10 Tricks for Getting REAL Smiles out of your Kids | Tutorial

Kids can be a joy to photograph. When they’re small, they are so open and unfettered by self-consciousness and ideas about how they should look that they make it easy to capture an amazing range of genuine emotion on their little faces.

Chapel Hill Child Photographer
Chapel Hill Child Photographer

But then they turn two.

It’s remarkable how early we become aware of the camera and begin to react when one is pointed in our direction… usually with less-than-genuine results. In my work as a photographer, though, I have to be able to get around that, so I’ve developed a bag of tricks that helps me capture those real, genuine smiles and laughs pretty much each and every time I pick up my camera… and I figured I’d share them with you!

Chapel Hill Child Photographer

But… there are a few ground rules.

First: Get down on their level. Most of these tricks involve interacting with kids, and that almost always works better when you’re eye to eye (or even lower). Kids seem to feel more comfortable when they’re not staring up at you, like it gives them the sense that you’re playing, rather than trying to get something accomplished.

Second: Make them comfortable. If it’s your child, make sure they’re not hungry or tired, and are in a comfortable spot. If you’re photographing someone else’s child, make sure they feel secure… depending on how old they are, that might mean having their parents right there or just making sure they get used to you.

Third: Don’t start cold. Even the world’s funniest comedian has an opening act to get the crowd warmed up… if you want to get kids to smile and laugh and have a good time, start with a conversation or a game. Have the camera around your neck and maybe pick it up once or twice, but let them see your face and know that you are interested in them and what they have to say before you start clicking away.

Finally: Don’t get fed up if something doesn’t work! If you get frustrated, or try to force a particular thing to happen, it’s pretty much guaranteed to fail. Just keep moving, keep trying new things, and above all else, keep having fun (or acting like you are, anyway)!

Okay… so we’re sitting on the floor of this child’s playroom happily chatting and playing games. Everything is going great, until the camera comes out. Suddenly it’s either a total cheese-fest or you’ve got a kid who won’t look you (or your camera) in the eye. What to do?

In the former scenario, snap a couple of throw-away cheesy shots so they know they’re doing a good job, then start playing games:

1. It’s always good to start off by remembering their names wrong… the sillier the name, the better:

“Oh Hildegard, what a beautiful smile you have!”

“My name’s not Hildegard! It’s Emily!”

“What?!? Noooo… get out of here! It’s not Emily, it’s Ethel, right?”

Etc., etc.

Chapel Hill Child Photographer
2. Tell them to roar like a lion, make monkey noises, make a monster face, etc. When they do it, give them a hard time about it (“Oh come on… that didn’t sound like a lion!”), then repeat until you’ve got them laughing.
Chapel Hill Child Photographer

3. Play the mirror game. Tell them you’re going to make a face, then you want them to make the same face. Peek around your camera and bust out your most ridiculous face, then get behind the camera in time to catch their reaction. (Be sure to get both the imitated face and the ensuing laughter!)

Chapel Hill Child Photographer

Generally, if this particular child is already showing off with the big cheese smiles, getting them to laugh at these (admittedly ridiculous) antics is not hard, but sometimes you push them too far and they’re bouncing off the walls. Now’s the perfect time to let them run around: they burn off some energy while you step back and get some action shots.

There are those kids, though, are pretty slow to warm up. They might be shy around strangers, or, if you’re their parent, it might just be the camera itself making them shy. In either case, the goal is to distract their attention from the camera and/or the photographer and get them smiling and laughing about something else altogether.

4. Ask questions. Start off with topics that are normal adult-child questions, then veer into the ridiculous:

“So, Mark, you’re in kindergarten, huh?”

*Mark nods*

“How exciting! What’s your teacher’s name?”

“Ms. Brown.”

“Oh, Ms. Brown! Is she friendly?”


“Is she funny?”


“Is she a watermelon?”

You might get a blank stare, but if you hold their gaze and look genuinely confused, most kids will ultimately give you a smile. If not, start again with a different topic, ask a couple of normal questions, then throw in an absurd one… once they “get” the joke and can anticipate the punchline, you’ll get some giggles.

