The scene is set. The light is ideal. The scene is beautiful. Your camera settings are perfectly dialed-in. There couldn’t be a better scenario for grabbing the image of your dreams.

You are confident.

You are excited.

YOU are about to create art.

However, that vision of photographic perfection quickly fades as reality sets in. The four-year-old decides she’s hungry, and Dad starts to get flustered about the props. And once you’ve got those two under control? You realize the adorable two year old has discovered dirt and has decided it would be the perfect accessory for the shoot. Poor mom gets upset because that outfit is ruined and she’s already done laundry today. That’s when you all watch pitifully as the balloons you purchased for the session float off into the abyss.

That perfect shot you had envisioned? It has sailed away with those balloons.

You’ve been there, right? (I mean, please don’t say I am the only one who has been here!)

Related: 29 Brilliant ways to photograph uncooperative kids

The unique challenge of working with families and kids

Working with families and small children can present all kinds of challenges. There are way more unexpected variables than your typical on location challenges. You have wayward kids, unenthusiastic adults, and there can be a meltdown from either one at any given time.

My style of photography is based on capturing authentic moments as they unfold. I believe you get those real smiles when the session is fun, light, and upbeat. The relationship between a parent and their young child is forever changing, and providing them with an artfully executed memory instead of a mere image is the goal of every single session. I’ve discovered that creating a fun, productive experience for everyone starts with your very first interaction.

These five tips can help your sessions go from this…to this.

Be enthusiastic and positive when first corresponding with your client

The parent must know that you are as excited about their photos as they are! By asking about what they’re celebrating, giving praise for their decision to get family photos, and asking key questions about their family dynamic, you are showing a genuine interest in their family and their specific session.

These simple interactions allow our dynamic to be more than a photographer and client. We are now friends with a shared goal of creating beautiful pictures. Having this firm foundation from the outset allows the entire session to be built from there.

Once a family has booked their session, send detailed information about preparation

In my post-booking communication, I encourage parents to bring supplies. Non-staining snacks, water, and a couple of favorite small toys can make all the difference in a child’s demeanor on picture day.

I also encourage my point of contact to start prepping the entire family two days before the session. A sample gallery allows both parents to see what I do and to have realistic expectations of what to expect from their own gallery. I also send a style guide that offers ideas on how to coordinate looks without mandating a “uniform.” Simple suggestions go a long way.

To establish familiarity, I encourage the family to start referring to me by name the day of the session. “We are going to meet my friend Amie today. She’s going to take some pictures of us so we can hang them on our walls!” I also remind parents that their kids will respond to their vibe. The key to a happy photo shoot is allowing plenty of time (more than they think they will need!), bringing all the essentials (and some extras), and being mentally prepared for smiles and fun!

Make your first in-person interaction count

The minute you see the family, say a friendly hello to mom and dad first. Then, go down to the child’s level (yes, literally bend down to your knees) and formally introduce yourself to them. “Hi Jack, I’m Amie – it’s so nice to meet you today!”

This makes such a big difference! The child will understand that they are important to you. You have established yourself as someone familiar by addressing the parents first and as a friend by getting on their level. And everyone now knows that you are willing to do what it takes to make this fun.

If they ignore you or get shy, don’t be discouraged. It can take children some time to warm up and patience is key. If you stay friendly and upbeat, eventually the kids will come around.

EXTRA TIP: Don’t have your camera in your hand. That first introduction is all about showing them you are interested in them.

Get the “most important” photos first

Typically this is going to be the shot of everyone together. In my experience, including mom and dad with the kids in those first shots helps to ease the children into the shoot.

Grabbing that classic photo right away also takes some of the pressure off mom and dad. Be vocal about how great everyone looks and tell them how much you are loving their pictures already. It will be such a relief to them to know that they have that key shot straight away.

Of course, if one of the kids is too shy at first and is visibly upset at having to be in the picture right off the bat, you will have to be flexible. Read your audience and do what it takes to keep everyone happy.

Build in time for breaks and stick to your word

I usually take three major breaks in a one hour session with small breaks peppered in as needed. As soon as I have the more formal shots done, I let the kids explore the immediate area, grab a drink of water, or grab a parent hug. These intermissions offer great opportunities to grab some super cute candid shots.

It’s important to set an expectation and then follow through. For example, if you say three more photos and then we will break, you have to stick to it. It’s critical to build trust as quickly as possible. The kids will start forgetting about being nervous and will know that you are an adult who will be honest with them.

Have patience and encourage fun

Fun is the KEY to getting the magic moments you want to see in your photos. This means that sometimes you will have to create the moment if it doesn’t happen on it’s own. It doesn’t mean that you have to be fake. Rather, it simply means that you have to create opportunities for real moments to unfold.

For example, I encourage silliness and giggles by telling mom to tickle her kids. I set the scene with specific instructions, telling mom to kneel while her daughter stands so that the pose is pleasing while the laughter happens naturally.

Related: 5 ways to get genuine reactions from kids in photos

For a softer photo I might say: “Justin go in and give mom a nice big hug. Oh that’s perfect! Ok, mom just touch your nose to Justin’s temple, cuddling in nice and close.”

These very direct instructions allow the parent’s to lose their stiffness and have fun with it. Since you’ve been earning their trust since the first interaction, they can allow themselves to become a little vulnerable and trust you to capture that emotion.

Remember, unlike professional models and celebrities, families don’t do this every day. Having a little grace can go a long way in keeping everyone happy. Let them stop shooting and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It’s your job to create a no stress environment by continuing to show them you are part of their team.

With these tips, I know that your family lifestyle session is going to be a huge success. If you build trust, come prepared, and set realistic expectations, everyone is sure to have fun. You will be all set to create a beautiful experience with treasured photographs for clients who will want to come back to you again and again.