One of the top questions people ask me is, “How do you get such genuine smiles from the kids you photograph?” Luckily I have a few tricks up my sleeve, and I’ve boiled them down to 10 tried-and-true tips you can use at your child’s next recital, party, play date, or right in your own home.
(Psst: The best camera is the one you have with you! These tips will work regardless of whether you’re using a DSLR or your iPhone.)
1) Keep it moving!
Nothing makes a portrait stale faster than keeping your subject frozen in place! I often ask my families to run, spin around in circles, turn their kids upside down, or throw them up in the air (not gonna lie, it’s a pretty good workout!). I’ll encourage a toddler to chase me, and then I’ll run backward to take the shot while he’s still grinning. I’ll ask the kids to see their best dance moves, or for older kiddos, I’ll ask them to be the “creative director” and tell me their favorite idea for a photo. That last idea has resulted in some hilarious setups!
2) Get down to their level!
If you want photos of your kid in action, then you’ve gotta go to where the action is! Get down to their level and show them you’re ready to play! You can even try laying down on the ground to see what the world looks like from their height!
Getting down low can also give you a beautiful foreground to your image. If you have wood floors, look for your child’s reflection in the wood.
When I’m photographing toddlers, I prefer to crouch down instead of sit so that I’m ready to run after them or change my angle in a split second! 😉
3) Take way more photos than you need!
Guys, we live in 2018! Unless you’re shooting with film, there is no reason to feel bad about taking lots of images. For every family session, I typically shoot about 1,000 frames to end up with 50 images that I absolutely LOVE. That means for every winner, I took TWENTY images that didn’t make the cut.
10 years ago I would have never admitted that ratio to you, but now I realize that my extra clicks have resulted in so many images that I adore! Kids move FAST and sometimes the cutest moments happen in a split second. I take at least 4-5 versions of the same photo (one immediately after the other) so that I’m positive that I have a shot that’s perfectly in focus.
4) Whatever you do, don’t say cheese!
One thing I absolutely love about kids is that they don’t fake their emotions. If they’re unhappy, it will show. On the flip side, if they’re having a great time, their smiles will shine through! That means that you can’t ask for smiles — you have to earn them by PLAYING instead of POSING. Tickles, snuggles, peekaboo, and ridiculously goofy faces are all part of my photographer’s toolbox. I’ll run circles around the kids, hide behind a tree, invent a new game, or pretend I’m a rocket ship and “blast off.” I’ve even been known to throw myself on the ground repeatedly for some good giggles. And oooohhh, the silly noises!!! A good fake fart is the ultimate go-to. 😉
5) Swap roles.
Kids love it when I teach them how to take pictures with my “big girl camera” and it keeps them interested! It’s exciting to them to have such a grownup toy to play with, and they can immediately see the resulting photos on the back of the camera. Letting them be the photographer also works as an awesome bribe — “OK, you take two more pictures and then I get to take two pictures of you!”
6) Turn off your flash!!!!
This is by far the fastest, easiest quick fix — all you have to do is turn that thing off! Your built-in flash will usually give you harsh, unflattering light and you should never use it unless that’s your only option.
Search for natural light instead! You don’t necessarily have to go outdoors to find it, either. Do you have a window? If so, you’re all set! Window light is some of my favorite because it’s soft and universally flattering. To start, ask your child to stand so that they’re facing the window, and then put your own back to the window. The window light will make their eyes sparkle even on the cloudiest day!
Once you’ve mastered direct window light, try photographing your baby at a 45-degree angle instead of straight on to add a little more dimension to your image.
This might seem counterintuitive, but turn all indoor lights OFF! Artificial lighting, especially overhead lamps, will usually cast an orange/yellow glow on skin. It can also create under-eye shadows.
Backlighting (putting the window or sun directly behind the subject) is one of my favorite techniques! Make sure to bump up your exposure (translation: brighten your image) so that your baby’s face can be seen.
7) Try a new angle!
Once you have a standard portrait that you’re happy with, take three steps closer. This will give you a more intimate portrait that keeps the focus on your baby. You can also get creative and photograph those details that you love so much, like tiny newborn toes and squishy lips! Capturing those details will bring you right back to the feeling of holding her in your arms when you look at the images later.
After you’ve tried a closeup, now take six steps back and look at your surroundings. Sometimes the environment can help tell the story of the subject, and you can also use it to show relative size.
When you’ve tried getting up close and far away, now try getting way up high and way down low and see what changes!
8) Don’t hide behind the camera!
Genuine expressions are a result of human connection. If your baby is staring at a giant black box, you might not have much luck! Try setting up your shot first, then peek your head out from behind the camera as you click away.
9) Instead, hide something IN your camera.
Sometimes I’ll pretend that I hid a monkey inside my camera**. Sounds super silly, but hear me out! I’ll ask the child I’m photographing to tell me if they can see the monkey inside, and I’ll ask them what color the monkey is. And theennn, I’ll tell them I “changed the color” of the monkey to keep them interested. This usually buys me at least 30 seconds of photos as well as the cutest curious expression. 🙂
**Don’t actually hide a monkey inside your camera or you will have a very expensive repair bill. 😉
10) Above all, flexibility and a sense of humor = everything.
You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever tried to set up a Pinterest-perfect photo and then failed miserably. Kids do things on their own terms, and it’s better to follow them into a great photo opportunity rather than force them to do something they don’t want to do. Let go of perfection and embrace the unique quirks that make your child incredible. Yes, even those pouty toddler faces…I bet you anything that you’ll find them hilarious when you look back at your images in 10 years. 😉
True story #1: these siblings decided it was hilarious to pile grass on top of baby bro’s head. I can’t take credit for this idea at all, but it was absolutely amazing!!
True story #2: This little guy wasn’t thrilled about the original location that we chose for his photos, so we regrouped and headed to a different spot. A little flexibility resulted in some of my favorite images ever!
I hope these 10 tips help you capture images that you love!!! Please send me what you come up with — I’d love to see! 🙂
To see a few of these tips in action, be sure to watch this quick little behind-the-scenes video that Brendan Donohue captured for me!