10 Terrific Photography Tips to Tame Toddlers and Otherwise Trying Kiddos

(Plus 3 Bonus Tips for reading all the way to the end)

Photographing uncooperative kids

Whether it’s a large group shoot, a couple quick snaps of a family, or a fully dedicated children’s session, we’ve all dealt with a difficult child in our photography journey (or if you haven’t yet, your turn is coming!).  And of course it only gets worse during these winter months when kiddos start to feel cooped up and cagey.  So, what better time to layout our top ten go to moves when our young models are less than cooperative.

We host or go out to quite a few daycares, pre-schools, and headstart programs throughout the year, and it seems like no matter how well behaved, mild mannered, and otherwise incredible a majority of the kiddos are, there is always one… at least one… okay sometime many more than one… kiddo, who would rather be doing anything else than having their picture taken at that moment!  We can’t just skip him and send out pictures to every other kid in the daycare except for him, but we also can’t spend 30 minutes waiting for a smile!  What do we do?  Well I’m glad you asked:

Plan Ahead

Whether you are shooting daycare pictures like us or working on children’s sessions in your studio planning ahead will eliminate a lot of cranky kid issues before they even show up.  If you are working with busy parents who insist the only time they can book is at 8pm, don’t book that shoot, you are going to have a cranky kid to work with.  Find a weekend, a day off, or something else for your shoot.  The same goes for nap time earlier in the day, or even meal times.  You are already throwing off this poor kiddos whole routine and structure, which if it’s a good enough time they won’t hold it against you. But when your intrusion is keeping them awake or having them feeling hungry… you are fighting a loosing battle.  So plan ahead, tell parents or daycare providers to carve out a slot when kids will be awake, fed, and happy!  Keep in mind if the shoot is running a little late, it might be better to come back after nap time or a different day rather than try to power through!

Maintain YOUR Smile

Tough Kids To Photograph

This is the biggest piece of advice I can give and it is perhaps advice I would pass on to Mom and Dad when the shoot starts to go sideways.  The second you show that you are frustrated, or Mom or Dad start yelling or snapping at the kiddo, your chances of getting a great picture drop significantly.  If the kid is not in the best mood for pictures and Mom and Dad start to stress, you are the last hope for turning things around, you have to bring the joy back to the room!  So don’t get frustrated, reach into your bag of tricks (if you don’t have any yet… keep reading), put your head down and power through.  The parents will appreciate it (and tell their friends about it), the kiddo might snap out of it (and give you some awesome shots), and at the end of the shoot when everyone leaves you can say, “Man, that was a tough one!”

Come Down and Get Small

Put yourself in that poor kiddos shoes for a second.  They are either in a brand new space (your studio) or they are seeing some stranger turning their familiar space into a weird looking set!  Not only that, this stranger is staring at them, speaking to them, attempting to tickle them, all while towering over them and definitely breaking into their personal space; all while holding this strange looking machine that beeps and flashes like a lightening storm!  That’s enough to traumatize anyone!  It’s a wonder every child doesn’t freak out when its their turn (knock on wood, we definitely don’t want to put that idea out in the universe!).

Come down to their level, speak softly (or not at all!), and give them a minute or two to take it all in.  Play a silent game of Peek-A-Boo if they’ll let you, hum a familiar song, snap your fingers, really anything to seem small and inviting could be your easiest ticket to getting some great pics!

Tickles

Believe it or not, tickles actually work.  As long as parents are okay with it, reach out and tickle.  90% of the time they will break!  I find belly tickles to be the best!  If you think about it, most kids are probably tickled pretty often, either at home, by relatives, or wherever else… they know the game!  You reach out tickle their belly a little bit they laugh and try to pull away a little bit. 

The bad side is, if they are afraid of you and you get close and start trying to touch them, you might just push them over the edge of no return!  But that’s actually okay, the steps below will help you get them back!

Find Something Else – Anything Else – To Focus On

There are really only three types of kids in this world – Kids that have to be the center of attention, Kids that are terrified of being the center of attention, and Kids who could care less.  The last group is easy to photograph, but the first two can be tricky.  Sometimes the kid that has to be the center of attention will be the most uncooperative.  They have to put on a show, and usually that show doesn’t involve sitting nicely and smiling at the camera.  When you find something else to focus on, or said differently, when you remove yourself as the audience to their show, there isn’t much reason to continue putting on a show!  It might take a minute or two for them to catch on, but they will!  Be ready to snap your pictures quick, when they discover they have their audience back, the show must go on!!!

The second group of kiddos, those terrified of being the center of attention, might legitimately need you to stop focusing on them for a second to gain their composure.  You being interested in the Kleenex box on the desk gives them time of take everything in settle down.  After a minute or two, remember Step 1 and approach them at their level, small, and quietly, and capture your shots!

Bring In Another Kiddo

This can be a gamble, the last thing you need is for the new kid to come in and see their buddy crying and think, “oh, this is what they’ve been back here doing all day, making my friends cry!” and then they start up and you’ve got two uncooperative  kiddos!  However if there is a rockstar kiddo you can trust, to come in and take some great pictures… go get him, and have a party with him!  Tell him how wonderful his smile is, laugh outrageously with him, tell him “good job” about 17,000 times, comment on how great of a job he does standing nice and tall, and what a great sitter he is.  A lot of kids are very driven by competition and at the same time a deep rooted desire to please.  When they see and hear you interact with someone else in such a positive way, you might just convince them to try to mimic their friends “good” behavior!

