The sun is shining, the scenery is gorgeous, and your kiddo looks perfectly adorable dressed in that little outfit. Everything is screaming perfect photo op.
“Sweetie, can you smile for Mommy?”
And that’s when it all goes south: they don’t smile, they look the other way, or they make the dreaded “CHEESE!” face that looks oh-so-unnatural.
As a parent and professional photographer, I’ve seen this situation thousands of times, so I wanted to offer a quick tutorial on the top ways to get your kiddo to smile naturally for a picture. Of course, you can try cheese, but the child will usually give you a very fake forced smile. Instead, I’ve always found interactive games get a better reaction and more genuine smiles and expressions, so give them something to do or something to laugh at!
Here are 12 of my favorite techniques to get squeals of laughter:
1) Bring a fake bug or plastic dinosaur
I usually start out the conversation with something like this: “You know what I’m really, REALLY scared of? Dinosaurs. ESPECIALLY T-Rexes.” Then somehow, out of my camera bag peeks a little T-Rex dinosaur. Kids explode with laughter when I pretend to be super scared. Many times, I’ll let them hold the T-Rex for a minute if they promise (wink wink) not to scare me with it. Result? They undoubtedly start to chase me around with it. Then T-Rex usually joins me to take some photos of them—he’s pretty good at pushing the shutter button! 😉
Another version of this game: spiders! Fake little plastic spiders are available super cheap on Amazon, and they always get a reaction. If you have an assistant or friend along, have them drop the spider on your head or have it crawl up your arm. One added bonus to the spiders is that if kiddos want to hold them in their hands, the fake bugs hide easily from the camera when kiddo closes their hand.
(A word of caution though: be sure to check with mom and dad before you pull out these kinds of props to make sure that their child isn’t deathly afraid of them!) 😉
2) Sing a favorite song
A favorite for us is “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!” This little tune always results in a cute smile and pose. If they’re old enough to know the difference, sing the wrong lyrics to a song on purpose and watch them laugh when you screw it all up. The alphabet song with the letters in the wrong order is always a hit as well. 😉
3) Bring dog toys
It sounds crazy, I admit it, but if you have a young child (under age seven-ish), go to the store and find the most ridiculous dog toy or two that makes loud noises. The element of surprise is key here, so DO NOT show them the toy prior to the shoot. When they’re getting tired and won’t smile, pull out the toy, squeak it and then act scared of it or surprised by it. (Obviously, you shouldn’t try to scare them if they’re very little. If you’re worried it might frighten them, take a second to show it to them quietly.)
I currently have a squeaky pig that kids fall all over themselves laughing at. It’s debatable whether the toy makes a squeak or a farting noise. I usually squeeze it so that it makes a noise, and then I stop and shout, “WAIT—WHO JUST FARTED????” And let the giggling begin. I also pretend it has diarrhea and is pooping on me. Yes, I have no shame – but I get lots of uncontrollable laughter at my shoots 😉
I will say, try to remember that these kinds of toys can be extremely obnoxious to others, especially if you’re in a public place, so only use it for a few minutes to avoid completely annoying the people around you.
4) Play red light-green light
I’ll let you in on my secret: I don’t play this game the normal way (and that isn’t much of a secret!) Here’s my fun take on this playground standby: “When I say green light, I want you to walk towards me. Red light means stop!” I do that normally for about a minute, but then I go crazy with red light, green light, red light, green light, yellow light, BLUE light. The kids usually say something like, “Wait, whhhhhhhhhhhaat are you doing??!!!”
The sillier you can be, the better. If you go crazy and confuse them, 99% of the time they’re going to laugh.
Jumping up and down always loosens the mood! Me to kiddos: “Jump up and down. Thennnnn FREEZE! Jump up and down, give your brother a high five… annnnnnnnd FREEZE!” Again, if you mess up the directions you’ll probably have the best luck. Kids think it’s hysterical when YOU mess up, so I’ll say, “Jump wait stop, wait what? Are we starting or stopping? I can’t remember…. What is going on?”
6) Use reverse psychology
Tell your child to make a really bad, super mean face. And then tell them not to smile. “DO NOT SMILE. DON’T DO IT!!!!” This usually ends with them cracking up when they can’t hold the mean face any longer.
Me to kiddo: “You know what happens sometimes when people look right at me? I melt. I realllllly don’t like it if anyone looks right in my eyes… So make sure whatever you do, you do NOT look right at me.” Cover your eyes and say to the child- “DO NOT LOOK at ME. DON’T do it!!! OHHH noooooo I’m melting! STOP STOP! You must not look at me!!! You’ll make me melt!” Result? They look directly at me (and the camera) and laugh.
8) Fake the tickle
“I’mmmmmm gonna get you—and then I’m going to tickle you!!!!” Say this and run towards them like you’re going to tickle them. I usually pretend like I’m going to tickle them, but I never really do. The threat of it normally is enough to get a great reaction. 😉
9) Catch and throw
“Colin, I bet you cannot throw well. I bet you cannot throw that flower and hit me!” Then act all crazy when they throw it. But make sure to pick something light so they don’t throw anything that could hurt anyone. Many times I’ll tuck a little foam ball into my camera bag to bring along.
10) Fake fall
Slapstick is a form of comedy for a reason. When I pretend to trip or fall on something, it makes my kids laugh hysterically every time. There’s just something that can be hilarious about somebody falling or tripping, so do a fake fall. Obviously, be careful and don’t actually hurt yourself (or your camera)! 😊
11) Ask silly questions
If you have a kiddo age 4-7ish, asking silly questions can really help get some laughs. One of my favorites, “Sooo, what kind of car do you drive? Oh wait, you don’t drive yet?”
I’d save this for last resort. Although bubbles can get some smiles out of a child, they usually cause kiddos to reach their arms out, turn away from the camera and run after the bubble, which isn’t great if you’re trying to capture a picture of their sweet little faces.
Get creative. Try any games you play at home or anything else that you know makes your kiddo smile!
Have other ideas that have worked well for you? Leave us a comment below and tell us about it! Also, we’d love to see any photos you capture while using these techniques! Hashtag #RealLifeCaptured on Instagram or Facebook.
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Krista Lee is a Nashville, TN based portrait and wedding photographer. See her work and professional site at www.kristaleephotography.com