Photographing Kids: Getting Kids to Smile for the Camera

I especially love taking natural and unposed photographs of my children. However, sometimes I need to get the kids smiling for the camera. For example: family shots and Christmas photos.

But what is a smile? A “Say Cheese” smile is just muscles moving, but a real smile is all about emotion. And that is what I want to capture on camera.

I want to capture the light behind their eyes as their face lights up.

I want to capture the curve of their face as they express themselves.

I want to capture the sway of their body as they move.

I want to capture their personality.

For me, reflecting personality in photographs is all about two things: emotion and interpretation. Catching a smile can be easy but capturing emotion is much more challenging.  The best way I have found to achieve this is to allow my subject the room for interpretation.  Nothing I can fabricate can ever come close to the real thing.

Here are my tips for (not just getting a smile but) capturing a child’s personality and character in still life.

Note: I’m not a professional photographer (at all) but I’m interested in photography and I enjoy learning as I go along.

1. Drama of Words

One of my favourite things to do is to give the child a word to interpret how they like.

Picture 1: Think of the word “Cute”

Picture 2: Think of Mummy

Picture 3: Think of Daddy

Picture 4: Think of the word “Special”

taking photographs of kids: how to get kids to smile for the camera

I also use phrases like these too (especially helpful with  younger children aged 2-5 years):

  • Think of rainbows
  • What’s your favourite thing?
  • Lollipops
  • Cars and trucks

2. Give an Action or Emotion

Allowing the children to interpret an action or emotion gives me so much more than I could fabricate myself.  For example, when I say “love each other” to my kids, rather than “put your arms around each other” I can capture such beautiful emotion. Take a look at these:

Getting Kids to Smile at the Camera 1: Give them an action

Or when my two youngest were in a wedding party:

getting the kids to smile for the camera

And this one of my four at a camping trip, all scruffy and happy:

getting kids to smile for the camera

3. Say “I love you”

Sometimes getting a smile is as simple as saying:

“I love you.”


“I think you are so special.”

getting kids to smile at the camera: say i love you

4. Look Up/Look Inside

One of Katherine’s tips in her guest post is to ask children to look inside the camera lens to see what they can find.  This is a great way to get kids looking right at the camera.  Another idea is to hold something up for the kids to look at. This works especially well if you need to get multiple children looking at the same time.  A bell is my favourite tool.

getting the kids to smile at the camera: Look up or inside the camera

5. Do Something Silly

This was the reaction from my kids to their father’s silly antics behind me. Always works a treat.

getting kids to smile for the camera

6. Interact

There nothing quite like interaction to get a reaction from children. This could be tickling, talking or playing.

getting kids to smile for the camera

Getting Kids to Smile for the Camera

Tips for taking photographs of kids

I want to look back and, not just remember, but feel too. Photography: It’s not just about memories, it’s about moments.

Other Posts about Photographing Kids

Rule of Thirds 

The Background

Setting Up a Shoot


Making the Most of Your Mobile Phone Camera

Quick editing tips

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  • Reply
    Kirralee Baker
    July 12, 2011 at 7:40 am

    So many great ideas. Can’t wait to try them. So simple – “rainbows”, “cars and trucks” – but I hadn’t thought of that and I imagine they will work very well. And such gorgeous photos of your kids. Beautiful.

    Thank you.

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      July 12, 2011 at 9:26 am

      Hope you find some of the tips helpful Kirralee…and you capture some great moments!

  • Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 9:36 am

    These photos just make my heart sing!

  • Reply
    Melanie Graham
    July 12, 2011 at 10:15 am

    They are just amazing shots. Just brilliant ideas! Thank you. I am going to grab the camera right now and take some photo’s of my gorgeous 3 year old. 🙂

  • Reply
    July 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    I love the photo of your girls in the purple flowers, adorable. My girls don’t like to smile at all, at the camera and I get the ‘ oh mummmmmmmmmm’ look. Next time though, I am armed with these tips to get a perfect, real grin.

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      July 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm

      I know. I especially love that one of the girls too. Hope some of these tips work for you. Sometimes it can take a little while for kids to get this new way of interacting with the camera. But it’s usually a lot more fun when it’s working two ways.. I usually have to take 10 before I get one good one. But that is the beauty of modern cameras, you can just snap, snap, snap away and decide on the best on later.

  • Reply
    Melissa @imaginationsoup
    July 21, 2011 at 6:33 am

    I’m totally using these ideas! When the kids were littler I tried, “Show me your teeth.” You can imagine what horrible smiles I got saying that!



  • Reply
    July 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    I had ball with the kids at the park the other day, with your suggestion of the drama of words. All their personalities really came out. I’ve loved looking back at the photos, and remembering the “interview” I had with each of them. Thanks for these great tips Kelly!! xxx

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      July 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm

      Al, it’s so lovley of you to come back and tell me about it! So glad some of the tips worked well. xx

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Sarah-Jane Kurtini
    May 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I love this post Kelly. Going to try the ‘Drama of Words’ this afternoon when we go to the park. Will share on the Tinybeans Facebook page too. Always looking for kids photo tips. Thanks, x

  • Reply
    May 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Terrific ideas – thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    May 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    FABULOUS post!

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    Carole Diamond
    August 18, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    This is such a great Post!! I am a Professional Photographer and This is great advise , some I used already but not all, I have learnt something from you THANKYOU

  • Reply
    August 31, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Thank you so, so much for these tips. My 2.5 year old son is nearly impossible to get to smile at the camera :-/ he says “cheese” as soon as I pull out the camera and if I miss it, we’ll too bad that was my opportunity then he is off on his busy way and I have missed the moment. I cannot wait to try these tips out. I think I need to put a new camera for Mummy on my birthday list 🙂 I think I need one that’s super fast to capture a busy little boy at play. May I ask what camera you use, because your photos are brilliant? Sorry I hope that’s not a rude question to ask. Thank you again

  • Reply
    September 26, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Recently, I attended a special function for my best friends daughter who is brilliant and funny but her Apsbergers causes her take instructions very literally. So, when asked to “smile” for the camera, she smiled but it was a forced, uncomfortable rather disconcerting smile which is not the girl we know. So remembering this post from previous reading I asked the question

    “What is the craziest, zaniest thing your dad has ever done?

    When the memory was triggered the most beautiful smile crossed her face. Soon she was chatting and laughing and regailing us with a story. No stress, no forced smiles, no tears and some beautiful photos for her mum who was in hospital at the time.

    Thank-you for helping me see things a little differently.

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