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How to get natural smiles in children’s portraiture (by Erin Bell)

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How to get natural smiles in children’s portraiture (by Erin Bell)

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Erin Bell is an incredible Baby’s and Children’s Photographer in Connecticut.  I am honored to have her here on the MCP Blog.  Today she is my guest photographer and she will be teaching “how to get natural smiles in children’s portraiture.”  Please leave her a comment at the end here so she knows how much you loved this.  She has offered to come back again soon, so show her some LOVE.


How To Get Natural Smiles

There is no specific formula for getting natural smiles- it varies from child to child and age to age. I usually try each method I have with each child until I achieve a natural smile. Once I succeed, I know usually what will work the rest of the session. Keep in mind, these are just my suggestions- but I find they work well with my clients!

4-12 Months

For babies, I find some babies are happier on their stomachs and some on their backs. Ask parents which they prefer and try to stick with that as much as you can. I find that from ages 4 months till about 8 months they do really well without their parents in the room- generally separation anxiety hasn’t set in yet. I set the baby down in a spot and then I just start shooting while talking. I do a combination of songs, gasping and saying what a pretty girl or handsome boy they are, and just plain old talking. Some spots are just not happy spots for the baby and you could try for hours and they won’t smile. I spend about 3 minutes in a spot and if I’m not getting smiles, then I take my serious, thoughtful shots and we move locations. Popular locations for me are parents bed’s by the window light, foyers while I shoot from the outside, sliding glass doors and shooting from the outside. Eventually you’ll get it right- babies moods change so quickly.

Little B was good at smiling for his parents so we got a lot of shots like that. I took about 50 during this part of the shoot- 40 of which he is looking at his parents. Still, the handful where he is looking more or less at me are worth it. I’m big on eye contact, so I shoot a lot and weed out all of them without eye contact. The eye contact isn’t perfect here, but parents still like photos like this.

At 5 months, he also did really well alone. I got more of the curious smiles when we were alone, and more of the grins when his parents were there. I wanted both- so a combination worked well. Make sure you try to get a variety of expressions- serious, dreamy, giggly, content, etc.

1-3 Years

Unless there are older siblings around, I find that children ages 1-3 have separation anxiety and do better with parents there. Sometimes parents are helpful at getting the child to smile, sometimes they’re not. I tend to try both. Usually I have the parents start behind me and they sing their child’s favorite songs. I sing along and rock my body back and forth like dancing and hardly focusing on taking pictures at first. I snap a few smiling photos while they’re looking at Mom and Dad just in case that’s all I get, then once I get a few of those I take a break from snapping and sing along, waiting for the child to glance over at me. I snap photos when they do.

I always kick the parents away even if it’s going well, just because who knows- it could go better. I usually ask if I could have a glass of ice water- I give them a wink and whisper that I want to see how the child does alone. Then I immediately start up with another song. Songs at this age tend to be my main technique. Be careful of songs that involve too much hand movement- motion blur from subject will be a problem. If the child starts crying when the parent walks away, I immediately tell them to come back before we have a melt down.

If they are just hesitant, I can usually distract them. I dance and hold my camera down a little so it really does feel like we’re just playing. I’ve gotten good at having my camera around my neck and suddenly grabbing and focusing for the shot I need. (This is part of the reason I mostly shoot on AV mode. My style of shooting is really playful and quick.)

This is little “J”. She did best with her mother there we found. I cannot stress enough how much new experiences get this age group happy. With her I gasped and said, “Oh… you should sit on a step. Pick a step. Which step is she going to pick…. Oh that one!” Then I got down and adjusted my settings and began to say to her. “Look at her, queen of the steps- look how high up she is! She’s waaaay at the top of the steps. Heeeello Miss. J! I seeee you, Queen J- ruler of the steps!” Dorky and silly sounding, but it made her happy and I got the shots I wanted.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve worked with photographers who just sit there and say, “J…. J… look at me… what are you doing?? Look at you…” Kids realize this is boring. They want interesting conversation- new experiences. You have to give them something to smile about if you expect them to smile. Appeal to their age group- toddlers want to try new things, be independent, be high up. I go into each session with a good understanding of the age I’m photographing.

After awhile I knew I wanted a high key feeling image on the white rocking chair on her front porch. We placed her up there and immediately she wanted to get down. We tried singing ABC but at this age, sometimes children are sick of basic songs. Instead I stood there and making up a song that went, “Rockity rock, rockity rock, rockity rockity rockity rock. “J” rockity rocks, “J” rockity rocks, she rockity rockity rockity rocks.” Feel free to do the same silly embarrassing things that you do in front of your own kids to other people’s kids. She sat there half smiling, half confused by me, but in the end decided I was funny and I got the photo I wanted. Keep in mind that basic songs don’t always work. Don’t be afraid to make up silly songs as you go.

As I’m sure you’ve discovered, bubbles always work with this age. I have parents blow the bubbles at my camera- I back up quite a bit and the kid usually has to run at me. Throughout the bubble blowing I often pause and say, “J!!! How many bubbles did you just pop!?” or “Oh my goodness, did you see that!?” It makes it easier to get eye contact during bubbles.

