When photographing our children and our families, we always hope for sweet expressions and beautiful smiles. Especially when photographing children, this can be a challenge.
Traditionally (and just ask Grandma if you don’t believe me), a good portrait of a person at any age requires a somewhat formal pose and a sweet smile while looking directly into the camera. While today’s portraits are much more relaxed and rarely involve that formal pose, the idea that every child must produce that sweet smile has lingered on.
To get that “sweet smile” most people resort to the old standby, “Say Cheese!” Unfortunately, this usually results in some sort of strange expression or big cheesy grin. And for those less cooperative children, it often starts with a parent saying, “Smile for the camera,” which often results in a forced grimace.
Not what we were looking for.
The first key to capturing a pleasant and natural expression is to consider your child’s personality. Is he a big grinner? Is she more pensive and thoughtful? Is she a little mischief maker? How much patience does he have to sit for a portrait? If you’re going to a studio or using a professional photographer, how comfortable is your child with strangers? All of these things will factor in to getting a great portrait of your child.
Here are a few simple tips for capturing a natural expression and getting a great portrait of your child that really reflects his or her personality.
Don’t say Cheese!
Plan your portrait session for a time of day when your child is normally happy.
Don’t schedule a studio session at or just before naptime, or postpone lunch or dinner for a portrait. A grumpy child is rarely a cooperative child and, rarer still, a happy one. Figure out your child’s “happy” time of day and plan your session then. Whether it’s right after breakfast or after the afternoon nap, choosing the time when you know they’re in a better mood, you’re much more likely to get a good result.
If your child gets shy or agitated in new places, consider either a portrait session at home or a park where they’ve been before. If you’re going to a studio, find out if you can bring your child by for a pre-session visit, so it will feel more familiar on portrait day.
Give Your Child Something to Do in the Portrait
Whether it’s something to hold, or something to play with, give him or her something to focus on during the portrait session. Having something to do seems to help children relax and stay focused on the session.
Engage Your Child in Conversation
Many children are naturally expressive. I have found that asking questions and engaging my young subjects in conversation often results in wonderful portrait expressions. For very talkative children, I have found that asking them to tell me a story is also a very effective technique for getting a smile—and other great expressions that reveal their personalities. For young elementary school-age children sharing silly jokes back and forth is also effective. Kids that age just seem to love jokes and the sillier the better. Recognize that not every child is a “smiler” so focus more on a natural expression than on the big grin.
Don’t Make Your Child Wait
Making them sit and wait for a lengthy period (meaning more than a few minutes) generally increases agitation and impatience in children. Don’t expect them to hold a pose. If you are setting up a session yourself, have everything in place and know what you plan to do before your bring your child in.
Don’t Threaten a Smile
Yes, I really have been in portrait sessions where a parent said to their child, “If you don’t smile, I will ______ you (fill in the blank with the punishment of your choice).” Needless to say, it’s never been effective. Most of the time, I have ended the session and suggested we reschedule for a better day.
But Rewards Can Work
My personal bribe reward of choice is Smarties. They’re cheap, they’re tasty (ok, I don’t love them so much but kids sure seem to—and so has just about every child I’ve ever photographed), and they don’t make a mess. I dole them out one or two at a time as a last resort. But there is nothing wrong with making a deal with your kids to gain the portraits you want.
When my kids were young and it was portrait time, they generally loved having their portrait taken, but we still always made portrait day a special event. Our kids knew that if they were cooperative for the portraits, we’d go to lunch or an ice cream or some other family outing after. Hey, we were already all dressed up so why not make a day out of it?
So, there you have it. These are techniques I’ve used for more than 30 years of photographing children. Do you have a tried-and-true method that has helped you capture a natural expression of your child?