preferences do you have about photographing your child’s handicap or scars? Be sure to let the photographer know if your child’s handicap or scars aren’t something you want hidden, cropped out, or Photoshopped.
  • If your child is non-verbal, what tips can you give the photographer for engaging with him/her? Highlight the importance of capturing the non-verbal ways that your child expresses love to you. Having these little exchanges photographed will probably mean the world to you but without telling the photographer, they may not know to look for them.
  • Are there any sensory issues or sensitivities your child has? Be sure to give the photographer a heads up to avoid any needless aggravation of your child.
  • If your child has a hard time with eye-contact or doesn’t smile a lot, let the photographer know so he/she can be ready for those split second glances up or quick smiles. You want your photographer to have realistic expectations and know that it’s okay if your child doesn’t look at the camera all the time or smile all the time and that you want those images too. It’s important to capture your child for who they are! 

5.  Define success for your photoshoot and communicate this to your photographer. 

If you can take a minute and think about what success would look like for your photoshoot from your vantage point, that could be really helpful to your photographer . . . At the end of the day, I would call it a successful photo session if __________________________________. Streamlining your desires for the photoshoot and final images can focus both you and your photographer on what’s most important to you and can help ensure that you walk away satisfied with your experience. 

6.  Select a comfortable location. 

Whether it’s at home, at a park, the beach, etc., you want to pick a location where your child/children can run around and explore without large crowds, loud noises, or other major distractions or stressors. Pick a location where your child will be most comfortable and feel free to be him/herself! Maybe you don’t need to go farther than your own backyard! 
7.  Plan easy, no-fuss outfit selections for your whole family.

As much as you want everyone to look awesome, also make a priority of being comfortable. Fussy clothes typically need adjustments and you really don’t want to ruin great shots because of clothes that were out of place, partially untucked, or wonky. Mamas, it’s a good idea to keep your clothing functional, bearing in mind that you’ll likely be bending over playing with your child, and you don’t want to ruin a precious photo with distracting outfit mishaps. Your thoughtful outfit selection can actually increase the number of usable shots, so plan ahead for best results. 

8.  Declutter “Photo Session Week” if possible. 

Your family does not need any additional stress the week of the photo session. If you are able, your family will benefit from a reduced load . . . spend more time together, do relaxing things, simplify meal plans, play!, etc. Do your best to be “on” your parenting mark so that your family comes into the photo session happy to be together and relatively stress-free. Planning ahead and decluttering your week can be one of the very best tips I can give you!

9. Bring along a personal object or two from home.

Does your child have a comfort item? Bring it along! Anything we can do to help make your child more at ease in the photoshoot will be helpful! Plus it’ll be super cute to get photos of your child with this very important childhood item!

Does your child like to play catch? If so, bring along his/her favorite ball. The photographer can play catch with him/her to get great, smiling photos. That moment of joy and anticipation just before someone throws a ball to your child can be just the magic to get good images of him/her looking at the camera! 

10.  Go with an open mind! 

It’s best to be relaxed about the shoot and not make a big deal about it to the kids. Just tell them “we’re going to go play with mommy’s friend and she’s/he’s going to take some pictures”. . . When you are relaxed, your kids will pick up on that. They’ll follow your lead  so . . . relax, have fun, and don’t put too much pressure on yourselves. Your best photos will come when you are your authentic selves as a family. If things don’t go as planned, lean into the imperfection and go with the flow!

“S” Family Photoshoot {Phoenix Travel Session}

Oh how I miss the colors of the desert!! It’s always such a privilege when I get to go back to Phoenix to do some photoshoots for my ‘friend-clients’ there and when we get to photograph in the desert, it just makes my heart doubly happy. This couple has given me many opportunities to document their life and growing family. Ricky and Kelly, it just gets more fun every time! Thank you for always trusting me and going with the flow! Hope we continue to make magical images for years and years to come! Kiss those babes for me. They sure are charmers!

“P” Family Photoshoot

I can’t say enough about this family. Basically mom, Amanda is my little sister – the much prettier little sister I never had. 😉 They weren’t sure they were going to be able to take the scheduled photos because they had an emotionally traumatic couple of weeks prior to our scheduled session. This awesome family is a foster family and they had to say goodbye to a sweet little one they had raised since birth just days before our shoot. Taking these photos was hard because they didn’t feel like their whole family was there and Amanda wasn’t sure she could do it. I’m so glad she and Nate pushed through and went ahead with the family photos. Love this sweet is worth celebrating!

The “E” Family {Phoenix Travel Session}

A family mini-session from Phoenix Fall photoshoots . . . . This family is very special to me. Being their photographer for so many different life stages has been such a privilege. I’m so happy for them and their growing family. Baby girl #2 made her arrival this winter and they are head over heels!

“T” Family Session

Every year I get to photograph this sweet family and each year it just gets better and better. The kids have learned to really trust me over the years. Admittedly, I was chasing these two around the first couple of years doing anything and everything under the sun to keep them engaged and cooperative. This year it was so easy!! We just hung out and took cool photos. They offered up their ideas and were game for my ideas without a second thought. Just goes to show you that it’s a process with kids. Some kids it just takes multiple exposures and voila! You’ve established a connection and it shows through in the photographs. Now when I see them, it’s like reconnecting with a niece and a nephew. I just love these two so much. Their parents aren’t too shabby either. {wink}