Child playing outside on a hike

Photographing Kids Outdoors – Perception vs Reality

May 24, 2020

Child playing outside on a hike

Please raise your hand if you have opened social media and scrolled past beautiful pictures of children outdoors with a magical quote sparking something inside of you that says, “We can do that!”. Or you search on Pinterest for “kids + outdoors,” and get what looks like a stream of motivational posters and blogs that say “99 ways to have fun outside with your toddler” along with blissful images. Photographing kids outdoors is my favorite way to capture their true personalities. However, it’s not always what it seems.

Maybe you’ve enjoyed a life of outdoor adventures previous to having kids, and they haven’t yet grasped your love for nature. The same love it looks like your friend’s children clearly have when you look at FaceBook.

Well, friend… Let me attempt to pull the wool back from your eyes. Photographers, TV, movies, and even your friend on social media have all curated an unrealistic reality. A perception that leaves many parents pulling their hair out and children set up with expectations that are unfair, unrealistic, and not conducive to nurturing the love of the outdoors we desperately seek for them. This happens innocently enough. We want you to feel inspired and see the joy that is out there, but in doing so, we mostly fail to prepare you for the equally acceptable reality.

Little boy carrying wildflowers with a fireman hat on
“Hey, Sully., Try and smile…”

My Personal Experience Photographing My Son

Above is my son, who has for all intents and purposes been on the trail since a week old. We’ve backpacked the Olympics, hiked The Enchantments. He can identify edible plants and comfortably traverses most terrain. Let’s see some more recent outings…

This gem was taken roughly 100 yards from our driveway. On this particular day, he decided that lying in the middle of the road (not used for traffic) was better than our planned route.

Or this time, the light was PERFECT in an old barn. My son? Oh, he’s hanging halfway through a window, drawing pictures in the dirt on the other side and refusing to come out.

Boy hanging out a old barn window

How to Grab the Perfect Photograph of Kids Outdoors

So, what do you do to “correct” this and nail that perfect picture to post on your feed? Well, the day he wanted to lay in the gravel, I sat beside him for 45 minutes. We talked about our love of dirt, and then we went home after logging 1/8 of a mile. That was the only picture I kept on that day.

And when he was hanging out the window? Well, I once again took a moment (26 moments to be exact) to sit and listen to the wind. At moment 27, he hopped out of the window, and I caught the genuine joy when he danced in the sun on our hike in Riverside State Park. My point, in case you missed it… He was hanging in the window for 26 minutes before 30 seconds of joyfully dancing in the sun.

Photographing Kids Outdoors - Boy Dancing in Sunlight

When I, other photographers, or your friends on FB only post the 30 seconds of dancing and delete the 26 minutes of hanging in a window, we create the perception that dancing in sunbeams is the reality of kids outdoors. While yes, there are dances in sunbeams…there is also hanging out of windows, laying down at the start of a trail, tantrums, diaper changes, snack break upon snack break, days where there are more frowns than smiles, and tears. Friend, there will be tears. Your child will cry and sorry, but you will probably cry too. Photographing kids outdoors is amazingly difficult at times.

Big Work is Happening With Kids

Why? Because BIG work is being done. Exploration, learning how nature integrates with their life. Growth, compassion, and understanding in the eyes of a child is done through play, and observation of their natural world. It also comes with a big dose of emotions at times.

That puddle you’ve crossed 80 times that’s beside the parking lot is now causing a massive meltdown because they don’t want to leave. They say it’s the “best puddle ever!” That’s because, in the heart of a child, it is. They haven’t seen as many puddles as you, and they don’t understand they will see it again. Think about the coolest, most exciting, breathtaking thing you could imagine. Then me dragging you away from it before you had time to process this wonder. I think our friendship might be a little rocky after that, yes?

Adjust Your Expectations With Photographing Kids Outdoors

If we want our children to develop a love and appreciation of the outdoors that will allow them to be the stewards of nature we desperately need, we HAVE to let them experience it at their own pace. My best advice is not to lower your expectations, because I think we are far from reducing them, but adjust them to the reality that’s taking place. Take a breath and realize the beauty in every moment. Even the tough ones.

Boy and puppy in with Haystack Rock in the background - Photographing Kids Outdoors
These quiet moments, where he’s busy with his hand in the sand, capture his true heart

Any time I’m taking photos of my son, I try and include ALL the moments and share those in my social circle as well. If I’m lucky enough to shoot a session for your family, be prepared for your gallery to include those pictures too, and know I place as much value on capturing those times as I do the time dancing in the sunbeams.

My challenge to you is this, stop the madness of perfectly curated moments leading to a skewed perception. Embrace the images of the traditionally “not so perfect” times. Because the big secret is… they are perfect.

I sure hope that this post at least gives you a feeling of solidarity as you tackle the outdoors with your kids knowing we are in this together, and you’re on the right track. If you’re interested in finding out more about a dynamic, outdoor session take a look here.

Have any stories of your own outdoor adventures with kids? Share them in the comments or drop me an email

Life’s biggest adventures in modern photos co-crafted with you. Spokane Photographer | Serving the Pacific Northwest

Life’s biggest adventures in modern photos co-crafted with you. Spokane Photographer | Serving the Pacific Northwest

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