As a portrait photographer, one of the most important parts of my job is to encourage clients (of any age) to be relaxed and authentic in front of the camera. I especially love bright and happy photos that make parents and grandparents light up. Who doesn’t love to see a smile on their loved one’s face?

Sometimes children are happy to be in front of the camera and naturally just laugh and smile in pictures, but often times the process of putting on nice clothes or seeing a camera come out of the bag can cause groans, if not outright tears. In these cases, it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve that can help the child (and parents) relax, and maybe even enjoy the experience of having their picture taken.

These tips are useful whether you are shooting a professional photo session or just trying to get some fun pictures of your kids in your backyard or on vacation.

Play games

I try to make my photo sessions, whether with clients or with my own daughter, as fun as possible. One way to accomplish this is to actively *do* something fun. With babies, sometimes this is as simple as making silly noises, shaking a rattle, or showing them a toy that they love. Toddlers often love to play peek-a-boo, from behind a tree or a fence or even just you peeking from behind your camera. If the parents are involved in the photos, you can also have mom and dad swing the child between their arms, or ask a parent to fly them up in the air or tip them upside down. Tickling is often a fun game for kids of any age, although I urge caution with this one, as not all kids enjoy being tickled.

Another way to play games, especially with preschoolers and elementary-aged kids, is to ask the child to do something wild and crazy. Give them permission to do something they’re already doing. For example, let them run, dance, jump, throw leaves, etc. You can have a parent or sibling chase a child who doesn’t want to be still for pictures. These kinds of activities are great for kids who are naturally on the move or who have a lot of extra energy. They are also a great way to liven up a session when you sense the kids are getting bored. Encouraging children to play is a great way to capture authentic joy –just be sure you use a fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur.

Nikon D800 with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART

Hug it out!

When you have siblings or families in a photo, one of my favorite things to have them do is to hug each other. Depending on the ages, it can be a sweet little hug, especially if you’re photographing a baby or toddler. But my favorite hugs are big, crazy bear hugs – the kind where kids can’t help but laugh or almost fall over. 

During a photo session, I always remind families that any space between people is magnified in a picture. Often times, I have to ask people to get closer, then get even closer. I’ve found that a big hug is a great way to get family members squeezed together tightly, even after the hug has ended. This helps prevent your photos from looking like a group of people just standing near each other.

Other options are asking a child to give their new baby sibling a little peck on the cheek or forehead, or having mom or dad give “eskimo kisses” to their child by touching or rubbing noses. Even just asking the parent to snuggle the kid, or having a child put their head on a parent’s lap can be impactful. These are great ways to get family members close together and show the genuine love and emotional connection between family members.


Nikon D800 with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART

Nikon D800 with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART

Be silly

Another favorite trick of mine, that works with subjects of almost any age, is to just be a little silly. You don’t have to be a natural comedian, but I find it so helpful to keep the mood light and interactive. I talk a lot during my sessions to keep kids and adults engaged and interested in what’s going on, instead of just sitting or standing around trying to smile at the camera. I also let them be goofy right back at me. My daughter loves to make faces at the camera, stick out her tongue, make crazy eyes, etc., and I give her time to do that, because I know she will eventually crack herself up.  Be ready to snap the photo at any moment, because often times the best, most relaxed smiles come just after a crazy face or a ridiculous laugh.

You will want to tailor your humor to the  ages you’re photographing. For example, with preschoolers, it can be as simple as letting them catch you making a “mistake” like saying the wrong animal sound (“the lion says moo, right?”), counting wrong, or mixing up your colors. For older kids, ask them questions about school or sports or something they like, then throw in a completely off the wall question that catches them off guard.

When siblings or other family members are in the picture, you can have them tell each other a secret or a joke. That often leads to giggles or surprised faces, or other fun reactions. Even family members who aren’t in the picture can be helpful with making references to an inside joke in their family. For teenagers and adults, especially if you can gauge their sense of humor, some light sarcasm can be a fun tool in your arsenal. Parents and siblings are often great at this because they know their kids best, and they know what their child will respond to.

Nikon D800 with Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC

Ask Mom/Dad to step in

Finally, especially if you have a child who is a little reluctant about the camera, invite mom or dad to get in the picture with their child. I find this especially helpful when it’s one-on-one attention with a parent and child. Kids often relax when their parent is holding them, and it naturally brings a smile to the parents face to entertain or love on their kid. Even if the child is still a little sad or nervous, you can get precious images of the bond between a parent and child. And often times, after some special time with mom or dad, it turns the child’s mood around, and they will happily play and smile even their parent steps back out of the frame.

Getting pictures of a child with their individual parents is also a great reminder with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day coming up soon. I love our family photos, but sometimes the ones of just my daughter and me her and my husband are the most special, because that one-on-one connection is so strong. Parents love to have pictures with their kids, but they are often the ones taking pictures, and they don’t remember to get on the other side of the camera.

Left: Nikon D800 with Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC | Right: Nikon D800 with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART

Capturing authentic moments with children doesn’t have to be a difficult or stressful task if you use these tips to bring out their joy and love. There are more ways to get a smile than just saying “cheese” – play games, act goofy, give a bear hug, get a piggy back ride, whatever it takes. These are just some examples of ways to encourage fun during a session. Follow your subject’s lead and be creative. You never know what will bring out the biggest smiles.