How to Get Natural Smiles Out of Children

Little girl holding out colored tongue Family portrait in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of children

So you’re a parent, and summer is here.  One of your goals this season is to get some great photos of your kids.  But despite the sunny weather outside, you can’t seem to capture the natural joy that was there a minute ago when the little ones were running around in the backyard.  Want to photograph their grinning faces like a pro?  Here’s how to get natural smiles out of children, little and big.

Family portrait in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of childrenWhat better example to use then photos from a recent Central Park family portrait I took of my own family.  Please meet the Collany clan — a.k.a. my cousins.  Katie’s aunt and uncle, in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary, decided to make it a family affair and invite the entire tribe to New York City.  In four days’ time, this family saw the bright lights, big city from top to bottom.  Our portrait was scheduled as a stop on the itinerary allowing the family to see the sights while also taking some great photos to preserve the moment.  As this was a large group — 17 total! — I had to find a location that would accommodate everyone without too cluttered of a background.  Turtle Pond in Central Park with the Belvedere Castle in the background is always my first choice.  You have the lake to your back, which prevents too many tourists from wafting into your shot, and there is plenty of room for kids to run around.  Basically, it’s New York City’s public backyard.  In addition, the pond is perfectly located so that the family could next head over to the American Museum of Natural History.

With the location set, next on the agenda was to get everyone looking good in front of the camera.  As the photographer, know that you will need to take multiple, and I mean MULTIPLE, shots to make sure everyone is looking into the lens at least once.  Perfection is overrated, so the occasional stray eye is to be expected (and cherished, see below).  Now for the smiles: here are my top five ways to get some natural smiles:

  1. Be a big kid yourself.  Kids react equally to what is facing them behind the lens.  If you act goofy, then they will react accordingly.  Make sure you are smiling and not taking the whole picture thing too seriously.  If you are having fun, then most likely they will too. (And to make sure everyone is in a happy mood, it goes without saying to make sure no one — including the photographer — is too tired or hungry at the time of the shoot.)
  2. Distraction!  Work with your other half, another kid, or even pull in a perfect stranger (or stray turtle) to distract your kid away from the camera.  Everyone’s best photo — adult- or pint-sized — is taken when they don’t know the camera is there.  Chance upon a nest of puppies?  Focus on your kids reaction and do not tell the kid to look into the camera and smile.  Let the kid play with the puppies and click away.  You will have a card full of memories that will mean so much more, and be so much more genuine, then any ‘say cheese’ moment.
  3. Make it a game.  ‘I bet you can’t go ten minutes without smiling,’ said the photographer.  Watch as two minutes later the child busts out laughing in reaction to my own frowning face.  Make the experience a game, and the smiles will follow.
  4. Props.  Bring a toy, game (though not a video game), even a messy snack and a camera-worthy reaction will follow.  For little kids, eating a cupcake and getting icing everywhere is always a good shot.  I suppose for older kids (and adults) chicken wings and ribs might be the equivalent.  Remember the wipes for clean up afterwards.
  5. Remember, in all things, perfection is seriously overrated.  The perfect smiling photo has already been taken by someone at Hallmark.  Your goal is to capture your kid in a way unique to you and your family.
Woman holding a turtle in front of children for an article on how to get natural smiles out of children
Yep, that’s a turtle in her hands

For most little kids, animals (a trip to the pet shop window, a friend’s dog, etc.), toys, and sing alongs always work.  For older kids, show an interest in what they are interested in and get a dialogue going.  Older kids will open up if you show that you want to learn more about how they tick.  Also, have a playlist ready with songs that the teen likes.  Put the kid in charge of the music and get the teen to perform — rap, dance, solo aria — whatever.  Instant photo gold.  I’m also a big fan of having an activity planned — family game of bowling, perchance?  Take a look at this past blog post for some other family activity ideas.

Finally, make sure you get down on the kid’s level — yes, that means rolling around on the ground and getting dirty.  Photography is a messy job!  Cheesy jokes never work.  And always have the camera ready.  The best moments come when you least expect it.  Now get out there and take some photos!

If you would like to see more examples from my family portrait portfolio, then please visit my website — KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com.

Two little girls dancing with arms up in a hotel room Two little girls hugging in a hotel roomThree little girls playing around on a sofa

Two little girls holding hands walking down a hallway
From the hotel…
Woman wearing sunglasses with little girl on her lap in crowded subway car
…to the subway…
Family portrait in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of children
…to the park

Man at pretzel cart giving pretzel to little girlTwo little girls making funny faces and holding a pretzelLittle girl with red bow in hair eating a pretzelTwo little girls in Central Park holding Spongebob ice creamsGirl eating ice cream in Central ParkTwo grandparents in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of children Family portrait in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of children Family portrait in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of childrenPortrait of a couple in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of childrenFamily portrait in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of childrenPortrait of three women in Central Park for an article on how to get natural smiles out of children

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