Everyone has been taught from birth how to get a kid to smile. You just tell them to say "cheese" and they respond with a nice big natural smile, right? Well, anyone that's actually tried this can testify to how well it works (if you didn't catch my sarcasm... it doesn't). You end up with a photo of a kid with clenched teeth, a scrunched nose, and raised eyebrows. In this article, I'm going to give away all of my secrets that I’ve picked up as a professional children’s photographer for getting nice, natural smiles out of children.
The “I’m going to get you” game
You know the game... The one where you say "I'm going to get you!", slowly move towards the kid while wiggling your fingers and tickle them for a second, back up, then do it all over again. I will tickle the kids once, back up, focus, fake another attack, and take a few photos when they giggle. As a bonus, you get a great workout running around.
Play peakaboo behind your camera. Make sure the camera is pre-focused and ready to capture the smile. This one works better with younger kids (up to about 2ish).
Another variant of this is to have someone hide behind the photographer, pop-out, hide again, pop-out… and you get the point.
Say something slightly innapropriate that the kids don’t usually hear, such as “daddy smells”, or “poopy pants”. Just be careful not to go too far overboard, they are kids after-all.
Throw them around
What kid doesn’t like to play rough and be tossed around? Have an adult in the photo with them. The adult can toss them in the air, lift them up and down, pretend to drop them, hold them upside down, etc… If you want to make sure the kid, and not the adult is the focus of the photo, then have the adult hold the child so that they are facing each other, and shoot over the shoulder of the adult.
Be a goofball
They are kids, if a funny noise or silly face doesn’t get them to laugh, then I don’t know what will. I usually say something like: “Listen to this funny noise I’m going to make” first to get their attention and make sure they are looking towards the camera.
Sometimes this one seems like cheating, but if the kid is ticklish, use it to your advantage. A light tickle will usually result in a perfect little smile. A full tickle-session will result in a rolling-on-the-ground laughing session. Both can work great.
Tell them to belly laugh (and demonstrate first). When they are doing it, laugh along with them so that they don’t feel self conscious. At first, this one usually produces a fake open mouth laugh, but then they usually settle in to a nice natural smile afterwards. Be ready with the camera when that happens.
“Don’t you smile”
You know that reverse-psychology game everyone plays with kids to get them to do something that they don’t want to do? Well, it works for photography too. Tell the kids not to smile, and really go over the top and play it up so that the kid knows it’s a joke. Don’t smile… don’t you smile, don’t do it…. you get the point. They always inevitably crack a perfect smile.
Tell a joke
I keep a few awful & cheesy kids jokes on-hand in case I need them. Ask them their favorite ice cream, ask if it’s broccoli flavor. Knock Knock. Who’s there? Interrupting cow. Interrupting cow w…. MOOOOOO. Cheesy, I told you. Also, I stole that last one from my 3-year-old.
Let the kids play around, have them pop out from behind something, have them jump up and down, ask who can jump higher, have them show you their muscles. Sometimes a good game of Simon says can work wonders. I just snap away the entire time and end up with some great photos.
Bonus - no smile
I know, I know… this article is specifically about getting a child to smile, but I thought that it’s worth saying that you don’t always need to have the child to smile to make a great photo. Some of the best photos I’ve taken of kids contain expressions other than a smile. Serious, pensive, curious, tired, bored, crying, etc… One of my favorite tactics is to tell the kid to try to see my eye through the lens. It usually ends up in a pretty funny expression.
Bonus 2 - where to look
The two directions that I usually hear parents give are "say cheese" and "look at the camera". We’ve already covered the “cheese” part, but I want to talk about the “looking at the camera” part. While head-on shots of kids looking at the camera are nice, that doesn’t always need to be the case. Kids can be camera shy, sometimes they just don’t have the attention span to stare into the camera, or perhaps they just aren’t good at looking directly into an inanimate object (the camera) and naturally smiling. Instead, try taking more candid style photos. Have them play with someone else, have someone tickle them, have them look somewhere else and laugh. Candid photos can be such a nice moment of life frozen in time. More on this in another article….
If you haven’t already read my article 25 tips for taking great photos of children, I would suggest you also check that out. There are a lot of good tips in there on posing, the right camera settings, interacting with the kids, etc…
Hi, I’m Randy, a family photographer in the Conshohocken (Philadelphia Area). I spend the majority of my time trying to quench my never-ending curiosity. You can learn more about me here.