Chapel Hill Child Photographer

5. Get the parents involved (or a spouse or friend if you are the parent): tell them ahead of time to “sneak up” behind you and tickle you, give you bunny ears, imitate you, etc. If you get the kid laughing, you can then respond with mock-frustration (“Heeeey… don’t make fun of me! Don’t you laugh at me! Don’t do it!”), which brings me to…

6. Reverse psychology. Don’t start this until you’ve gotten some initial reaction, but if they giggle and then go back to being somber, you can usually get them going again with an overtly silly “Oh that’s perfect… don’t you smile. We want this to be a VERY SERIOUS picture. Excellent. No smiling allowed. Not even a little bit. No wait! Stop smiling! Aaaah – no! We need SERIOUS faces! STOP!”

Once kids know you’re there to have fun, and you’re not going to get mad if they don’t cooperate or if they act crazy, you’re their favorite person in the world and you can play games all day long (or until your session time is up):

7. Fart noises, classy as they are, go over big with little kids, and boys of just about any age. When things start to get a bit stale, make a big fart noise while you’re hidden behind your camera, then pop out and look accusingly at the kids. “Did you do that? Ewwww!” (This will work on one child, but is even better with multiple children who can blame each other and feed off each others’ giggles.)

Chapel Hill Child Photographer

8. Taking pictures in weird positions, i.e. bent over between your legs, facing the other direction and holding your camera over head, lying on the ground and having the kids come look down at your lens… not only might you get some cool perspectives, you’ll also have the kids thinking you’re crazy, and as far as kids are concerned, crazy is AWESOME.

Chapel Hill Child Photographer

9. They also like thinking they know more than you do. When you’ve got them quietly looking into the lens, get some of those beautiful stares, then compliment them on their beautiful orange eyes. What’s that you say? Not orange? Oh wait, I mean pink… yellow? Purple? This is very similar to the wrong name trick, but they both work, as do many variations on the theme… if you know the Mr. Noodle character on Elmo’s World, you know what I mean.

10. Get that one last, perfect shot with a bit of bribery:

“You did such a great job… let’s go have some ICE CREAM!!!”

Smiles galore… guaranteed:D

Chapel Hill Child Photographer

I know it’s tough getting the real smiles, especially at the precise moment you want them, when the kids are lined up in front of a beautiful flowerbed in the springtime, dressed in their Sunday best. My best advice is to not get too caught up in perfection… that’s not what childhood is about, anyway. Let kids be kids and learn to react quickly with your camera and you’ll have albums-full of amazing memories that will really reflect who your kids were rather than some Rockwell-ian version thereof. I tell my clients all the time: pictures of your children are not about the flowers behind them… they’re about your children!

P.S. If you have a child who won’t warm up and is either scared or tired, it might not be possible to get belly laughs… and that’s okay! Redirect and go for those amazing, wondrous stares or just looks of quiet contentment. I get great staring shots from young children (usually 2-3 year-olds) by directing their attention to my lens and asking if they can see the butterfly inside (when the shutter is released, the flicker inside is the “butterfly”).

Chapel Hill Child Photographer





Molly - Those are really good tips, Hildegard!

Kara - Great tips! Plus that baby in the first few pictures is super cute :)

Andrea - Have loved your photos since my friend Megs wedding! Excellent tips for me to try with my own kids in hopes of getting some pics that are a fraction as beautiful as yours!

Amanda - Those tricks might work on adults, too, because I was giggling through your entire post imagining you doing that!

Annemie - Thanks for the comments, ladies! I’m glad you like them, and glad they had you laughing, Amanda! Andrea – your own kids are the best ones to practice on… they’re always there, and you get to keep the results :)

Anthony Schwab - Awesome, all of these tip are so true.
Children can be such a big challenge but so worth the time to get fabulous photos.
Thank you

Birgit - Great tips, and lovely pictures! And I’m sure there is something to learn for adult shootings here, too!

