How To Capture Sibling Love In Candid Photographs

It's the spontaneous moments that reveal your kids' unique connection.
The photographer's daughters, in an impromptu muddy cuddle, snapped on a cellphone.
The photographer's daughters, in an impromptu muddy cuddle, snapped on a cellphone.

My kids should be wrestlers. If not pro wrestlers, at least on the high school team. They can’t help themselves ― they are constantly wrapping their arms and legs around one another until one topples to the ground, someone’s victorious or someone is crying. As sisters, entangling limbs and getting in each other’s space is their natural way of communicating.

Some siblings show their love by whispering secrets, some with looks of undying devotion. There can be kicking and screaming in the mix, when feelings are hurt. For many siblings, love is expressed in an ever-changing mix of all of the above. So, how do you capture sibling love in the most authentic and telling moments, as life unfolds?

As a mother of two and a professional photographer, I’m a big believer in the unposed photograph. In my mind, those are the images that show true connection. I’ll often grab my phone from my pocket to grab a quick still, trail
behind the group on an outdoor walk while looking for an interesting wide
shot, or join in the action to shoot a more visceral scene. Here are seven tips on how to truly capture the bond between your kids.

Sibling love doesn't always look like hugs, sometimes it's expressed through shared purpose and subtle looks of connectednes during play activities.
Sibling love doesn't always look like hugs, sometimes it's expressed through shared purpose and subtle looks of connectednes during play activities.

Know who’s in charge

You are a visitor, there to document your kids’ “secret” world. Childhood play is intense, spontaneous, and there’s little reason why they’d want us parents and caregivers to interfere. Don’t direct, just observe.

Collaboration is possible, especially if you are willing to follow your kids’ lead and share in their enthusiasm. Feeding your subjects before an impromptu shoot also works well. But really, you just have to go with their flow and enjoy your front row seat.

Identify your opportunities

Speaking of flow, this is your best chance to capture sibling connection. “Flow” is a moment where things just feel right, and the activity is thoroughly absorbing. You lose track of time, your movements within a space and you shut out everything else. This can certainly happen for one person, for example when they are reading a great book on the sofa, but when it happens in an activity jointly shared with another, it’s pure gold.

Talking, eating, reading, cooking, and playing can all be forms of flow. Younger children access this state fairly effortlessly, but it becomes a little more challenging as kids get older, and more self-aware ― and aware of the fact you are watching. So, learn to identify or create these moments, and then fade into the background and capitalize on them.

Take photos often and make suggestions sparingly

Keep your phone handy, shoot regularly, shoot quickly, and only give a little guidance, if necessary. If you notice, for example, that your child’s sweater clashes brilliantly with a nearby wall, ask them to check out the scene. Even if you take a very static portrait at first, that moment is soon over and we’re back to real life amid this colourful combination that drew you in. That’s when you keep shooting. Try to edit as little as possible on the go and stay in the moment.

You usually aren’t fooling anyone when trying to capture a moment, but it is amazing how kids will take suggestions when they know what you’re looking for. In a sense, it’s the perfect assignment. The subject is uninterested in you, you don’t have to direct them, and they don’t want to direct you. Plus, children are utterly beautiful.

Explore space

Difficult in a pandemic, but finding and watching your children explore a new space together is magic: new shapes, new colours, new types of light with your kids punctuating it all. Gallerist Jane Corkin described the late German photographer Aenne Biermann’s work as “[breaking] up space in a very abstract way, [and] softening her planes with emotional relationships.”

Look ahead, see the space, how they enter it and how they move within it. Get in close, and then go wide. The space between them and their intertwining movements speak volumes about trust, safety, independence and individuality.

Document a range of things

From the moments that literally stop you in your tracks to the everyday events full of habits and nuance, you can uncover the essence of a sibling relationship, by capturing it all, and not just pulling out your camera on special occasions.

Their body language ― flopped on the sofa together, miles apart on a walk together to the park, in conversation over hot chocolate ― are clear indicators of their comfort level and ease. Similarities and differences become clearer, and emotions are revealed.

Embrace experimentation

Throw away your assumptions about what child portraiture should be: idealized, romantic, formal, unworldly. Photographing multiple children is challenging, so try to stay open to a little chaos.

Mirror the kids’ playfulness in your composition. What’s in the foreground, midground, background? Can you shoot through something, find a reflection, play with colour, adjust your angle, use available light, capture motion? A teacher once told me to try to take pictures I’d never seen before: a tall order, but a wonderful guiding principle.

Work hard and fast

Shooting more can be a lifesaver, when the tiniest change can lead to the strongest frame. If you need more time, just ask the kids to hold on, as recreations are tough.

And don’t fight your environment for an idea of perfection or simplicity. Embrace the details, the chaos, the dirt, which will have greater meaning on closer examination. What are they eating, what’s spilled on the table, what’s stuck in her hair?

Create a series

Make a series by finding something your kids enjoy and that will interest you visually over time. My kids love to watch movies, so I often take a few stills of them engrossed in a classic. Their reactions while curled up on the couch watching a (hopefully age-appropriate) movie tell a whole story. Recording a meaningful line from the movie, or something your kids said while watching, provides additional context.

Jurassic Park was them under the covers (they saw that one way too soon). The Princess Bride was perfectly timed: They sat entranced by the fire
swamp and the Rodents of Unusual Size. And Jojo Rabbit was an emotional
rollercoaster, with both kids fully invested in scenes from the young main character’s imagination, their arms wrapped around one another as they watched.
Make a series and you’ll record your children’s relationship over time.

Parting thoughts

Above all, photographing your kids should be enjoyable ― a delight of naturalness. A little blur matters less than a truthful moment of silly play or casual sibling affection. Before I go, here are three last suggestions:

Record some video! I will forever have the video of my two girls sharing an ice cream outside the Art Gallery of Ontario, when a bee approached. Catastrophe was averted as one softly talked the other down from sudden paralysis, and they didn’t miss a beat. Short moments like this can speak volumes about their individual personalities, fears and reliance on one another, which I could not have caught with stills

Also, there’s a part of me that’s often torn between my love of capturing a meaningful image and enjoying the shared family experience. Find a balance, and sometimes put your camera away.

And lastly, get yourself in the picture every now and then. You are a part of the moment.

The photographer's own siblings, deep in conversation, snapped by the photographer's mother in a candid moment, circa 1975.
The photographer's own siblings, deep in conversation, snapped by the photographer's mother in a candid moment, circa 1975.

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