Last Thanksgiving, I was determined to do two things: make an apple pie to take to my parents’ house, and get my preschooler and toddler to smile for a holiday photo. The kids were dressed up and sitting together. Of course, just as I was set to snap the photo, my 4-year-old refused to open his eyes and my 16-month-old bolted for our swing set.
Needless to say, we didn’t get a great photo that day. (The apple pie came out well though, so that was a win!)
“I am a mom-of-four and a full-time photographer, and even my own kids are hard for me to photograph,” said Tara Lynn, the owner and lead photographer at Silver Orchid Photography, a full-service photo studio in Perkiomenville, PA. “Kids, in general, behave differently and listen more intently to others than their own parents. It can be rough, but it’s not impossible.”
So whether you’re looking to take frame-worthy photos or simply have something to slip into their baby book, here are some tried-and-true tips to keep in mind.
1. Try to avoid “say cheese”
“I have always lived by the rule: never say cheese. All that gets you is fake, painful smiles,” said photographer Genevieve Anders, owner of Genevieve Elaine Photography in Los Angeles and Orange County, CA.
She recommended simply talking to the kids as you’re snapping away, asking them questions or engaging them in age-appropriate activities – like playing Peekaboo or pretending to sneeze to get a laugh – which will help them be natural and candid. “I direct them, while also trying to keep it fun and light: ‘Can you give your sister a kiss on the cheek? Can you tell her a secret in her ear?’” she explained.
Lynn offered similar advice, “Make them feel like they aren’t getting their picture taken. Make it fun, ask them silly questions — use your go-to silly words,” she said. And, in many cases, that might be potty humor (has a 4-year old ever met a poop joke she didn’t like? I wonder).
The trick is to just go with what works best for your kids. If a potty joke gets the job done quickly, so be it.
2. Embrace the great outdoors
Fresh air and open space can do wonders in helping kids feel relaxed. When in doubt, let them head out and do their thing. Kids can feel totally cooped up indoors, so Lynn advises to go outside as much as possible.
The outdoors not only provides you with a stunning and realistic backdrop (no staging necessary when the world is already so pretty), but it also gives you an opportunity to catch your kids in their natural state – wild and carefree.
We all want those perfect, smiling photos, but it’s important to document the moments that remind you of just who they are, too. Given the chance to play freely, you’ll be surprised by how much more cooperative kids can be when asked to look your way for a quick photo.
3. Let go
Picking your battles is great advice in many situations, including photography. “Some kids will fight you over what you are trying to force them to wear,” said Lynn. “Or maybe they don’t like it because they think it’s uncomfortable. Let them be a part of the decision process or at least let them think they are.”
Pick a few outfits that are all OK with you, and let them choose.
4. Stay cool
I will fully admit to not keeping my cool during the holiday photo debacle, and that was likely one of the reasons it didn’t work out.
“Try not to put too much pressure on what you want from them,” Lynn advised. When it comes to more formal photos, “Kids pick up on that and usually they want to do the opposite of what you’re asking.”
Anders has a trick that works with her 3-year-old: she gives her a temporary distraction. “I ask her to come help me with the baby,” she explained. “I even give her the camera and let her take some photos.”
Making the process fun for kids and letting them be active participants goes a long way.
5. If you’re in the photo, just keep smiling
Trying to get a great family photo? Seems like an impossible mission, doesn’t it?
“For my clients, I tell them I want as natural and candid as possible. I tell them to play with their children – kiss, hug, tickle, sing songs, and no matter what is going on, keep a smile on their faces,” Anders said. “I feel like this is the most important piece of advice I can give.”
What happens often is that an otherwise amazing photo is marked by the faces of super-stressed, grimacing parents because their children are running wild and not listening. “Wild is good!” Anders insisted, “so keep a smile on your face.”
6. Keep your session short and sweet
Play to kids’ notoriously short attention spans by keeping things fast. If it’s a more formal shot, “Do your best to grab a safe shot right off the bat – go for a smiling-looking-at-the-camera photo first, that way anything after that is bonus,” Lynn suggested.
In general, be aware of what you’re setting out to do. If you’re a parent with a camera, keep the session down to one outfit and one location and no more than 15 minutes. Anything more than that, and leave it up to a professional. That’s what they’re there for.
7. Bribery works (but you didn’t hear it here)
“Bribery can work wonders,” Lynn noted, especially for more formal, posed photos. If something is sure to make your kids happy in exchange for a photo of your choice, go for it.
For Anders, M&Ms are her kid’s treat of choice, “I will be the first to admit I always bribe my 3-year-old with an M&M. She knows if she sits for a photo, an M&M comes after,” she said. It might not be the most ideal situation, but sometimes quick and stress-free wins the day.
What are your best tips and tricks for getting better photos from your kids?