Taking portraits of children is always an adventure. When I'm doing a portrait session, I never know if I'm going to get the cheesy camera grin or trigger a "stranger danger" reaction!
I don't post all the freelance work I do, but I noticed that this session had some good examples of things I do to encourage young children to cooperate. This sister and brother were very different, and each required a different approach from me as the photographer.
Honestly even when it's your own child that you're photographing, it can still be hard to get a real smile out of them.
But there are lots of ways to get children to smile, and these are some of the things that work for me!
This little girl is almost four, and when I started shooting she had a lot of cheesy grins and silly faces going on. The first shots were stiff and posed, so I definitely wanted to tone it down and find some more natural smiles for her mom.
1. Ask them to dance!
To get her to loosen up, my first thought was to ask her to dance. It's so fun to have little girls show off their dance moves!
You may have to show them what you expect (I usually move my arms at my sides and shift my weight a bit) but this can bring out a lot of personality for young clients and get them feeling more comfortable and natural with the camera.
Dancing got out most of her sillies, so I got a more real smile after that.
2. Ask for a "princess" smile.
Once I get the real smile, I ask for them to "give me a princess smile." Most little girls understand this direction and give me a very soft smile that I just love!
3. It's okay to get a more serious photo.
I fully expect kids to be kids, but I do try to get at least one pose to please Grandma! I ask them to "sit like a lady" and just to look at the camera. You never know what you'll get, but I love this glimpse of the woman she'll become.
4. Play peek-a-boo behind the camera.
My tried-and-true tip is to play peek-a-boo behind the camera. Sometimes you'll get the cheesy grins, but it almost always brings out the real ones! That's her real, spontaneous smile, and I'm so glad I caught it.
5. Ask them to show you something specific.
Sometimes you can say "show me your eyes" and little kids will open them up them really big for you. (Sometimes this backfires, as some kids take this literally and start poking their fingers in their eyeballs, but it's always worth a try.)
Now her brother was a totally different story.
Making boys smile usually ends up depending on what funny and unexpected noises you can make behind the camera (we'll get to that later). This little guy didn't want to smile for anything at first, so I had to get him to warm up to me.
Cooperation doesn't always mean smiling on cue! If it's clear my client isn't going to smile right off the bat, I go ahead and capture other expressions without asking them to smile. This gives them a chance to warm up to me without the pressure to perform.
That's where this tip really comes in handy.
I'll say things like "show me that rock!" or "how many fingers do you have?" just to get them looking where I want them to and to get some expressions other than smiling.
6. Use props!
Props can help, especially if you don't dictate how they interact with them and just let them do what they want. I didn't ask him to sit in this chair right away, and he was happy to do his own thing.
See how that resulted in a great picture? It's not a toothy smile, but it's still his sweet expression! (And you can bet his mom loves it!)
7. Try making noises and sound effects.
After a little while, I could tell he was finally warming up to me, so I started trying to coax a smile out of him with this trick.
I make a lot of animal noises behind the camera ("do you want to hear my monkey sounds?") and I will also rev like an engine (most little boys love Lightning McQueen or Mater). The Cars characters really did it for this little guy, and we got some better smiles.
8. Get mom to interact with them.
His best smile came when mom got in to tickle him. It's a very real moment that shows their connection. I'd frame it!
Now, if you're taking photos of your own child then this one won't really work unless you can get set up a tripod and use a remote to take a few shots. Otherwise, try to enlist the help of a friend to get a few of these sweet pictures.
9. Snacks always help.
I usually let mom give the kids a snack near the end of the shoot after I've got most of what I want. I try not to make it a bribe: it's not really cooperation if you're threatened!
I let mom reward them for good behavior, and then I take pictures of the happy result. I got to capture this little guy's dear love of fruit snacks once the pressure was off.
10. For sibling shots, get them close together.
I'm always looking for some sort of connection in sibling poses.
Have them hold hands, link arms, or put an arm around each other; people that touch look like they love each other.
(This is especially true if there is sibling rivalry or all-out fighting going on... you can manufacture a sense of connection if you have to by getting them very close!)
The kiss on the cheek is always cute, but it's helped by the fact that these kids are arranged so close together in the first place.
11. Let them turn away from you.
Kids don't always have to face the camera either. I often ask them to walk slowly away from me or sit together. They are usually willing to cooperate if they don't have to look somewhere specific.
12. Get the siblings to talk to each other.
Sometimes I'll tell the older sibling to "whisper a secret that will make them giggle." I don't know what they say, but the older sibling can usually make the younger one laugh! This works with them facing the camera as well.
13. Keep them moving!
I try to do something fun at the end of the shoot that might have riled them up too much if we did it in the middle. I often have them run towards the camera, holding hands. Start them really far away to give yourself time to compose a few shots. Look at that beautiful light!
14. Let them be spontaneous.
I also give opportunities to do fun and spontaneous things, like throwing leaves in the air. Your little client (or your own child!) will be happier if you show them they can still have fun!
Overall it was a really fun session. I love taking pictures of kids and capturing that stage of life! I really believe that the photographer has a lot to do with how the kids cooperate. It takes practice, but as you get better you'll learn to read the situation and see what each child needs.
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Other posts you might be interested in:
Awesome Children's Photography Tips I Learned From A Pro
Tips To Make Family Picture Day a Good Experience