Updated: May 10
Before I became a newborn, children's and family photographer in the beautiful coastal county of Kent, I wrangled... I mean, 'worked' with children as an early years teacher. This has given me a lot of insight into working with children and these tips might just help you to get that award-winning smile or to survive your next photography session with a child mum has described to you beforehand as 'free spirited.' Yeah, we all know what that means!
Some of these tips are more suited to outdoor photography but I'll also cover some tips and tricks for in the studio!
This post also features photos from my dear Canadian friend Becky who is a photographer in Barrie, Ontario, Canada. Check out her stuff! https://www.beckyplantphotography.com/
Games & Active Poses
Some children will gladly take instruction and sit how you'd like and smile etc,. but many children prefer to be active (and some really like doing their own thing!). This can work well for getting candid shots in an outdoor setting and can actually make for interesting and authentic photos.
Even adults are often a bit nervous and stiff when when they first come to a photoshoot so starting with some active poses or games can help the whole family get comfortable.
This pose can be as simple as having the family hold hands and walk towards you and then away from you. You can even have the little one pull mum and dad along.
Ring Around The Rosy
An active pose kids love is having them walk or run around mum and dad who you can pose in the middle (if they want to hold hands and sing ring around the rosy all the better!).
Having the parents each grab an arm and swing the child forward is another active pose many children enjoy.
Hide & Seek:
Another game you can play anywhere and that makes for cute photos is hide and seek. Have the child cover their eyes with their hands or cup their hands to a tree while mum and dad 'hide' (of course you can snap a photo of little one counting with mum and dad in the background first!). When the child finds mum and dad nearby the smiles will flow naturally and make for natural shots of a family at play.
Throw In The Air:
This one has not failed me yet and seems to coax smiles out of even the most serious of children! Have mum or dad throw the child in the air and catch them, or hold them in a superman type position and swing them back and forth (you can always ask them to pause a moment when they bring the child forward).
This works fabulously for children from about 5 months to 7 years. Just beware the child may want to spend the next hour of the photoshoot doing this and only this. In fact they may want to spend the rest of their life doing only this so maybe wait til halfway through a session if you can!
Hold In The Air:
For younger babies who are a bit more delicate (2 months - 5 months) simply holding baby up in the air is a fantastic way to get smiles. Babies this young find it hard to lift their head up so if you hold them just above you where they can see your smiles (or watch you sing to them!) this is the best way to create engagement and catch those early smiles and giggles!
Tuck In Arms:
Another great way to create engagement with babies from newborn to 3 months is by holding them on their back at an angle so that they have a clear line of sight to mum or dad's face. Try to get their little legs tucked right up close and snug for the best looking shots.
Super simple but it has been bringing joy for generations. Children from about 4 months up until 2 years old delight in a game of peek-a-boo!
On Your Shoulders:
This is a fun pose a lot of children like! This is as in mum or dad's shoulders. Not yours. Cause that would be weird. This is usually enough to encourage smiles but if not have mum or dad give them a bumpy ride and be as silly as possible!
This is a great one for getting those natural, smiley and sometimes cheeky family photos and works especially well for large families or groups. Play a game of 'Guess Who?' by having everyone look at/smile at/point at/hug whoever embodies your questions. For example, 'Who in your family is the silliest?' 'Who in your family gets in trouble the most?' 'Who in your family is a dog person?' 'Who in your family does the most work?' Be careful, things could get heated! ;)
Scavenger hunt in this context is really just a fancy way of saying look around! Ask the kids what they can see; go on a nature walk, ask them if they can find a smooth stone or Peppa pig's house or some dinosaur tracks - whatever gets them excited. Take photos of them discovering with their parents. If you're on the beach bring some buckets and spades and have the family build a sandcastle together - if you're at their home have them pull out a favourite board game!
Use Props to Add Interest! (Outdoor and In Studio)
AND The Holy Grail - Find out What Children Love More Than Pretty Much Anything!
When I go on photoshoots where there are young children/babies I always bring a rattly toy with me which I can shake or have the parent (or my husband) shake behind my head. I usually ask the parent to bring a favourite item as well.
Besides my rattly toy I also try to bring something that a child might find interesting that wouldn't look out of place in a photoshoot. For example, to a recent beach shoot I brought a faux star fish but for a forest session you could bring a giant pinecone for the children to 'find' or any number of things! Side note: if there is more than one child bring more than one thing! Trust me.
For an in-studio session you could give the child a small wooden boat or plane, a few blocks or a tin tea set. I love getting photos of children concentrating on an item or activity and it's so much more interesting than photo after photo of a little one looking at the camera.