Toan - Wow! Great practical advice. You’re a colorful writer too. Thanks Hildy the magical butterfly photographer and watermelon eater! Crazy is good. We forget that as we try to be perfect adults. Bah!

Natalie Wheeler - This is fantastic, thank you!!!

ALLISON CARENZA - Oh my gosh! I love the tips and the pics! So real and genuine! I’ve actually been working on an electronic that helps get kids to look at the camera. Check it out. http://www.lookyloolight.com I’ve been in research and development for a couple years and after testing it in my studio for a year I’m ready to share it with the world. It’s been a real game changer for me! :) We are selling them through our kickstarter campaign right now. http://kck.st/1n8VMia
Love your blog!

Fun in the Sun (a tutorial) | Chapel Hill Photographer

You pack up the car for a gorgeous sunny day at the beach, head out, and everything is perfect: the breeze is warm, the drinks are cold, the children play happily, and you sit and doze in between the pages of a trashy novel, breathing in the heady mix of saltwater, sunscreen, and sweat. These are the days we work so hard for; the days we dream of from our cubicles in the dead of winter; the days we hope to remember one day in the distant future when we reflect on what we’ve done with our lives. So why is it that this is what you see:

Shooting in Bright Sun
…but somehow, when you upload the photos from your camera, this is what you get:

Direct Sun Photography Tutorial

 Hard light, deep shadows, black eye sockets, and generally underexposed – the joys of shooting in bright sun! But it doesn’t have to be that bad…

Today, as we approach spring and the beginning of another season of sunshine-soaked days, I want to let you in on a couple of little tricks that can dramatically improve the pictures you take in the direct sun.

***A disclaimer: these techniques can be applied by anyone using any camera, but are MUCH easier to manage if you have full manual control over your camera. Some point and shoots allow this, and all dSLRs do, but very few people ever take the time to learn how to take advantage of that ability. Do it! You won’t regret it!)***

***Another disclaimer: I got kind of hung up on finding beach pictures to go along with my little story at the beginning, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t get to the beach that often and don’t have loads and loads of beach pictures, so some of these are not perfect examples of the ideas I’m illustrating… if anything isn’t clear, say so in the comments & I will happily elucidate!***

Number 1 (and this is a biggie!): Stop taking pictures with your back to the sun! When you look directly into the sun, what do you do? Squint! And that’s what your subjects do, too! Also, depending on where the sun is in the sky, your subjects might end up with raccoon eyes or you might get your own shadow in the picture. Instead, position your subject so that the sun is either behind or beside them.

Direct Sun Hard Shadows
This picture isn’t taken straight on into the sun, but in some ways, it has the worst of all worlds: harsh sun making Judah squint, casting hard shadows on both Judah’s and Oliver’s faces, AND shading both of their eyes into oblivion. The only reason I even took this picture was that they were being so darn cute!

When the sun is high in the sky, it is a much harder, harsher light source, and any shadows on your subjects’ faces will create hard lines. At that time of day, I generally turn my subject away from the sun altogether. In the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky, the light it gives is much softer. That’s the perfect time to sidelight a subject to create that dramatic Rembrandt lighting you learned about in art history class.

Faces in Shadow

Though by no means perfect, this image is better. Oliver’s face is more evenly exposed thanks to the shadow from Judah’s head; Judah’s face is turned from the sun, so he loses the hard shadows and his expression is more relaxed. There are still hard lines, but it’s getting there…

Then I moved, and the moment was over… Oliver ran off somewhere else and I got this backlit image of Judah. His face is well-exposed and there’s plenty of light in his eyes. If I’d had my druthers, this is the direction from which I would’ve shot the whole series, but especially with kids, sometimes you don’t get the opportunity to direct, and just have to go with it.

Number 2: Overexpose your images. Cameras these days can do some amazing things with little to no intervention on our part, but ultimately, they’re machines and make decisions based on algorithms, and those algorithms don’t always work. A camera sees every scene on the spectrum of bright to dark, and exposes so that the scene averages out to 18% gray. In many cases, that works just fine, but if a scene is very bright or very dark, it misses the mark… which is why the picture I posted up above as the “didn’t quite do it justice” example looks so dark.

