8 tips for photographing uncooperative children

8 tips for photographing uncooperative children by Jennifer Dell

We’ve all had one of those shoots, whether with a client or your own children. We take the time and dream up the perfect session. Every little detail has been planned and you couldn’t be more excited. You’ve envisioned this session and the way you want to go for weeks. The day comes and the weather is gorgeous and your location is ideal. You’re ready to go. Then, the unimaginable happens…. your children (or quite possibly your client’s children) have other plans. Instead of having a super sweet and girly vintage tea party, your impeccably dressed little girl decides that rolling in the mud and throwing rocks sounds like more fun (this would be my daughter). Or perhaps your sweet children would rather run the opposite direction, away from that gorgeous, gooey setting sun that provides the perfect backlighting. Whatever the case may be, I have learned over the years (mostly from working with my own children) to go with the flow.

Here are a few tips to help you go from this:

photographing uncooperative children

to this:

photographing uncooperative children tutorial

1.  Put down the camera.

Yep, that’s right, put it down and step away from it. If you are working with props on a stylized session interact with your little subjects and have fun for a few minutes. Then, once everyone is into the activity, pick up the camera again and go for it.

2.  Show your children/clients the images you are taking.

Let them chimp after a few shots, this typically gets kids excited to be part of the shoot instead of just your subject. Yes, I know that your camera was not cheap, but you can even let them hold the camera and show them what you are doing. It gets their interest and they are much more apt to working with you and not against you.

photographing uncooperative children tips

3. Engage with them.

If you find that you are losing their interests, engage them: ask questions, tell jokes, talk to them. Get them to engage with you. If you do this you will also get more genuine photos too (a bonus!).   My daughter had on her mermaid costume and when I wanted to take a photo, she quickly clammed up and gave me this face:

photographing uncooperative children advice

After I asked her to tell me some Ariel facts I got this along with a story about how Ariel sleeps at the bottom of the sea:

getting children's attention when photographing them

4.  Breathe.

I tell all of my clients to be prepared for any kind of silly behavior from their children. The worst thing you can do is yell or get frustrated. So like I tell my clients, just breathe. Don’t let the obstacle at hand ruffle your feathers.

5.  Try distraction.

If your little one is having a meltdown try to distract them to focus on something else, point out something interesting or introduce something new.

how to photograph unwilling children

My son was so not happy about me wanting to capture him in his crib but once I reminded him that he had some really great airplanes on the ceiling I got this:

distracting children while taking their photo

6. Bribe.

I don’t typically like to bribe, but I have been guilty of this from time to time when I’m really, really, really desperate. Only with my own children, never my clients. I’ve promised an M&M or cookie here or there in exchange for some cooperation.

7.  Try something different.

If what you had planned really and truly is not working at all… try something different. It isn’t the end of the world. Take these photos for example. These are of my sweet (albeit a little crazy) kiddos. I had planned the perfect valentine’s day themed session… hand made props even. Then when we got to the location my daughter had a meltdown and would not participate and my son picked up a dead mouse. Yep, you read that right a dead rodent. Oh it was so bad. This was all I able to get prior to regrouping…

how to get good child photography

So we re-grouped, took him inside to wash him and disinfect and her inside to chill. Then, 30 minutes later, we went back out, just with my daughter at that point and I was able to get this and it’s now one of my favorite photos of her.

tips for photographing children

8. Embrace it.

If all else fails, you can always just embrace the chaos, and call it documentary.

embracing the chaos in children photography

Thank you Jennifer for sharing these amazing tips with us!  What are your favorite tricks when your sessions aren’t going as planned?  Let us know in the comments below!

Jennifer DellJennifer Dell, Texas
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Armed with a Nikon D4 and an assortment of prime lenses, Jennifer enjoys photographing children and families in her own style, candid and full of natural expressions. Jennifer’s photography venture began in high school and was then encouraged in college as she pursued her graphic design degree. She also enjoys the show Friends, coffee, a nice bottle of wine, and spending time with her family including her husband and children.

Read more photography tutorials by Jennifer Dell.


  • Kelley Sue says:

    This is a wonderful post!! Thank you for sharing! I couldn't agree with you more! The kiddies are in charge and as the photographer we have to follow their lead. We can learn so much from these little ones. Most of the time the most genuine moments are captured because everyone is relaxed and having fun.

  • Colie J says:

    Love! I really love the tantrum pics too, LOL.

  • Susy says:

    These were great tips! Thank you for sharing!

  • Thanks so much, Jenn! Great tips and gorgeous images of your beautiful kiddos…even the 'uncooperative' images! :)

  • Lena Antaramian says:

    Loved the article! My favorite tip was the last one – calling it 'documentary':)

  • Kyla says:

    I love playing make believe with my little clients. I find that when kids are using their imagination they display the best range of emotions. Love it!

  • jodi says:

    Great article, Jenn!!! I know they weren't what you had planned, but I LOVE the uncooperative pics of your kids! Your daughter's pout is so adorable! Thanks for these helpful tips!

  • CourtneyB says:

    Thanks, Jennifer! These are some really great tips and reminders :)

  • Vikki says:

    Great tips, thank you. I love candid, uncooperative shots the best, though occasional smiling happy ones are always welcome!

  • EricaB says:

    Thanks for the great tips:) I have had to embrace the "documentary" many times myself.

