Children can be a joy to photograph. When they’re small, they are so open and unaffected by ideas about how they should look that they make it easy to capture a stunning range of genuine emotion on their little faces. Sometimes as a professional children’s photographer, it is our quest to capture those real smiles with each click of the camera. However, that is not always the easiest job.
Getting kids to smile for the camera can be tricky, be it from a baby, toddler, or even bigger child. Some toddlers are shy and won’t give a big smile to a complete stranger (like a photographer), but there are many tricks that can usually work. And yes, it involves being goofy. Here are a few tips for helping get the best smile.
1. Never say cheese please. Telling children to say cheese makes it well, cheesy. It’s not a natural smile. It looks fake with clenched teeth that you can just hear “CHEESE!” being forced out of their slightly misshapen, yet adorable teeth. It doesn’t reach all the way to the eyes like a real smile so it looks completely fake. These phony smiles are not the genuine expressions of joy we’re looking for when we look at these photos 10 years from now. Sure, their camera smiles could be cute, but we’re after those real authentic smiles that happens naturally when kids are having fun. Instead, tell children, “Do not smile. No matter what.” That will result in real giggles in all but the toughest cases.
2. Don’t start cold. Even the world’s funniest comedian has an opening act to get the crowd warmed up. If you want to get kids to smile and laugh and have a good time, start with a conversation or a game. Have the camera around your neck and maybe pick it up once or twice, but let them see you and know that you are interested in them and what they have to say before you start clicking away. A good starter is remembering their names wrong. The sillier the name, the better: “Oh Hildegard, what a beautiful smile you have! What? It’s Hillary?” You get the idea.
3. Get down on their level. Most of these tricks involve interacting with kids, and that almost always works better when you’re eye to eye with them. Kids are much more comfortable when they’re not staring up at you. It gives them the sense that you’re playing, rather than trying to get something accomplished. Taking pictures in weird positions – bent over between your legs, facing the other direction and holding your camera over your head, lying on the ground and having the kids come look down at your lens. This way, you not only get some cool perspectives, you’ll also have the kids thinking you’re crazy, and, as far as kids are concerned, crazy is AWESOME.
4. Make them comfortable. Make sure they’re not hungry or tired, and are in a comfortable spot. Make sure they feel secure. Depending on how old they are, that might mean having their parents right there or just making sure they get used to you first before you start taking too many pictures
5. Have them be an animal. Tell them to roar like a lion, make monkey noises, make a monster face, etc. When they do it, give them a hard time about it (“Oh come on… that didn’t sound like a lion!”), then repeat until you’ve got them laughing.
6. Play simon says. Have Simon say to jump up and down, wiggle your shoulders, flap your arms, hop like a bunny, or even shake your booty. If you’re trying to get them to pose in certain positions or angles, try saying things like “Simon says turn sideways!” or “Simon says sit down!”
7. Do something silly and unexpected. How many grown-ups do you know walking around in public with socks on their heads? Babies and toddlers especially think this is funny. Random oinking, ribbiting, quacking, and other animal sounds work well, too. Sticking out your tongue, making silly faces, starting an impromptu dance party with yourself and messing up your hair—these are all sure-fire ways to get some smiles out.
8. Get them to tell you a joke. Have you ever heard a little kid try to tell a joke before? They don’t make sense half of the time, but the kiddo will think they are the funniest person on the planet. Give them a chance to show off their budding comedy skills and ask them to tell you a joke. If they’re shy, tell one of your own. Better yet, takes turns telling jokes to really get the chuckles out.
9. Use reverse psychology. Don’t start this until you’ve gotten some initial reaction, but if they giggle and then go back to being somber, you can usually get them going again with an overtly silly “Oh that’s perfect… don’t you smile. We want this to be a VERY SERIOUS picture. Excellent. No smiling allowed. Not even a little bit. No wait! Stop smiling! Aaaah – no! We need SERIOUS faces! STOP!” Or you can try to get the parents involved by coming up behind you and tickling you, giving you bunny ears, imitating you, etc. “Heeeey… don’t make fun of me! Don’t you laugh at me! Don’t do it!”
10. Make fart noises. Classy as they are, they go over big with little kids, and boys of just about any age. When things start to get a bit stale, make a big fart noise while you’re hidden behind your camera, then pop out and look accusingly at the kids. “Did you do that? Ewwww!” This works best with multiple children who can blame each other and feed off each others’ giggles. This also works if you say things like, “Say mommy farted.” They will laugh because it is not what they are expecting to hear a professional say.
11. Bribery. If all else fails, get that one last, perfect shot with a bit of bribery. “You did such a great job… let’s go have some ICE CREAM!!!” Smiles galore… guaranteed.
Don’t get fed up if something doesn’t work! There are those kids that are pretty slow to warm up. They might be shy around strangers or the camera itself. In either case, the goal is to distract their attention from the camera and/or the photographer and get them smiling and laughing about something else altogether.If you get frustrated, or try to force a particular thing to happen, it’s pretty much guaranteed to fail. Just keep moving, keep trying new things, and above all else, keep having fun! A child can tell if you are not really enjoying how things are moving along.
We know how tough it can be to get those real smiles, especially at the precise moment you want them, when the kids are lined up in front of a beautiful flowerbed in the springtime, dressed in their Sunday best. But don’t get too caught up in perfection. That’s not what childhood is about, anyway. Let kids be kids and learn to react quickly with your camera. Pictures of your children are not about the perfect setting anyway. They’re about your children!