Kids can be hard to photograph.
They’re constantly moving, sometimes cranky, and often difficult to direct.
As much as I adore those whimsical candids of my children playing, I still really want a couple great smiling shots of my kids (and I know my clients expect that, too).
Over the last seven years of photographing kids and three years of taking photos of my own, I’ve learned a bunch of tricks to make the process easier. Today I’m going to share seven of my best tips to do so. Some may sound ridiculous, but I promise they work!
Whether you’re taking photos of your own kids in the backyard or you’re shooting photos for a client, prep is important.
The most important pieces of preparation? Sleep and food.
It probably sounds obvious but I promise you it’s a total game changer. My kids are much more willing to cooperate after they’ve eaten and napped.
If you’re taking pictures of someone else’s kids, you’ll want to make sure to communicate this with them first thing.
Here’s a quick list of what I tell parents to do beforehand:
Keep it positive.
Have parents prep kids that they’re having some fun family time playing games and singing songs. “Oh, and there will be a nice lady there taking photos of us.”
Prioritize mealtime and naptime.
We want everyone happy for those beautifully lit golden hour photos (at home, I try to capture my kids playing in the backyard right after dinner).
Feel free to bring snacks along but leave them in the car.
I’ve allowed snacks at a shoot before and kids end up getting distracted and attached to their goldfish in a neon green snack catcher.
Pack the bug spray and tissues.
Bugs can really cramp a photoshoot and so can a runny nose. We all know how frequently the snotty noses happen.
On that note, if a child is really under the weather, let me know. I’ve had my share of photographing kids with ear infections and it never ends well. I always tell clients I’d be happy to reschedule if baby wakes up with a fever.
2. Familiarize kids with the camera
If I’m taking photos for someone else, when I first meet the kids I try to not have my camera out and instead ask their name, how old they are, and ask their favorite TV show or character. This information also comes in handy throughout the shoot.
After I get to know them, I take the camera out and let them touch it, play with the buttons, and show them what a picture of them looks like on the screen.
Then I pull out Mr. Frog, a lens puppet that fits onto the front of my camera (bought on Amazon). I know… it’s silly and many photographers are anti-lens puppets but I have kids who remember Mr. Frog from a year ago and can’t wait to take more photos. I can swallow my photographer pride for that.
If you’re taking photos of your own kids, they’ll probably be more accustomed to the big camera but I’ve found that letting my own kids hold the camera and even take pictures of their siblings has made them more comfortable and natural when I’m holding taking pictures.
3. Be silly
My biggest secret to getting natural smiles from kids is to be completely ridiculous (which comes way too naturally to me). I’ve learned most of these tricks from my own kids so I try to put them in a position where they can’t help but smile.
Some fun things I’ll say:
- Do I have three noses or four noses?
- Does mommy have green hair?
- Does daddy have purple boogers?
- (To older kids) Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?
- Where does [insert kids favorite TV character] live?
- Don’t smile! (this one works like a charm for my feisty 3-year old)
You get the idea. Sometimes I’ll play peekaboo, sing songs, and dance around. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention to use potty humor with boys.
The secret to capturing the genuine smiles during these ridiculous moments is to make sure you take the photo right after the kids laugh or make a funny face. They’re always smiling naturally right after these moments.
4. Sibling interaction
A great way to get kids to smile naturally is to have them interact with their siblings. When I do this with my kids and clients I have them play tickle monster, run and hug, hop on one foot, run to the tree and back, skip down the path holding hands, etc.
Again, don’t stop snapping! Ask kids to look your way immediately after the action for the natural smile you’re looking for. I also give them parameters to keep everyone in the shot and keep it appropriate (i.e. “stay within this circle” or “you have glue keeping your knees together!” for little girls with dresses).
For the last few minutes of the session, I encourage kids to get on the ground and play (with parent’s permission of course). Lay side by side, wrestle, tickle, pyramid, big hugs, you get the idea. You’ll need to get down there with them to get the eye-level perspective – those typically end up being my favorite photos from a session.
Sibling interaction with toddlers at a newborn sessions is obviously trickier. Older siblings are still adjusting to so much newness so I always try to snag these shots early in the session while I’m still fun and intriguing. Ha!
If you’re photographing your own kids, try having a friend or grandparent assist you with directions. Ironically, toddlers are much more likely to listen in this case. If they’re not feeling up for holding the new baby or lying down next to them, I just let toddlers interact with the newborn naturally. I’ll ask, “Where’s Cameron’s nose? Her hair?” or “What does baby smell like?”
5. Encourage play
Some of the best smiles I’ve ever gotten from my kids have been by following them around while they’re playing. If the kids want to play in the gravel rocks, follow them and then ask to see what they have. Sometimes they’ll look back up at you with a serious face holding a rock and it’s a beautiful photo.
During these moments, you can encourage them towards play. Ask to see how high they can jump and get that great photo of them smiling afterwards.
I’ve gotten the best reactions from my kids when I treat the photoshoot like playtime rather than a chore. I try to make them feel like they’re having fun and playing rather than listening to instruction. That’s where you’ll find those natural smiles.
6. Give breaks
I never force photos when it’s clear kids are over it (as opposed to bribing them or letting parents get frustrated).
When I start to notice someone is getting bored or antsy, I’ll suggest they take a quick break. I’ll either let them take a few minutes to play while I snap some candids or take some time to photograph other members of the family.
If you’re taking these photos of your own family, I suggest letting the child that’s bored or frustrated take a few minutes to play on their own while you take photos of another sibling or do some photos with different combinations of the family. Sometimes if they see the rest of the family take a picture, they’ll want to join back in on their own.
As far as technical settings go, I’m a manual shooter so I’ll share those numbers first (my current body is a Nikon D750). If you’re not manual just yet, aperture “A”priority will do you just fine.
In manual mode:
Move to continuous focus because we all know how much kids move around. Also, use a higher shutter speed of at least 1/500. I prefer more crisp subjects as opposed to capturing blurred motion so this is where I start. For one child, I use an aperture of f/1.8. For 2 kids, I use f/2.8 and go up from there as people are added to the photo.
In aperture priority mode:
I’d set a wide open aperture, f/1.8 or f/2.8, to achieve that creamy, blurry background. Make sure your ISO is low enough to allow for a fast shutter speed as well to capture those wiggly bodies. Better yet, start with Auto ISO and see how that looks.
My favorite portrait lens for capturing kids is my Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. It’s wide enough to redirect kids if needed but still gets all those lovely crispy details. If I’m doing shots of a family all together I switch to an 85mm (this is hands down my favorite outdoor portrait lens right now) as I’m further away but I have the parent’s help keeping kids in the shot. If I’m working with just toddlers, I try to bring a bench or chair for them to sit on to help keep them in place (for a minute at least!)
Working with kids is certainly not easy but I appreciate the challenge.
Capturing these sweet natural smiles is one reason I love what I do so much! It’s all about making them feel as comfortable as you can and relating to them. Don’t be afraid to be silly, too.
What things have you done to get these genuine smiles from your kids?