Getting Kids to Smile Naturally for Pictures

      As a mom of  two little girls and a former elementary school teacher, I’ve been immersed in the world of childhood wonder most of my life. So, it’s no surprise children are some of my favorite people to photograph! But, I’m the first to admit, photographing kids comes with quite a few challenges! Sometimes they love having their picture taken and ham it up for the camera. Other times, it can be hard to get them to cooperate during a photo session. And, probably the biggest challenge is getting kids to smile naturally for pictures!

      If you thought it was any different for a professional family photographer, it’s not! I can’t tell you how many grimaces, forced smiles, clenched teeth grins or blank stares I have gotten. Especially from my own children. Over the years of photographing families with young children, I have learned a few tips and tricks for getting kids to smile naturally for pictures. And, whether you are a professional photographer or just a mom hoping to get better pictures of you kids, I’m hoping they may help you too!

      Getting Kids to Smile Naturally for Pictures


      Getting natural and happy smiles from kids during pictures actually starts before the session. The more comfortable and at ease a child is, the easier it will be to get a natural smile. To young children, I am a stranger with a camera pointed at them. And that can be a little scary. Here a few tips to use before the session to overcome that hurdle.


      As parents start talking to their children about their upcoming family photo session, I like to ask them to also talk about me. Not necessarily as a photographer. But as a friend! Use my name. Tell them a little about me so they feel like they know me. Tell them I’m your friend and that I’m going to be helping you out by taking pictures of you. This will help to establish a level of trust with me before we even meet.


      Once you meet the family at your session location, it is natural to start talking with mom and dad right away. And that’s great. But be sure to also take a moment to individually talk with each child. I like squat down so that I’m on their eye level and introduce myself. I tell them I’ve heard so much about them and can’t wait to take their picture. Then I ask them a few questions, so they know I am genuinely interested in them. Taking these extra couple of minutes will really pay off when it is time to take pictures.

      HAVE FUN

      Children, especially young ones, tend to look to mom and dad for guidance on how to react to a new situation. If mom and dad are laughing, smiling and having fun, then their children will likely follow. I usually let moms and dads in on this little bit of information just before the session so they can be sure to let their children know how excited they are for the session and show them they are having fun during it.

      A side by side comparison showing how to get natural smiles when photographing children
      This session started with lots of blank stares. The picture on the right was taken when older sister did something funny and everyone started to laugh. Little cupid wanted to be a part of the fun!


      Now that you’ve laid the groundwork for getting natural looking smiles from the kids during your photo session, let’s looks at how to get those glowing smiles during the session!


      Children are little balls of energy. They don’t stay in one place long. And their attention spans are short. So, if you want natural smiles be sure to keep things moving. Staying in one pose or location too long will create stale forced grins. This also helps if you hope to get a variety of looks during your session. I find that most children only last about 45 minutes during a family session. So by keeping it moving, you will be able to nail several different looks in that window of time.


      Children love songs! For toddlers, ask mom and dad what song they love or know well. You may want to ask this during your planning consultation to be sure you know the song. Simply singing a tune they love usually gets happy genuine smiles. For older kids try singing in a silly voice. Or get the words all wrong. Nothing gets them laughing more than hearing you sing the letters all out of order when you sing the alphabet song.

      images showing child not smiling vs. a genuine smile for pictures
      The picture on the right was taken just after I started singing her favorite song.


      Children love playing games. And if you give them a game to play, you are sure to get natural looking smiles as you take their picture. A few of my favorites are Simon Says and Red Rover. Use Simon Says as a way to get them to stay seated. And then use a silly Simon Says command to get a laugh. It could look something like this:

      Simon Says sit right here. Simon says place your hands in your lap. Wiggle your arms! Oh you are good. I didn’t get you with that one. Simon says look at your sister. Simon says give her a big kiss on the cheek. (Now you just got a cute picture!) Simon says look at me. Simon says wiggle your nose like a bunny rabbit. Here is where they will start wiggling their nose which will make them laugh, especially if you start giggling and acting like it is hilarious. And you will have a darling picture with a genuine smile!

      If you love the laughter and smiles playing games during a photo session brings out, then you may enjoy reading my post of favorite games to play at a family photo session.

      BE SILLY

      Children really do love to laugh. And they often find the littlest things absurdly funny. Act like a goof ball. Have over the top reactions to little things. Make silly noises. I usually save this one until we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit during the session. Each child is unique and this helps me know which type of silly antics will bring out a natural smile for pictures.


      What kid can resist a good knock-knock joke. Or a joke with a silly punch line? I love to have a few jokes in my back pocket. The sillier, cornier and cheesier, the better! They are the perfect tool to get a quick smile and great picture. Often children will want to tell me their favorite joke in return. It is usually cornier and cheesier than mine. And I make sure to laugh hysterically when they get to the punch line. Because when they see that their joke made me laugh, they usually light up with the biggest smile I could hope for.


      Children don’t really know how to smile on command. That’s why when asked, children often give a clenched tooth grin.Every child has heard the ‘say cheese’ command. And they have learned to give that forced smile in response.

      Instead of asking them to say cheese, try asking them to say something silly that will make them giggle. What you ask them to say may depend on their age. For older children, potty humor always gets them giggling. (Just be sure to feel out your family to see if that is an appropriate tactic to use). For younger children, asking them to say something like, ‘Mommy is a monkey’ works wonders. When they say it, they often start laughing. And I start snapping those gorgeous smiles. If they manage to say it straight faced, I put my camera down and very seriously ask them if it is true. I may even ask, does she walk through the house or does she prefer to swing from the ceiling lights. The idea of this usually gets lots of giggles. And genuine smiles to photograph.

      The look I get anytime I ask my daughter to say ‘cheese’. I’m not really sure who taught her that putting her nose in the air was smiling.


      This is another favorite for getting natural giggles and smiles from children. Once I have everyone posed and ready, I tell the little ones ‘What ever you do, DON’T smile. I need your best serious face!’ Try as they might, a smile usually can’t help but to creep in.

      photograph of kid not smiling vs. a natural smile
      With slightly older children, I actually love the look I get from asking for a serious face almost as much as the giggle and smiles that erupt when they can’t hold it any longer.


      If you want to get a genuine smile from children during family pictures, try asking them to belly laugh. At first they may look at you, not quite sure what to do. And this is where you have to ready to be a bit of a goof ball yourself. Show them how to belly laugh by giving your biggest best jolly old Saint Nick impression.

      Kids may start trying to their own belly laugh. Or they may start giggling at how silly you are being. If they start giggling and laughing, be sure to snap a few pictures at that moment because those giggles make natural glowing smiles. If they start trying to create their own belly laugh, laugh right along with them. Those belly laughs are usually forced and fake. But in no time those belly laugh will turn into real laughter and giggles. And you know that means genuine smiles!

      I hope these tips help you get your kids to smile naturally the next time you take pictures! If you have any tips that have worked great for you, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to drop a comment below!



      Kristen Fotta Photography