5 Photography Tips for Getting Natural Smiles from Children

July 21, 2011

in Family Photo Posing Ideas, Photography Posing Ideas, Photography Session Tips, Photography Tips, Photography Tutorials

5 Photography Tips for Getting Natural Smiles from Kids. iHeartFaces.com

Enjoy these photography tips for how to get great natural smiles out of children by Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman.

As a mother of a 3.5 year old, ‘spirited’ little girl, I sure get my fair share of cheese when taking photos.  And I am not talking about the edible kind.

My daughter merely needs to see my camera and she produces this ‘smile’ (I use the term loosely) that looks like a toothy underbite that rivals Bruce Springsteen. Her eyes literally disappear into her head and take the form of slits.  Not what I really want to remember years from now.

As a children’s photographer, I deal with this ‘smile’ on a nearly daily basis.  It’s a pressure cooker when that cheesy smile arises at a session, especially for Mom who is witnessing it because, let’s face it,  she is paying for this cheese and is not too happy about it.

It’s not their fault… what would you do if someone told you to smile?  Try it.  SMILE.   Feel fake?  Sure it does!  The only way to combat a phony smile is to actually make the child smile naturally.

5 Photography Tips for Getting Natural Smiles from Kids. iHeartFaces.com

(Don’t) Say Cheese!

Here are my top 5 ways to help replace the phony with the fab.  You may have heard of a few, even tried a few, but hopefully you can pick up some new tips.  These are best suited for the 2-5 year old set.  You know, when they realize they don’t HAVE to do everything you tell them to *wink.*

1. Act The Fool.

I always warn parents that I can be a little kooky during shoots. And to brace themselves for bad singing. Just take a song every child knows like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Now, change a word in it. “Twinkle, Twinkle little COW.” What? COW??!!” Seriously. This. Works. Every. Time.

The child cracks up and you can get some mileage out of the joke a few more times. You will start to get the smile before you even ‘fill in the blank’ after you do it once, because they anticipate the silliness. I usually do it one more time and say “Oh I am so sorry, let me try again. Twinkle Twinkle, little DUCK.” You get the picture. This works best for children who actually understand what the words are in the song, and aren’t too old yet to give you the ‘this woman is not smart’ look.

5 Tips for Getting Natural Smiles in Photos – (Don’t) Say Cheese! by Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman for I Heart Faces. iheartfaces.com

2. Don’t Say Cheese

It’s a default in parents and some photographers to automatically shout the ‘say cheese’ line. Yes, by saying the word cheese it does make their mouth turn into somewhat of a smile, but all I see in the capture is them saying cheese. Say ANYTHING but cheese is my motto. I usually ask them their favorite food. Then I add onto it with an added ingredient. “Say…. Pizza!” Then I throw in “with meatballs!” Something unexpected to help add to the humor and the novelty of NOT saying cheese.

5 Tips for Getting Natural Smiles in Photos – (Don’t) Say Cheese! by Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman from jellybeanpics.com for I Heart Faces. iheartfaces.com

3. Don’t Smile (or Do Any Face BUT a Smile).

This has been shared a million times, but deserves repeating because it has about a 95% success rate. Tell the child to not smile. “OK, I need you to hold your smile in now. So whatever you do, Do.not.smile… Uh oh, I see you starting to smile… here it comes…don’t do it!” It works. What I found as a variation of that is direct them to do anything BUT smile. “Give me your meanest face.” Then when they do it, I scream in pretend fright. Which equates to real laughter.

Or make I tell them to make their silliest face, and then answer their face with my silly face which produces a lot of giggles. Make sure your shutter speed is high when doing this, because you most likely will be laughing right along with them. And the silly faces they make to get to the smile, well those could be keepers as well as you can see from this little guy!

how to get great smiles in photos

4. Make the Session FUN.

With my sessions, I walk out drenched in sweat because I am running, jumping, rolling and racing with the kiddos to get them to have fun. I simply cannot do the ‘sit there on that rock and pose’ type of session. It has to be active. Kids also have very short attention spans, so you learn to ‘read’ when they are borderline bored.

