How to engage children in portraiture

Jun 1, 2012

Topic: Tutorials, Family Photography
Time Investment: 6 Minutes
Suggested Product:  Portrait Contract Bundle


Have you ever had a photography session with a family of young children, and you can tell the kids don’t want to be wearing the outfits that their mom chose for them, they don’t want to smile or anything to get a good picture?

Well…. I have been photographing young children for over a year and a half now, and I have learned a few tricks to help engage children and turn the dreadful family portraits into a fun family bonding day.

Here are some helpful tips for you:



Find a location that is safe. For instance, you don’t want to worry about little ones getting too close to a busy street. It is also important to find a wide open space where the kids can run around while you are focusing on the parents or one child at a time. Kids don’t like to be bored; they like to explore and test boundaries. If you choose a location where they can do a little exploring and they can run around and have fun, chances are you will be able to capture some great shots.

I often opt for local public gardens and arboretums. At these locations, I have had luck getting so many unexpected pictures when the children don’t know you are photographing them. They are just being themselves, and I will happen to get a genuine smile from them rather than telling them to say “cheese”. They are usually wide open with an array of different things to explore, and the backgrounds are always beautiful. You don’t have to position them directly in front of a beautiful flowering bush because chances are there are many flowering bushes nearby so you are guaranteed to get at least one in the background.



Bribery should not always be thought of as bad. Let’s face it, bribery works with kids. I usually go to the local Dollar Tree or Target and pick up a few random toys before a session. I have a vintage box that I call my treasure chest and bring it full of different goodies for all ages, to any session that will involve children. Before the session I will say something like this to the kids; “If you let me take a few pictures of your beautiful smiles with your siblings and parents, then you each get to pick anything out of this treasure chest”. This little trick works wonders. Just the mystery of what’s in the box intrigues them.


Photography Assistant or Helper

Getting a child to be your “little helper” is another trick I use. I will  ask them to help me with something. Kids will jump to help a new “friend” rather than their parents at home. For little ones, I will ask if they want to help take a picture. I, of course hold the camera, but I let them look through the view finder and take a picture. When I show them the picture that they took, they feel so proud that they got to help. Every now and then, those pictures turn out pretty well!



Everyone knows that they are supposed to smile when someone points a camera in their direction and is told to say “cheese”. I’m all for getting a smile, but there is something about a “cheese” smile versus a real genuine, happy smile.

To get kids to look at the camera, I will say something like “did you see that monkey on my head? He was just there; watch he might come back”. That will usually get a child to smile and look right at me. Whistles, squeakers, and bells will also get them to look your way. I will tell the parents to just smile and freeze (even though it’s awkward) because eventually the kids will look my way with a smile. Before, I would have two happy, smiling kids and their parents would have an open mouth look because they are saying something and are trying to get the kids to look at me.

I have found that pictures with the parents looking at me and smiling with the kids crying or looking the other way have become the parent’s favorite picture because it shows how the kid’s personalities really are.


These are just a few tricks that I have learned along the way that have worked for me.

The most important thing to get good pictures of children is letting them be free and have fun. Trying to make them sit a certain way or in a specific place doesn’t work for me. The more fun they have, the better the pictures. If you make a memorable session for them, chances are you will have repeat business because they got beautiful pictures and great family memories of having fun during the process of capturing them!


Thanks to Jessica Rivera for today’s guest blog post!

Explore more