For my cake smash sessions I use rubber ducks for the tin tub photos and the kids go crazy for them - kids. love. rubber. ducks! I will warn you that they will try to stuff them in their nappy bag afterwards. One year olds are not daft you guys. Seriously, watch out for them.
But I'll tell you what the holy grail for children is - Bubbles. I don't know why. I mean, yeah they're pretty awesome. They're clear, they're rainbow, they're shiny. They're here and then they're gone. They float. It's a pretty cool superpower I guess. Carry a tube of bubbles with you everywhere you go and you will be golden! This is like catnip for kids. If you take nothing else away from this blog just remember bubbles are awesome. And if you take two things away from this blog remember don't store your bubbles in your camera bag.
Sing a Song! (Outdoor and In Studio)
You might feel like a total wally at first (that is whimsical British slang for any non-native speakers... Being a Canadian who now lives in England I'm never actually one hundred percent sure what slang is whimsical and what slang is wildly offensive so I hope I haven't wildly offended anyone).
But yes! You don't have to a be a great singer even - a terrible rendition of baby shark or patta-cake is often all that is needed. Add in some actions if you need to - see if you can get little one clapping and singing along. Do a jig. Blow raspberries. Make faces, Scare child with said faces. Wait no, don't do that. That's terrible advice. Just stick with the singing.
For ages 3-6 pick a well-known song (the alphabet, baby shark, even a well-known pop song) and tell them you've just learned this song and can they tell you if you're singing it right? Begin the song but add in some absolutely redonkulous mistakes (the more donkulous the better) and watch smiles ensue.
Bribery (Outdoor and In Studio)
AND How to Get Young Siblings to Pose with Baby
Bribery is a teacher's bread and butter. I mean, what? We don't do that.
Aaanyways. If you can use bribery to your advantage it's fair game (all is fair in love and photography as they say). Food bribery is often the best and most powerful kind.
I used cookies for my Christmas mini sessions which were a big hit and I was recently given this brilliant next tip by another photographer:
If you want to do shots of a wily young sibling with baby it's best to wrap baby and put them in something secure like a bucket and then hide snacks behind baby in the bucket. Not only is it likely to get the older sibling to sit with baby but when they reach for their favourite snack it will look like they're putting their arm around the newborn. Always have mum or dad close by to spot the baby. A small toy can also work!
The other way this can be done is with a composite (take an image of baby and then an image of the sibling and merge the two photos together). There are many tutorials on Youtube demonstrating how to do this!
Ask the Parent (Outdoor and In Studio)
This one seems obvious but it can be easy to forget when you're wondering if you've adjusted your F-stops correctly, and whether you've remembered to put an SD card in your camera and whether this rather feral child will or will not bite you.
Parents will know their kids like the back of their hand and may have their own tricks for coaxing smiles. Whether that's a funny face or noise or getting out a favourite toy - don't forget that parents are a fabulous resource! Getting to know the child and what their interests are can work wonders.
My own little one gives the BIGGEST smile every time I sing this country song called 'Mayday.' Just this one song - no idea why. Everyone on Facebook thinks I have the happiest kid in the universe but what they don't know is I've just sung 'Mayday' to him from behind a camera about 2.8 million times.
Technology (Outdoor and In Studio)
If all else fails you can always whip out a phone with one of the child's favourite songs or shows. At my beach photo session this past weekend dad said 'I know what will get a smile' so you'd never know it but this gorgeous mummy and baby photo was taken with neon dancing broccoli's behind my head.
What If A Child Is Afraid of the Camera? What if the child is afraid of me?
This is a tricky one and results may vary! You may want to put the camera away for a little while and get them engaged in play. Let them get used to you and their new surroundings.
You can 'play' pictures (make a pretend camera with your hands and make the ch-ch sound; see if the child will do the same to warm them up to the idea).
You like WHAT on your pizza!
Being silly is always a great way to make children more comfortable. Tell a ridiculous story about a dream you had last night or what ridiculous toppings you love on your pizza; see if you can get them chatting.
Give Mommy a go
You can also adjust your settings and ask parent to snap a few to start off with as it may help to have a familiar adult to begin with. Just be aware of whether the child is genuinely nervous or whether they are attention-seeking; if the child is seeking attention this can quickly turn into a game where the child won't cooperate because they are enjoying all the 'fuss!'
Take a deep breath, keep calm, keep smiling and go with it! Patience is the key to working with children (and animals!) and even the best laid plans may go awry - but this can make for some of the best and most authentic photos! Show enthusiasm and have fun and your families will have fun too!
What are your best tips for working with little ones?