  • Jes Gwozdz says:

    Love this! I have lots of "documentary" shots of my kids. LOL!

  • Mara Vaughan says:

    I love this and ha ha, love the images, too! I think you will treasure the cute "sulky" ones just as much as the happy ones!! :)

  • julie gropp says:

    thanks for this post. I have 3 young boys and they aren't always cooperative when getting their picture taken. I have gotten some of the funniest pictures that way though. I really appreciated the thing about the rat. classic.

  • Heather says:

    So cute! I love the ideas and pictures!

  • Melinda says:

    Wonderful advice!!! This has happened many times to me when I was photographing my own children, sometimes you need to just walk away for a bit.

    Oh and about the rat, sounds exactly like what my 4 year old would do and then we would be off to thoroughly disinfect too! :)

  • Jenna says:

    You're funny, Jennifer and so so so talented!

  • msn says:

    Really love your perspective, not to mention your gorgeous examples. Teriffic post. :)

  • brenda says:

    Fabulous post!!! Thank you for all the wonderful ideas.

  • christina says:

    wonderful post and great tips!! And that's one beauuuutiful crib. <3

  • Elena says:

    It's been so frustrating lately trying to take pictures of my little one so this post will really come in handy for me next time. Thanks for sharing!

  • Elva says:

    Great post! I love your son's crib

  • Jenny D says:

    thank you so much for this post!

  • JennyO says:

    Great tips, thank you so much! I especially love number 8 "embrace the chaos and call it documentary." :)

  • Brilliant article, Jennifer — and beautiful examples! I love your work.

  • Heidi says:

    This is one of the best posts ever. Beautiful images. VERY helpful advice. All taken! Love it! Thanks Jennifer. :)

  • Bria says:

    Great ideas!! And I actually like the photos I get of my girls during their meltdowns…it might not be pretty but the emotion is unforgettable. :)

  • Great tips Jennifer and as always I love your images. The one of your son crying in his crib just cracked me up and I absolutely love the Ariel story image.

  • Leah Cook says:

    fantastic!!! just gorgeous shots of your kiddos…the before and afters…love them both!! great advice to remember. thank you!!

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  • Jess Cadena says:

    This is really helpful! I have to remind myself that cameras are big and scary and strange for children! Putting it down and playing with them helps so much, even with my own.

  • susan says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for these great tips! I just visited your site and I LOVE your work. The images you used for this article are absolutely darling.

  • midsommereve says:

    Great ideas, I love the last photo!

  • h.mangly says:

    Great work
    This is really helpful. .
    I think I should read this before my first photoshoot with kids which I did last month
    and it was really bad :/
    This encouraged me to give my self another chance !

  • Hollis says:

    Holy crap. I LOVE this post. And i was even more excited to find out you are in Houston (like me!) …now, i don’t have children, but i have a super uncooperative, easily distracted husband who might as well be 5 years old when it comes to taking pictures, and you just gave me hope that one day i could actually have pictures of us that don’t look canned, or like we just did some sort of staged school pictures (awful) with the terrible smiles, or the goofy half-grin. LOL. thanks for all the pointers!

  • Angélique says:

    Thank you, great ideas, love !

  • Elise says:

    I love this article but I still need more advice!
    I recently had a shoot with 5 children. A group of cousins.
    The youngest, 18 months old was screaming in blood curdling cries the whole time!
    It caused all the other kids to look sad and scared!
    I had to yell above the screams to even give small direction to the other 4 children!
    It was by far my worst session!
    Any tips on how to handle that??

  • kelly garvey says:

    love it jennifer! so well written :)

  • jennifer says:


    That’s tough! I have had a shoot that sounds a little similar to what you went through! five kiddos can be tricky. In that situation, I would put down my camera, have mom take away the 18month old that was upset and either get snacks/drinks/cuddle anything to get baby back to a happy place. A lot of times, you’ll find a short snack break can do wonders. In the meantime, hang out and play with the older kiddos to get them to relax after the tension of having an upset cousin. Then, hopefully, everyone will be back in a more relaxed happy state and you can continue the session.

  • Kristie says:

    One of the best photography tips article I’ve read! Thank you!

  • Bill says:

    Great tips! I’ve never tried the whole setting the camera down and just playing with them. One item I’ve found for bribery that works wonders are Smarties. They dissolve in the mouth and don’t leave a residue on the mouth.

  • Angela says:

    I needed to read this! I am doing a 365 this year and my boys are getting tired of me taking their picture. There are many tips that I am going to work on using with them. Thank you!

  • Jessica says:

    This is excellent. Honestly, tho, tip #8 is my favorite & I just bust up laughing looking at that photo. And in the name of doing documentary photography, I want to see what happened next…

  • Jacqueline says:

    Thanks for the tips! Those unplanned shots are definitely worth saving, too, though! They might not be the ones you’ll hang up on a wall, but they do tell a story. I’m thinking they would be fun to look back to someday!

  • Aggie Cohen says:

    When Photographing my Grandkids, the surest way to get them all smiling at the same time is to say, “Now no smiling, no laughing. Do you hear me? Serious faces only!” I keep it up for the whole time I am taking pictures, and by the time I am done, they are rolling on the floor with tears of laughter coming from their eyes while they all (8) hug each other. It probably won’t work much longer, as the oldest is approaching age 12, but it is fun while it lasts!

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