Did you ever see the episode of “Friends” where Rachel and Monica host two separate parties? People kept sneaking out of Monica’s party because she was playing games with lots of rules.

“No, rules are GOOD! Rules help control the fun!” she yelled, running frantically after the escapees as they darted out the door and across the hall. Well, people didn’t know what they were missing at Monica’s party, because I agree with her – rules help control the fun!

You see, at a joyful family photo shoot, you need precisely these two things: fun and control.

My family sessions are happy. I love when kids have fun at photo shoots with me. And they love it, too!

games for happy family photos girl holding parents hands smiling by leslie crane

Why games?

But if I let them just go nuts I will lose them (sometimes, quite literally!). So instead, I play games with them. The simple rules of the games keep everyone in line and keep them having fun. This allows me to get the genuine moments, expressions, interactions, and movement I love in photos. Everyone stays engaged while I maintain control of the session.

When you play games during your family photo sessions, whether they be with clients or with your own family, you will immediately see stronger connections and interactions between your subjects.

Even better, your subjects will enjoy having their photos taken. Even the dads! Happy clients look wonderful in their pictures, and they also talk to their friends. It’s also much easier for me, the photographer, when I know people are having fun. I’m not scrambling to figure out what to do next with my subjects because they are already entertained.

These are the five games I play most often with kids and families. I save these for after the “smile-at-the-camera” shots are all done. The kids may be getting a bit restless and everyone is more comfortable with the photographer. The family is ready to move and play! It’s a wonderful way to insure that we all leave on a high note with photos we love.

games for happy family photos zooming in on kids by leslie crane

Game 1: Active restraint

Start by having the kid or kids stand directly in front of the parents. Have them all hold hands in a circle, but with everyone facing you. Instruct the family that they are going to to walk toward you on your signal.

But here’s the “surprise!” Before your signal, say secretly to the kid(s), “Now, when you walk toward me, you want to see if you can get away from your parents. Your parents may let you get away… and then again, they may not. Who knows?”

The kids will usually start giggling before the game even begins. When you signal, they start walking and you start snapping away. The parents will probably tug on the kids’ hands gently, trying to keep them from getting away, and the kids will pull back and laugh. Some kids will leave it at that, and some kids will really pull hard and break away completely.

The fun is in the variety that you can capture with different families using the same activity! As long as they are laughing and connected, it’s all good.

kids smiling while holding parents hands by leslie crane

The great thing about this game is you can get a lot of shots really easily. Just keep photographing as they move toward you. First capture the whole family. Then start zooming in on just the kids and their special interactions.

As with any game, you’ll have to read the kids’ personalties and make adjustments if necessary. While this game works for most, you may have to tweak it a bit if you have a serious rule-follower. With those kids, you place less emphasis on the rules and instead tell them it’s okay to laugh and giggle.

dad holding kids smiling and laughing games for happy family photos by leslie crane

Game 2: Sneak attack

I love this game for getting dads to loosen up and have fun with their kids. (You may be shocked to hear this, but some dads do not love posing for family photos! Ha!) However, this game works really well with mom, dad, or even grandparents.

Here’s how to play. Take your sneaky adult aside and arrange for a secret signal. Tell him very quietly that when you give the signal, he is to sneak up on the child or children and do something to surprise them. He can scoop and tickle, grab, toss, hug, spin, turn a kid upside down. Anything he wants that’s cuddly and not TOO much of a wild surprise! The only rule is that he should try to keep the kids facing the camera.

dad holding son in arms smiling and laughing games for happy family photos by leslie crane

Then, you go set the kid or kids up for a sweet posed picture. You decide if you want to tell the kids that there is a surprise in store. If you do choose to tell them, instruct the kids to look at you no matter what happens. If you have a very serious rule follower, don’t emphasize this part too much. I have learned that some kids will be so focused on following the rule that they will stare fixedly and seriously at the camera. While that is hilarious and adorable, it’s not quite what we are going for here.

Finally, get yourself in position. Give your sneaky adult the secret signal and start snapping away. The fact that the kids don’t know what’s coming and the adults are the one “breaking the rules” is what really makes this one sweet, genuine, and fun.

Pro tip: Raise your shutter speed enough to freeze your subjects’ motion. Consider using a more closed-down aperture (a higher f-stop number) to give you a larger depth of field. This way your subjects are less likely to slip into an area that will be out of focus.

games for happy family photos red light green light by leslie crane

Game 3: Red light-green light

Most of us played this game as kids ourselves. It’s fun is in its simplicity.

Set up an activity or some kind of movement and get ready to yell out commands. “Red light” means stop the motion. “Green light” means go.

This game is GREAT for a really wiggly kid that just can’t seem to stop moving. You stay in charge, and the kid gets to move around, but there are moments of happy (relative) stillness so you can at least get a few smiling shots without limbs flying everywhere.

I do this with the whole family and also with kids alone. You can capture the kids in motion (GREEN LIGHT!) and also when they stop (RED LIGHT!). For this game I have kids running, twirling, sneaking, leap frogging, and more. Just do whatever works.

games for happy family photos child laughing in dad's arms by leslie crane

Game 4: Airplane

Remember when your parents were the strongest people in the world and could lift you up so high you felt as though you were flying? That is the feeling you are trying to capture with this game.
I find this game to be especially good for the littler ones who may be feeling shy and wanting to be held. And it is a life-saver for toddlers who won’t stay in one place.

The game is delightfully simple. Just have one or both parents “fly” the child toward the camera like an airplane. You get bonus points for making realistic airplane noises. That’s it!

Pro tip: Focus on the child’s expression, and use a narrow enough aperture that the parents recede into the background.

kids on parents' laps leaning forward toward camera games for happy family photos by leslie crane

Game 5: The extreme lean

This activity is a favorite because it creates a great connection with the camera while also eliciting the best kinds of wild giggles. I absolutely love delivering images that are this happy and engaging to my clients!

For this game, have the kids sit on a grownup’s legs. Have the grownup hold on to the children around their waists. Instruct the kids to lean toward you. “More. More. Come on, more!” (They will probably flop over, laughing.) “TOO MUCH!! AHHHH! Go back!”

Do it again. Keep taking pictures. So cute.

Pro tip: Shoot with as narrow an aperture as possible while still being able maintaining your focus on your subjects. If you have more than one kid playing this game, you’ll have to choose your settings carefully.You want the children’s faces to be in focus, but adults to recede into the background.

mom holding daughter smiling and laughing games for happy family photos by leslie crane

Games are perfect for making your next family photo shoot fun, connected, and happy for the clients and friends you photograph. And I hope YOU have the most fun ever, too!

Use these and also make up your own games on the spot. Kids are great at coming up with ideas – see if you can turn those ideas into games and activities for natural interactions at your sessions.

If something doesn’t work, don’t worry. Just take a few shots and then make a change and try something else. As long as you stay in control of the fun and keep things moving, you’ll get plenty of wonderful shots. And your subjects will love working with you.

Happy playing!