Okay, honestly, this post should really be titled “How to (maybe) nail your portrait session with young kids and (hopefully) have fun doing it.” Not all of these tips work for every kid. Even if you do everything “right,” kids are unpredictable and they may still totally melt down and refuse to cooperate. However, as I’ve watched the way that families approach their photo sessions, I’ve realized that there are some things you can do that give you a better chance of really loving the experience and the photos.
As a photographer, it’s important to me to take good photos of your family. It’s also important to me to do what I can to help you have a good time. I want your smiles to genuine because you’re having fun together. When you look back at the photos, I want you to remember an evening of snuggling your kiddos, laughing together, and exploring the outdoors. No matter how good the photos look, you won’t really love them if they always remind you of how stressed out you were that day. So here are a few things you can do that might help the process be more enjoyable and less stressful!
Prep your kids to have fun. As you’re getting ready for photos, it doesn’t hurt to talk with your kids a bit about how these are photos you’ll look back at for years to come and you want nice, happy photos, not grumpy photos. I think it’s even more important though, to let them know that this will be fun! You’re going to go explore a cool new place in nature, you’re going to snuggle together and tickle each other, and maybe you’ll go get hot chocolate afterwards! And oh yeah, there will be a lady there taking pictures of it all. Your kids will pick up on your attitude about the whole process. If you’re stressed, they’ll be stressed too. Come ready to have fun!
Remember that the goal is real interactions and genuine smiles, not fake grins and canned poses. Just have fun with your family! You know how to do this! Snuggle your kids, do the things you do at home to make them laugh, whisper in their ear how much you love them, dance with them, tickle them, stroke their hair, just breathe them in and enjoy the time with them. We’ll do the posed shots with everyone looking at the camera too, but those will go better if your kids get to laugh and play in between.
Let your kids be kids. Kids are really good at playing and I encourage them to do it during my sessions. Parents often feel like they need to apologize when the kids get distracted picking flowers or want to run across the field, but I often get some great shots of these activities. I’ve had quite a few kids who want to make silly faces at the camera. While the silly faces may not be the photos you want to hang on your wall, the kids often crack themselves up and then I get some real smiles from them right after the silly faces.
Roll with their mood swings. As long as I have permission, I post just about every photo session I take on my blog. Out of all of these sessions, I can think of less than five where the kids did exactly what was expected of them the whole time. I can think of dozens of sessions where at least one child totally lost it in the middle of the session. Every time, we’ve been able to get the great photos of smiling, happy kids that you see on my blog. Remember this when your two year old sticks their tongue out at me and then lays down on the ground kicking and screaming, and please don’t be embarrassed. I have young kids too, I’ve seen it all, and it doesn’t scare me! If they misbehave, they often just need a break. We’ll play for a little while and then come back to the posed photos later.
Tell poop/fart jokes. Yep, we’re keeping it classy here. 🙂 They work! Especially when you whisper them in your kid’s ear like a secret joke, they elicit the most adorable conspiratorial giggles. I’m not naming any names, but at least a couple of the photos in this post were the result of poop jokes. In several other of these photos, like the one below, I have no idea what the parents said to get their kids to laugh, but you know your child’s sense of humor, and I would recommend thinking before your session about a few things you could whisper that would send them into fits of giggles.
Use bribes, but sparingly. I feel like bribes are great for preventing kids from totally revolting and declaring that they are done with photos. “Remember we’re going to get ice cream after this if you’re good! Just a little longer!” is definitely something I’ve said to my own five year old when taking his photos. However, bribes don’t always work so well for getting genuine smiles. “Smile and you can have an M&M” almost always produces a fake, cheesy smile. You can see what I’m talking about in the two photos below: “Stand here and smile if you want the candy” smile on the left, “Dad’s dancing around like a crazy monkey” smile on the right.” See how his eyes aren’t smiling on the left?
So I definitely recommend bringing a few snacks or treats to keep your young kids happy, but you might want to consider using them as a last resort when other things aren’t working, or as a fun break in the middle of the session. One more thing- if you use food rewards, make sure they can be eaten quickly and won’t turn their mouth funny colors for the rest of the photo session. You can also get creative with non-food rewards. Here’s a little lady who was pretty excited about getting to wear some clear lip gloss for her photos with dad!
Use movement. Most toddlers really don’t love being held still for photos for very long. If they’re getting antsy, you can try throwing them in the air, swinging them around, flipping them upside down, dancing with them, holding them and then pretending you’re about to drop them, etc. If you do these things, it’s helpful if you can do the movement, then hold still for a second while they’re laughing so I can grab the shot. The mama in the photo below had been flipping her son upside down then posing for the camera when she brought him back up again and it worked great!
Be yourselves. You know your family so much better than I do. If any of these tips don’t really “fit” for you, don’t use them. If you’re not a very touchy-feely family, you’ll probably feel awkward pretending to be that way in your photos. If you know that one of your kids will only smile for photos if you offer a gummy bear every time, then dole out the gummy bears liberally and don’t feel like you have to explain yourself to me. The main point of this post is just to get you thinking about what will make YOUR kids smile so that you’re not drawing a blank at your session.
Hope that helps! If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!