Age 4 and Up

It’s my personal opinion that with the older age group it’s a lot harder to get the natural smiles and a lot of times, posed smiles will work. With that said, there’s the forced awkward, uncomfortable, unhappy smile, and the posed genuinely happy smile. You’re going to the latter. With this age, we always are alone- just me and the subject usually- and we just have a lot of fun. This little girl showed me all around her room and told me all about school. I tend to find questions like “What is your best friends name?” “Do you like your teacher or not really?” “Who is the class clown in your class?” “Who is funnier- your Mom or your Dad?” work a lot better for developing a relationship than “How old are you?” and “What grade are you in?” They get asked those questions all the time- they’re boring to them now. I have them sit in a good spot and just start talking to them. When they’re talking to me I try to catch smiles. Occasionally if they’re not the type to look at me while they talk I have to say, “Look at me when you talk.”

I do some of that candid talking and then I do some informal posing. The secret to getting posed but more natural smiles at this age is getting them right away. I pointed to the bed and said, “Alright flop down on your tummy and put your hands under your chin…” They do it and I said, “Oh perfect. You’ve got it. Love it… look at me… excellent… this is beautiful.” I snap quickly. Girls and boys both like a lot of positive feedback. If I pause and fiddle with my camera and then look up to capture the photo their smile is a lot more forced I smile. The trick is to be getting your settings set up before you ask them to lay down or as they’re getting situated.

In this second photo, I caught her off guard. She was paying attention to other things (we were out at a lake in full sun at 12 noon but going for it anyway… ahh!) and I came up behind her where she couldn’t see me and said, “Hey, “R”, look at me!” She turned and looked and gave a smile. Sure not the most natural smile, but a lot of times I find that the wild grins don’t always sell as much for older children- quirky smiles aren’t always AS endearing to parents I think when they’re older.

These are my techniques for achieving natural smiles. There are many more out there, this is just what works for me. Knowing how to work with children and knowing about the various stages children go through over the years really helps. I find that my photography is 60% my connection with the client, 20% what I do in camera, and 20% clean processing. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, be silly, and make a fool out of yourself- even in front of parents.

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  1. September 12, 2008 at 7:13 pm —

    Great great tips Erin!!! Thanks girl!

  2. Missy
    September 12, 2008 at 4:57 pm —

    I didn’t know my Child Development classes would help me with PHotography! Thanks for pointing that out! those are some GREAT ideas! I’m going to try them out! Thanks so much!

  3. Erin Bell
    September 12, 2008 at 4:21 pm —

    Thanks so much everyone for the awesome responses, you’re so welcome!!! 🙂

  4. Amber
    September 12, 2008 at 1:50 pm —

    Thanks for all of the wonderful advice!

  5. September 12, 2008 at 1:34 pm —

    Awesome, thoughtful, and valuable advice! Thank you for these tips, which I will be trying out in just a couple of hours!

  6. September 12, 2008 at 11:45 am —

    Thanks Erin and Jodi! Great tips!!!!!!! LOVE IT!

  7. Janene
    September 12, 2008 at 11:37 am —

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write all this up with examples, Erin!! Your photography is beautiful and I am greatful for the “behind the scenes” info. about helping the children smile. . . so helpful!!

  8. September 12, 2008 at 11:10 am —

    Thank you so much Erin! I’ll never forget the terror I felt the first time a parent sat her 1-year-old daughter down and the child stared blankly at me, no matter what I tried. I eventually got her to smile by having her dad tickle her, but I realized I needed to learn more about working with kids. Even if you get can get kids to smile in normal interaction, there’s something unnatural about posing for a camera and kids sense it immediately. Thanks for the tips, I’ll definitely try these (and wouldn’t you know, I get a chance tomorrow!). 🙂

  9. September 12, 2008 at 11:03 am —

    Great post! Thanks so much for sharing…

  10. Iris H
    September 12, 2008 at 10:59 am —

    This is terrifically well done. In the back of my mind I’ve somewhat thought about these ideas but I’ve never had them so clearly and artfully summarized as Erin has done here. Thanks so much.

  11. September 12, 2008 at 10:51 am —

    What great information. I need to do better at asking questions and engaging in conversations that aren’t the same ol’ same ol’ thing. Erin, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!! You are a gem.

  12. September 12, 2008 at 10:45 am —

    thanks for sharing these great tips. i will use some of these on my seniors who sometimes behave like toddlers!!

  13. September 12, 2008 at 10:43 am —

    Wonderful post, Erin! I make a fool out of myself all the time, so that part shouldn’t be a problem. LOL!! I got a lot from this post and really appreciate you sharing this information with us!

  14. September 12, 2008 at 10:43 am —

    Thanks so much for the pointers! I almost always shoot for children and I am so excited to learn some of your techniques! Thanks again! I’m excited to hear what you have to say next time.

  15. September 12, 2008 at 10:42 am —

    This is an AWESOME post!!! I have five of my own, and still often find I am struggling for ways to connect naturally with clients. Thank you so much for sharing with all of us, both your amazing work, and your expertise!!

  16. September 12, 2008 at 10:37 am —

    This was so informative and helpful! Thank you so much!!!

  17. Jen
    September 12, 2008 at 10:30 am —

    This is great! I cannot wait to give this a try!

  18. Michelle
    September 12, 2008 at 10:17 am —

    Thanks for the tips! It is so helpful to get a peek inside what works for others Keep em comin!

  19. September 12, 2008 at 10:16 am —

    So helpful, can’t wait to use some of these suggestions on my upcoming “3 year old” session 🙂

  20. September 12, 2008 at 9:55 am —

    Thank you so much for this information! I’ve been wanting to shadow a children’s photographer to see exactly how they do this…thanks for letting me “shadow” you! 🙂 Wonderfuly written, THANKS again!!!

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How to get natural smiles in children’s portraiture (by Erin Bell)