Make everything you can into a game because then your session will equal fun for them. And fun produces smiles. Some examples: ‘Can you find the third step and sit there?’ Can you find some purple flowers in your yard and lay right down in front of them?’ When they complete their task they are all smiles and get so excited they did a good job.

And while you are at it– try this technique: run shooting your camera without even looking and just keep clicking. I did this with my daughter this spring. I set up the shot on my knees, stood up, kept the camera low and then told her to run. I shot almost at her level as I ran with her. She was cracking up. Yes, I had about 20 throw-aways, but what I produced was one of my favorite action shots of her ever (and our dog Skip made it in as well–bonus).

how to get great smiles in photos

5. Seeing IS Believing.

Even for kids, they want to see what you are doing. I often show them when their smile is great versus fake. And say ‘which looks better?’ Believe it or not- they get it!

Finally, remember that not all smiles need to be toothy. I love a soft smile. As long as it’s real, sign me up.

how to get great smiles in photos

Happy shooting!

5 Tips for Getting Natural Smiles in Photos – (Don’t) Say Cheese! by Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman from jellybeanpics.com for I Heart Faces. iheartfaces.comJennifer Tonetti-Spellman is a die-hard, natural light, lifestyle photographer in New York who loves to search for the light. Like her on Facebook to continue being inspired by her beautiful work!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Viktor August 26, 2016

Thank you very much for the great sharing with us! Very easy but worky Tricks for getting my children laugh in Front of the Camera, so i can get my Son laughing again – he has spotted that not laughing at all is much of fun – for him.


Alasdair McWhirter August 21, 2016

“MONKEY BUTTZ” works well too


hilke July 27, 2014

Thank you!!
Really good advice!


Rhiannon July 27, 2014

I love these, thank you!


catarina May 3, 2013

I love this tips i just took my 3 boys to get a photo shoot done and ……………………………………………….fail big time the photographer was not doing ANYTHING to get their smiles they are 5,4,3 years old…..
thanks for your tips


Carrie March 11, 2013

I love these tips. Thanks for sharing!! I can’t wait to try them out. 🙂


Jaime Anderson March 9, 2013

Loved this tutorial lots of useful info I can put into place during the next session. Great tips from one of my favorite photographers!!!


Rebecca Pizzo January 22, 2013

Really great blog, love your natural approach to evoke emotion.


nelly January 11, 2013

I loved you ideas, Thansk for sharing!


November December 3, 2012

Any tip for adults who are just terribly un-photogenic? Or adults who smile too big?


Kathryn July 14, 2012

Great tips from one of my favorite photographers!!!


Christa April 19, 2012

perfect tips thanks


Christa Hook April 19, 2012

Loved this tutorial lots of useful info I can put into place during the next session. thanks for all the tips


Ariadna March 7, 2012

I loved this tutorial!
Would be funny to see one of your sessions 🙂


Colleen Kyser March 7, 2012

I can’ t say for sure why…but when I photograph men…when I say “chili beans” I always get natural smiles 😀


cindilb March 7, 2012

Someone once told me to say “whiskey”.


Christian Collard January 20, 2012

Need these for this w/e… RT @iheartfaces: One of our favorite photography tips posts…. http://t.co/6sLhGR1Y #photog


Malerie December 12, 2011

Deep thinking – adds a new deimnison to it all.


Christy Kirby December 11, 2011

thank you!!! With teens that refuse to smile try to get them to say “beer”. Wanted to share my post on getting smiles. I can’t wait to put these into practice.


Aneta December 5, 2011

I Have four kids on my own and many little friends that I shoot all the time , love your tips :), yes, I totally agree, on ‘no cheese’ policy during photo shoots 🙂


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