Children are wiggly, giggly and jiggly but they can be photographed formally and still look natural. It is all in the eyes. But that comes later.
First you must drape your setting. You won’t have the large screens and backgrounds that photographers use in the studio. No duckpond, no fences, trees or holiday scenes. A formal photograph really looks best with a plain, solid color backdrop and that is easy to duplicate at home. A bed sheet works great. I like a white sheet. As a professional photographer, I used the white background more than any other. Any neutral color works well also. Greens, reds, purple are poor choices because this is a portrait and will be framed and displayed. You don’t want the color to overwhelm the subject and be the focus.
The sheet must be pinned higher than the childs head. I tack it over the door onto the top of the molding where a mark didn’t show, or you could just tape it. Place a table in front of the backdrop and you can cover the table with a rug or drape the backdrop over it.
You need to have the child sitting at your waist level. An adult must be seated next to a small child out of the framing of the picture. That adult is responsible for the safety of the child. His hand is always on the child but behind the backdrop so it can’t be seen. You are responsible as well, but your primary responsibility is the photograph. Older children can manage on their own.
Now you have the proper levels for a good photograph. That is a key point. You don’t want to look too far down on your subject or upwards. The camera should be slightly higher and pointed down for the best angles.
Talk to the child and get his attention. Adjust his clothing. Make sure the collar is straight, the buttons buttoned and the socks are in place. Make sure the hair is how you want it. He will be interested in what you are doing. Talking to him will keep his attention directed to your eyes. When he is relaxed, but interested in you, that is the optimal time for the shot. You must watch his eyes more than his smile.
Most people beg for a smile and confuse or worry the child. He then will force himself to smile. That unnatural smile is not what you want. Notice those unnatural smiles, the eyes still look worried. Talk to him about other things and watch his eyes. When he is relaxed and having fun his eyes will light up with interest and that’s when you snap the picture. When a child’s eyes light up, a natural smile appears.
Take as many as you can within a short period of time. A child’s attention span is short. Using a few props is fun but only use for a few shots. Do not use a favorite toy unless it is clean and looks new. You don’t want the chewed ears of his bunny to be hung on the wall. This is a formal picture, not a snap shot. A flower, a toy, a hat are all props that can enhance a picture, but the best photographs usually are of the child alone.
You will be surprised how just these few tricks, draping your setting, subject levels and watching the eyes instead of the smile will result in beautiful formal photographs.
Source: Life experience as a professional photographer and studio manager.