Another example: you’ve probably taken a picture on a snowy day where the snow turned out gray and the people’s faces were so dark you could hardly see them, right? That’s because the camera sees all that white snow and mistakes it for too much light, so it darkens the picture to compensate. The same is true in reverse: get a groom in a black tux standing on a dark background and let the camera do the work and you’ll end up with a gray-clad groom whose face is way too light.

The solution? If the scene is white, add light (and if it’s black/dark, take it away)!

On a bright sunny day on light-colored sand with the water reflecting everywhere, your camera is going to try to underexpose your image. Take control! Either shoot in manual and overexpose, or use your exposure compensation to bring it up one or two stops… you’ll have much better images straight out of the camera!

If it
When I captured this image, the meter claimed that I was 1.3 stops overexposed. If I’d followed the meter precisely, the picture would’ve come out too dark, but I knew to compensate given the overall brightness of the scene. If Erin hadn’t been wearing a black shirt, I probably would’ve overexposed closer to two stops.

Number 3: Play with flare. Though it’s not technically “correct”, sun flare can create amazing atmosphere in photographs, at times adding so much visual warmth that your viewer can practically feel the sun on their skin.

To create flare, put the sun in or just outside of your frame, then watch the light through your viewfinder and press the shutter when you like how it looks. Play with partially obscuring the sun behind another object (i.e. a tree branch), and tilt your camera at different angles to see how it affects the light. If you have a dSLR, the cheapest lens you have and a small aperture will give you perfect beams with colorful flares.

Sun Flare Silhouette on the Beach
This image was created with a 24-70 f/2.8 lens set to f/22 (ISO 200, shutter speed 1/640). Didn’t quite get the banded flare I was looking for, but liked the silhouette.

That ought to get you started… questions? Comments? Other recommendations?



Matt - That was a great post – I wish you were here with me in SA so my shark pix could be much better (and also because I miss you). Less than three. M

Erin T - A very helpful tutorial. Now can we please go back to the beach so I can practice? (some Mai Tais might help too)

Annemie - Fine – twist my arm! Because I am so committed to photography and helping my loyal readers, I will accompany you to the beach and to South Africa… *sigh*

Molly - I finally took a photography class this past weekend, so I have some idea what you’re talking about. Hooray!

Bert - Enjoyable and informative posting. And the photos selected are great. Thanks for the tips and tricks of your trade. I hope to put some of them to use soon.

Written & Illustrated Sneak Peek | Chapel Hill Family Photographer

I’m so excited to share the first couple of images from my very first Written & Illustrated session! Kacey & Gary are getting ready to leave – TOMORROW – for three months in Malawi. Kacey is a Maternal Fetal Medicine Fellow at UNC, and was given the opportunity to go in order to provide much-needed medical and surgical expertise… an exciting challenge, to be sure, but a complicated one given that it meant putting her husband’s career (and salary) on hold and transplanting her family – including her two young children – halfway around the world. Listening to their story and spending time with their family for our session was amazing… I know the images we captured will mean more, not only because there will be a written accompaniment, but also because getting to know them gave me a different, more authentic perspective through the lens. Looking through their images and beginning to piece their story together has been hugely validating, and I absolutely cannot wait to share the finished product with you all:D

In the meantime, I hope you’ll all join me in wishing them safe travels and lots of energy in the days ahead!

Chapel Hill Child Portrait Photographer
Chapel Hill Child Portrait Photographer
Chapel Hill Family Portrait Photographer



Bert - Cute kids and wonderful idea–yours and theirs.

Dilip Barman - What a lovely and giving family. Thanks for capturing and sharing their images – and best wishes to them in their travels!

kate - The peaceful, sweet faces of the children and the way you captured the love and contentment of the family makes me want to see and read more about this generous family’s adventure. Thank you.