5 Ways to Encourage Kids to be Themselves in Photos

I photograph a lot of children. Babies, toddler, preschoolers.. and plenty of older kids/teenagers as well. My one main goal for a portrait session is to capture the person I'm photographing in a natural and relaxed way.. which can often be difficult for several reasons. For children, in particular, it's challenging to arrive in a new environment and feel at ease with essentially a total stranger. 

But there are certain things I do which guarantees a real smile or a calm expression. Things YOU can do as well when you photograph your own children.

Image of a happy girl with wind blowing her hair. Studio portrait by N. Lalor Photography in Greenwich, Connecticut.

1. Don't tell them what to do

Let's face it, nobody (even adults.. ok, especially adults!) likes to be told what to do. But for some reason we feel that children should not only be directed at every turn but also obey without question. Having to do something that you're not 100% up for can make people upset and it's not a great way to feel happy and in the moment. Which is why any time I interact with a child during a portrait session, I always suggest or ask.. and never tell them what to do (unless it's an issue of safety, of course!).

Tip for home: Try simply observing or watching your child as they do an activity. Stay on the sidelines and photograph them without giving them any direct instructions. 

Image of two sisters laughing. Studio portrait by N. Lalor Photography in Greenwich, Connecticut.

2. Don't ask them to SMILE

This is a bit of en extension of my first point, but it's important enough to warrant its own section. For some reason, as parents, we constantly ask our children to smile for the camera. I get it. It's easy. It gets us what we want. But it's very rarely a real smile that we get in the process. And children, all they want to do is please their parents (I know, it's hard to believe sometimes!).. so they WILL smile when you ask them, the problem is, that's absolutely NOT the kind of smile we are looking for. Real smiles take time and patience. They require making sure the child is comfortable and is enjoying the moment. And when you hire a professional photographer, isn't that exactly what you're going for?

So, during your family portrait session, there is no need to ask your kids to smile. And It's actually a lot less stressful for you in the end. I suggest that parents sit down on the comfy couch, grab a cold drink from the mini fridge, and let me handle the kids.

Tip for home: Challenge yourself to elicit a natural smile from your child when you have your camera in hand. Ask a question, make a funny sound, or play a game instead of asking them to SMILE. 

Image of two brothers being happy together. Studio portrait by N. Lalor Photography in Greenwich, Connecticut.

3. Don't stand over them

We might not realize how big of an influence we are on our children. They care so much what we think, and especially what we think of them. They crave our approval and our attention every minute of the day. And so if you simply stand and watch your child as they sit in front of the camera, they will spend most of their energy worrying about you. This distracts them and makes it hard to get that true eye connection in the portrait. So while it might seem like you're not doing anything at all, simply standing near and looking at your child might make it hard to them to be themselves.

Tip for home: When photographing, allocate some one-on-one time for you and your child, without an audience. You will notice a huge difference in how they act and perform, with quieter moments and better listening.

Image of a brother and sister, laughing. Studio portrait by N. Lalor Photography in Greenwich, Connecticut.

4. Put them at ease

I ask questions and spend some time talking with the children I'm photographing. I only need a few seconds of a smile to take the photograph.. but getting to that smile often takes time and work. We often place a lot of focus on taking the pictures. But it's actually everything else aside from taking pictures that makes the biggest difference!

Tip for home: Put the camera down, away from your face, when you're trying to photograph an uncooperative child. Interact with them, ask questions about their day or their thoughts, and quickly take a photo here and there only when the expression is exactly what you're looking for.

Image of a happy girl smiling.  Studio portrait by N. Lalor Photography in Greenwich, Connecticut.

5. Don't treat them like children

There is one unbreakable rule that I follow 100% of the time. Treat everyone with respect. And that often means that I treat children more like adults than kids. They're allowed to make their own decisions, have preferences, and voice their opinions, just like anyone else.. which means that if they don't want to do something, their choice is respected. And kids know, right away, when they're being treated a certain way. They catch on to the fact that they have a say.. and if I do have to ask them to help me out in some way, they're much more up for it. The most important part is to work towards a happy mood.. because nothing kills someone's disposition faster than being ordered around!

Tip for home: Notice how you talk to your kids when you're photographing them. Are you telling them what to do and expecting complete obedience? Focus more on making sure they're happy than well-behaved.. and yes, that means allowing them to make their own decisions and even misbehaving a bit if it will keep them in a good mood!

Image of three sisters hugging. Studio portrait by N. Lalor Photography in Greenwich, Connecticut.

I know this all might seem super simple. Obvious even. But you will be surprised how quickly we go into 'overbearing parent mode' once our kids have to be in front of the camera! I had to learn to step back and let the professional do their job when I take my kids to the hair salon for a haircut.. it's the same thing in the photography Studio.

And if you forget, are worried, or stressed out about your portrait session.. I will remind you to take that step back and let me handle it. Interacting with children an art and a science.. and very much the most challenging part of my job (you thought that was photography, didn't you?). And that's exactly why I have a comfy couch for parents to sit on during the photo session. It's not your job to make your kids smile for the camera.. it's MINE.