As a mama of 5 and an ex-kinder-and-first-grade teacher (and not to mention, a family photographer for the past decade), I know a thing or two about creative ways to get kids to listen and cooperate. When it comes to family photoshoots, sure, the whole point is to get gorgeous, commemorative snapshots of families to remember this moment in their lives. So today I’m giving you my 5 secrets to getting kids to cooperate for photos.
But… if you’ve ever tried taking a photo of a toddler who missed naptime or a tween who’d clearly rather be scrolling on TikTok, you know it’s not as easy as pointing, saying “smile!”, and shooting. You might think it takes some serious magic juju or a whole lot of luck to get even just one photo of a whole family with everyone looking at the camera and simply *enjoying* themselves. (Or, appearing to.)
Getting kiddos to cooperate for photos is kinda like starting a maze blindfolded… You need to feel it out and not let fear take over, or else you’re doomed. If you let your instincts guide you and you trust yourself (and them!), it’ll go waaay smoother, and you’ll get some stunning images to boot.
I’ve prided myself on getting photos of hundreds of families that look natural and capture their different personalities for the past 10 years. And, it didn’t take any magic, and only a little bit of luck. More than that, it takes a tiny bit of planning, some intention, and a willingness to try new things!
Today, I want to share 5 of my favorite tricks up my sleeve so that you can encourage kids to cooperate and get gorgeous family photos.
01. Validation goes a LONG way.
When it comes down to it, kids just want to be seen, heard, validated, and loved just like adults do. You and I don’t want to be bossed around or told to stand here and there, do this and that with our faces and bodies, without understanding why… right? The same goes for kids. Treating them like valued human beings is essential to creating a strong, trusting relationship with them, whether or not it’s for photos!
But, when it does come to photos, be totally transparent with them. Get down on their level and speak to them person to person. Introduce yourself, explain what you’re going to be doing, and make it fun! Paying attention to them and talking to them respectfully makes them feel important, and that goes a long way when you want them to cooperate in front of the camera.
02. Try to find a connection with them.
Before ever picking up the camera, but after introducing yourself, try to find some sort of common ground with the child or children you’re photographing. Ask them what they love, what their favorite color is, their favorite music or storybook… And then see if you can incorporate it into the shoot.
Do they love Justin Beiber? Turn on Spotify and crank up “One Less Lonely Girl”! Are they obsessed with Frozen? Tell them how much Elsa would love their shoes! Connecting on some level, even in the smallest ways, is so special for little ones. They will get so excited that you share an interest in something they love, which will just boost their mood and willingness to work with you and listen!
03. Don’t underestimate the magic of a game.
Kids love games, and fortunately, pretty much anything can be turned into a game. Even family photoshoots. See who can make the silliest face, and soon they’ll be in stitches, laughing and playing together… aka, creating the perfect happy scene for you to snap. Ask who can skip the best, or who can hop the highest, and you’ll get some amazing action shots of the kids just having fun together.
If you can make a game out of something, try it. They’ll be way more likely to buy in because so much of motivating a child is just making something interesting and fun for them. Laughter, fun, joy, and, yep, a little friendly competition in a game, can transform a photo session with kiddos.
04. Take charge of directing the energy of the shoot.
If a child is being scolded by a parent in front of a stranger (you, the photographer), they will likely shut down and have a hard time being their fun and playful self. No one wants to be yelled at by someone… it’s embarrassing, no matter your age. And then to expect them to hug and laugh with that same person so they seem happy for a photo? Yeah. There’s just no way.
I will often encourage the parents to let me have a shot at correcting a kiddo’s behavior or finding a way to make them buy in to whatever it is that we are doing. Don’t underestimate taking a short break, changing the scenery, or stopping for a little water or a snack. Obviously, if safety is a concern or the behavior gets out of hand, the parents will step in and I will step back. But I have never had that experience at any of my shoots.
05. Forget about bribing kids during shoots.
I’ll say this now: Bribes during a session DO NOT work. Kids are too focused on instant gratification, especially if they are under 5 years old. They don’t understand that if they behave now, they can have a reward hours later.
I encourage parents to not bring candy or other things to bribe them for the session because it will turn into a power struggle, make a mess on their pretty clothes, and disrupts the natural flow of our session. It’s way more worthwhile to explain to a child what’s happening, get them involved in the process (even showing them your camera and some of the images as you go), and making it fun!
Photographing kids can be challenging, but it can also be so rewarding! I have clients who come back to me year after year because their kids love me and connect with me. The images that I am able to give them are better because I have a meaningful relationship with the kids, too.