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.
(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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman, owner of JellyBean Pictures is a die-hard, natural light, lifestyle photographer in New York who loves to search for the light. Like her on Facebook and follow her blog to continue being inspired by her beautiful work!