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Special Needs Photography

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Being a photographer and having the honor of capturing memories is a huge responsibility and one that I take very seriously.

It has been over ten years that I have been professionally photographing families, engagements, and weddings. During all that time I never had my own family memories captured. It made me stop and think why?


I had a fear.

A fear that started when my eldest daughter had her first pictures taken. She wouldn’t smile for the camera no matter how hard we tried to get her to smile and I felt a great amount of pressure to get her to smile for the photographer and the photographer in turn was required to take a certain number of pictures and poses to keep his job. We also had to work around the fact that she couldn’t yet sit up by herself, crawl, or babble even though she was over a year old.

It was an experience that I was not happy with and after that I wasn’t keen on ever going through that again. It just wasn’t worth it. How would my daughter be seen or treated, the fact that high sensory situations caused her to regress and took two weeks to recover from, didn’t seem worth the stress of a few pictures. I wanted her to be seen for who she truly was and is and not for her diagnosis.

Last year I decided I was done with this fear. I decided I would get pictures done of my whole family now that we were eight strong instead of just three. So, I reached out to some fellow photographers and friends and we all agreed upon a trade. My contribution would be to coach them on certain triggers and things to look out for when photographing a child with special needs and in turn I’d be able to finally get pictures of my family.



The social gap.

That is when it hit me on how big the social gap is between the typical and special needs communities. I grew up with a brother who has special needs and now I have a daughter, of my own, who has special needs. I didn’t realize how big the gap was until the coaching session I did with my fellow photographers. I asked if they had any questions by the end of the four sessions and what I heard in response is what made up my mind that I needed to do something. They didn’t have any questions because they didn’t know what to ask. They didn’t have questions because they had no idea what a ‘trigger’ even was.


Bridging the gap.

Through doing that coaching God gave me an ‘Aha’ moment. I got a hold of my sister who is a neurologic music therapist, one of the best that is out there, and presented her with an opportunity to help bridge the social gap through a photography class. She responded with a resounding yes and expressed her own desires in helping bridge the social gap. And hence the journey began. 

Using the techniques, she implemented as a therapist, she trained me in how to better support people with special needs and together we created a brand-new technique. This technique is going to change the photography industry and start bridging the social gap between these two wonderful communities. 

Today I will be sharing three tips to help you, as photographer, when photographing a child with special needs.



Tip #1 – Vision Breaks

Vision is something that children with special needs struggle with. This is an extremely important fact to know as a photographer. We want to get the best pictures for our clients, and we overlook the fact that sometimes the best pictures require a different approach.  

Vision breaks is a term we should highly familiarize ourselves with. What does it mean to give a vision break? 

We as photographers take vision breaks after hours of editing photographs. Our eyes tire from the strain and we take ‘vision breaks’.  

A child who has special needs requires more frequent visual breaks because they fatigue faster. Their fatigue comes from the many visual demands of trying to focus through everyday tasks. For example: Getting dressed, eating, reading, craft activities, playing on the playground, and many others. This list is only applicable to the children who are high functioning. It is more severe for those who are not as high functioning. 

Taking frequent breaks throughout a session will increase their ability to sustain without too much visual fatigue. This is highly effective and will assist you in making the session a success. 


Tip #2 – Expectations

Communicate with them on everything; from how many pictures you will be taking of a certain pose to when you will be taking a break. Never change suddenly. Always be clear on your expectations before changing it up.  

We stress communication because it is huge. Letting them know smaller segments of a timeline for each pose will help them be able to meet that expectation.  

Counting down as you snap each picture will give them an auditory cue leading up to the transition and will also help the parents prepare for the change in poses.


Tip #3 – Behaviors

When a child starts to act out, it is not always because they want to, it is sometimes because a certain need is not being met or that they are not being understood or communicated with.  

Being watchful of any behaviors that are starting to emerge during a shoot is extremely important. It might mean they haven’t gotten the vision break they needed or they weren’t given the proper communication about the change in a pose. It can be something completely unrelated to the pose at all. These are just a few of the possibilities.

Even we as photographers love to be communicated with and made aware of any timeline changes so we can meet the expectation to the best of our ability. The same goes for our clients and their children. I can’t stress how important it is to support them in this way.  

If they do start to act out, do not force them to hold a pose. Stop, step back and evaluate the situation. See how you can provide support and help remove stress. Sometimes that stress is from us, the photographer. If this is the case give them a break and a little room to give them a chance to recover.


These are only three of many other simple and effective ways that can help you create a better client experience.


Upgrade your expertise.

Whether you are a wedding, family, portrait, graduate, maternity, fashion, product, or newborn photographer this technique will help you deliver for your clients and better equip you in your business. One in fifty-nine children, in the United States alone, are autistic. That is not including all the other countless special needs diagnosis’ out there. Some whom most people haven’t even heard of.

If you are a photographer, then this technique should be added to your certification of photography training. It is that important. Learning how to communicate and work with people with special needs is one of the ways we can better serve our community. This technique will enable you to do just that. 



Connect with Yohanna on IG @yohannawendtphotography.





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