Nikon Learn & Explore

A Pro's Approach to Personality Portraits

Photographing kids as they grow

Audrey Woulard portrait of a young girl with curly red hair

© Audrey Woulard

"Madeline has always been what I call 'cheeky.' You can see it in her eyes in this photo, taken when she was three—there's a little mischief there. She's always curious, but not extroverted. She was running around the entire time, but her mother loves close-ups, and I was working hard to get two or three good ones." D700, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, 1/1600 second, f/1.6, ISO 500, manual exposure, spot metering.

Audrey Woulard portrait of a teen girl with long red hair

© Audrey Woulard

"At 14, you can see that Madeline's very aware of who she is, but still not extroverted. She has silent confidence. Here she knows I'm  looking for something, something I need and I'm going for—a close-up—but now, being a hyperaware eighth grader who sees pictures of other girls on my Instagram page, she'll control the look." Z 6, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, Mount Adapter FTZ, 1/8000 second, f/1.6, ISO 200, manual exposure, spot metering.

It takes time. And patience. A child's portrait isn't a performance. It's a glimpse of personality—and if you're really good at it, it's full-on insight into the child's character and spirit.

Audrey Woulard is really good at it.

So good, in fact, that her clients call her repeatedly to photograph their children. A year has gone by. A graduation is coming. It's time to continue the chronicle of life and growth.

Audrey had the key to success early on. It was in her get-right-to-the-point tagline that was part mission, part artist statement: "Capturing who you are, not what you look like."

What Audrey delivers to parents is often what parents don't even know they want: what they see every day; the looks, the expressions, the gestures, the natural moments that reveal who their children are. Not the performance, and not the image the child pauses from real life to give them.

The idea, in all the simplicity and complexity of its insight, is "capture the inner kid."

Audrey Woulard portrait of a three year old girl wearing a knit hat

© Audrey Woulard

Ella at three years old. "Her mom loves knit hats," Audrey says. D700, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, 1/1600 second, f/1.6, ISO 400, manual exposure, spot metering.

Audrey Woulard portrait of a 15 year old, taken in Chicago in low light

© Audrey Woulard

"The head tilt is a thing Ella does. It was there at three and still at fifteen. You can see it in other years' photos, too." Z 6, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, Mount Adapter FTZ, 1/2000 second, f/1.6, ISO 250, manual exposure, spot metering.

Past and Present

Audrey's postings on Facebook include her then-and-now images of children, and a section of her website features them as well. When we saw the website page we thought that it epitomized and completed the circle of Audrey's art, craft and business. The bond formed with her subjects over time and the images that result from that bond bring the parents back, year after year, session after session.  

Her business is relationship based, with parents learning about her from other parents, or by seeing her photos, with bookings often turning into traditions.

Audrey has had portrait sessions every year with the children in the photos you see here. "A lot of the teenagers kind of see me and my business as the cool thing," she says.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is her choice of dramatic locations. "To be photographed in the city is the thing to do," she adds. There's a cachet to it, practically a "I've always been with her" status. Simply, the teenagers want her to be their photographer.

The second reason is that Audrey is trusted. The kids know she gets them, and they know what to expect. "They're never blindsided," she says. "They know what I'm going to do, where we'll be and how long a photo session is going to take. They know how many times I might say, 'Change your clothes,' and if their mom says, 'I really want you to take your glasses off for the picture,' they know I will be an advocate for them to keep them on because that's what they prefer. I'm like an aunt. If you think about, in families, the aunt and uncle come over and they're always like the cooler parents. That's me."

Audrey Woulard portrait of a year old toddler, close up

© Audrey Woulard

"Nick is about a year old in this close-up photo," Audrey says, "and close-ups are absolutely a staple of what I do—parents want to be sure it's done—and here it absolutely benefits his eyes, which are incredible." D700, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, 1/1600 second, f/1.6, ISO 400, manual exposure, spot metering.

Audrey Woulard portrait of a 12 year old boy, taken on the street in Chicago

© Audrey Woulard

"This is Nick at 12—open, friendly, cooperative—very easy to work with." Parents Audrey has known for years have free rein on clothing choices, while Audrey always chooses the locations. Z 6, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, Mount Adapter FTZ, 1/2500 second, f/1.6, ISO 250, manual exposure, spot metering.

Let It Be    

Basically Audrey lets the child be the child. "I'm asked a lot about how I pose, and my answer is, I don't pose at all unless something is completely out of place."

She doesn't go in for a lot of directing either. "I talk to the kids a lot," she says, "and part of my job is to be hyperaware of everything—how their hands and feet move, how they're tilting their heads, what they're doing that's natural. I work off that. A case in point is Ella. I know she tilts her head, so I'm going to highlight that because it's part of who she is, and I knew it'd look really good if she was leaning on the viaduct, so it's 'Hey, Ella, come over...and now just be Ella.' I'm not saying 'tilt your head,' or 'put your hands in your pockets' or 'chin up.' That's too much for me."

And when the kids are younger kids? "Oh, then it's all about 'This is where the great light is, so let's be over here,' and then I talk to them, keep them engaged and look for certain things that they do. With Summer, she would always put her hand to her mouth, so with that it's just let me get the right angle and bam, there it is, now I have it.

When the kids get older, they know Audrey is in tune with who they are. "That's such a benefit to the parents," she says. "They know I'll deliver what they and their child wants. I also know that my returning client base is my biggest success."

Audrey Woulard portrait of a toddler

© Audrey Woulard

"Summer is three in this picture, being playful. Not all photographers would take a picture with part of the child's face blocked, but it was a natural moment—it was who she was—and that was the most important thing for me to get." D300, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, 1/1600 second, f/1.4, ISO 400, manual exposure, spot metering.

Audrey Woulard portrait of a teenage girl, looking directly into the camera

© Audrey Woulard

"Here she's 15, and when she jokes now she doesn't laugh. Her humor is wry and deadpan, and if you're not tuned into her delivery, you're not going to get it." Z 7, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, Mount Adapter FTZ, 1/1000 second, f/1.6, manual exposure, spot metering.

Act Naturally

You can make a case that Audrey's success is ultimately based on her ability to elicit and capture in photographs what parents can't. Maybe kids know their parents too well; maybe it's the other way around.

For parents who want more than snapshots of their kids—though there's no denying the memorable moment a snapshot can deliver—there are cues and clues in Audrey's methods. Like, no matter the age of the child, picture-taking can't be a chore; keep it light, short, natural. Have your camera-handling technique down cold.

Don't come carrying a bagful of gear; one camera, one lens will do it. Think natural light and a cool setting. And don't underestimate the importance of light. Audrey knows her locations, knows the light at different times of day and can adapt to changing conditions.    

When we asked Audrey for her best advice, she was typically direct: "Have patience. Don't have expectations. Expectations are based on the parent, not the child."

She speaks from experience. "I can tell you, I started off pretty well photographing my own kids, but after a while the expectations all parents have turn up and you're thinking as you shoot, I know you can do come you're not smiling? So there's always a level of expectation of what we will be given and what we'll get, and if it isn't happening, patience is out the window."     

So...what then?

"I hired out to have them photographed."