Take 5

If you get a couple of strategies in and this one model is just not having it, let them go.  Maybe they are missing TV time because you decided it was their turn for pictures, maybe they need to use the bathroom, are hungry, or maybe they are just being stubborn, it doesn’t really matter what is going, the reality is in 30 minutes they are probably in a completely different state of mind!  Move on to the next kid, cross your fingers, and hope little Timmy gets it figured out before his turn comes around again.

Go Off Script – Don’t Force It

When we are doing large volume photography, we have 2-3 poses we try to get for each kiddos, sometimes its important to realize you just aren’t going to get those 2-3 poses… and that’s okay.  Some of our best shots have been more candid captures of kids just doing whatever they want to!  Keep your camera ready and snap away, you’ll get something you can use!

Fake It!

Warning!!! You’re going to read this last tip and think, “DESPERATE” but… okay there is no but… you are absolutely right!  At this point I am desperate!  Never in my life have I been more desperate to have some strange child that I will probably never see again in my life smile at me, than in this moment!

Close your eyes and picture a child laughing, like a really big jolly laugh – what does she look like?  Head is thrown back a little bit, their mouth is opened, their eyes might be a little bit closed.  Now imagine that same kiddo crying – what does she look like?  Head back (in defiance), mouth open (and wailing!), and their eyes closed (with tears running down!).  In reality and without audio and other context clues laughing and crying don’t actually look all that different!  In fact from the correct angle, and maybe an extra minute or two during touch-ups you might be able to sneak out of that session with a couple of believable “SMILES.”

Take The Picture Anyway

It never fails… at least once a year we will run into an All-Star Kiddo who has mastered the art of being sad/mad/crying/hiding/etc… no matter what we try.  So we snap the best pictures we can and move on.  Almost undoubtedly those parents will order those pictures.  The fact of the matter is, a kid that good at “not smiling” needs a lot of practice.  That is probably the way they are at home, the way their parents see them everyday, and the perfect representation of that stage in their life! 

As I re-read this it sounds terrible, but I can’t figure out how to make it sound better! I’m not talking about a poor, sad, depressing kiddo who never smiles or laughs in life.  I’m just talking about the ones who that is just their character or a weird “no smile” phase their in.  I don’t think that clears it up… anyone with kids or who works with kids a lot knows exactly what I’m talking about!

Photographers Be Weary of These 3 Things!

A  lot of photographers, parents, or daycare staff we work with have some go to tricks for getting kids to smile that in my opinion aren’t really great strategies to begin with or that can backfire in a big way.

Bribery

First off, I am weary of bribery as a parent to begin with, I think it creates a sense of entitlement that I should always get something for doing something.  I also think it unfair that the kiddos who come right in and do a great job are rewarded with a “Great Job Buddy!” while the kiddos who struggle are offered candy to do a good job, almost like it pays to start off uncooperative.  But my soap box aside, some of my most uncooperative kiddos have been the result of bribery gone wrong!

This is a true story,  we photographed a daycare where the worker that was helping us had a 3 year old daughter that followed her around.  So while the other kids were playing, the daycare worker and her daughter were bringing kids in one by one to be photographed. One kiddo was having a particularly tough time so the daycare worker told him if he took a few good pictures she would give him some candy.  When it was the daughter’s turn she walked into the room as normal as could be, and in an instant began crying and screaming for 5 minutes straight.  We tried a few of the strategies above, and then said let’s try again later.  We photographed the rest of the kiddos and then asked the staff to bring her back in… same story, she walked in just fine, and then lit into her tantrum.  Finally the daycare worker said if you take a few good pictures I’ll get you some candy, almost instantly this little girl’s face cleared up, she sat down like a little angel, and began striking all of the poses she had seen the other kids doing all day without a hitch.  She was determined to get her candy!

Last thought on bribery, I think it sets up the next photographer (or you the next time you photograph this family) to have to always provide a bribe to get good pictures… okay, okay, I’m off my soapbox again.

Giving The Kiddo Your Camera

I have seen posts encouraging photographers to do this, so the kid can see and become familiar with this weird thing, this weird stranger keeps putting in front of their face.  I guess, that makes sense, and it probably works great, but think about this… what happens when they drop your camera, spit/slobber on your camera, touch/smudge/scratch your lens, press a button and change a setting that you aren’t sure how to change back, or anything else that can happen in a split second!  That single piece of equipment probably represents $100’s or $1,000’s of dollars every month in income, and even a few days without it while it gets repaired could mean re-scheduling shoots, loosing clients, and ultimately loosing money!  When I ask myself what is the value of getting this one kid to smile, it doesn’t quite reach the value of my business and livelihood!

Also, letting a kiddo play with your camera makes it (and others like it) a toy.  Watch out Mom, Dad, or next photographer, Charlie thinks he knows exactly what to do with your camera!

Ask Mom, Dad, or Employees To Help

When it works, it works great, but when it fails, it fails miserably.  We’ve had kiddos get worse when Mom or Dad comes in the room.  We’ve had daycare works start scolding kids. We’ve had helpers who didn’t want to get out of the picture once the kiddo was calmed down.  And I’m sure some other things I can’t think of… or don’t want to mention! Don’t get me wrong we’ve worked with a ton of awesome helpers who have made Picture Day go so smoothly, but it just takes one to really cramp your style.  I think in part, bringing in Mom, Dad, or the employees to help legitimizes the kiddos uncertainty/fear more than it sooths it.  In our experience waiting and letting them find out there is nothing to be afraid of tends to work better!

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