Ever see the movie where the photographer is trying to take a family photo and the kid is doing everything he can, short of starting World War III, to keep that photo from being taken? Every tantrum in the world ever taken is captured in that one scene. Very funny, yes. But the truth is, photographing children is not an easy task for several reasons.
For starters, kids have a very short attention span. To get them to sit still for even a minute is like asking for a miracle. Fidgeting is like a way of life for kids. Bill Cosby used to have a blast doing comic bits about the brother and sister who could not stop touching each other and were always getting into some kind of trouble. Sit still? Not a chance.
Aside from that, children do not take direction very well even if they are not restless. To say to a child, "turn your head slightly to the left" is like asking him to do advanced calculus. It is not going to happen. Either the kid is going to move his head so little that it will not have made a difference or he'll turn his head half way around. "A little to the left" is a foreign concept to children.
So what is a photographer to do, especially if his assignment is to take photos of a church directory, or maybe of kids in school? Well, there are a few tricks he can use that will actually produce very good results. However, these tricks are not going to work without one very key ingredient and this is the hardest thing to be able to do because you either have it or you do not.
The number one key to being able to photograph a child is to be able to relate to the child one on one. You have to have the kind of personality that either mesmerizes the child or at least makes him feel enough at ease with you that he or she can follow simple instructions. Unfortunately, some photographers have the personality of a fig leaf and there is just nothing you can do about it. These people probably should not be photographing kids at all. But if you do have a bubbling personality, use it. Make the kid laugh and feel at home.
If, however, you're not exactly personality plus, there are some things you can do to get the kid's attention. One of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book is to bring along objects with you that the child can either play with or look at.
For example, if you want to get the child to tilt his head and look in a certain direction, the easiest way to do this is to hold up an object. It does not have to be anything fancy, but the more colorful the better. All you need to do is hold the object up in the direction you want the child to look. So let's say you want him to move his head slightly to his right. What you do is hold the object in your left hand and move it to your left to the point where you want the child to look. Then simply tell him to look at the object, using the object's name. So if you're holding up a small brown bear, tell the child to look at the brown bear. Also, smile when you do this. Eventually the child's head will be in the exact position where you want it so you can take the photo.
Another thing you can do, in the case of a child who will not sit still, is to give him something to play with. While he's looking at the object, simply call his name or do something to get his attention and as soon as he looks up you can take the photo. Yes, you have to be fast. But with a lot of practice you'll get real good at this.