I think it’s pretty safe to say that getting a great photo of a toddler is about as hard as walking a greased tightrope during a hurricane (and all the mommies just said amen). As a photographer, I agree. I often think weddings are in some ways easier than a great toddler shoot because at least the wedding party wants to get great photos. Toddlers don’t care. Your photos don’t concern them. Oh, you want a pretty smile to frame and send Grandma? Too bad, suckers. The toddler does what the toddler wants, and cooperating with your Gap Baby daydreams – ain’t happening.
That said, all is not lost. The key with getting really great, natural photographs of toddlers (and most young kids) is to remove the expectation of perfectly posed, smile-right-at-the-camera photography and aim for something more realistic…and more fun. Sure, it’s great when you get those perfect “say cheese!” moments, but I’ve found you’re much more likely to get them – and some really great candids – when the expectations come down and everyone relaxes a little. Here are ten of my tried and true tips for getting authentic smiles and fun candids out of toddlers:
1.) Give your toddler an activity to do or a fun, new prop to play with. For these photos, an amazing friend of mine who is currently living abroad got a family member to smuggle in the ever-popular and ultra-contraband Kinder Egg*. Six of them, in fact (though I only let my toddler consume three – it was supposed to be two but she snuck that third one like Swipper the Fox on steroids). Kinder Egg theme photo shoot? DONE. I snapped photos of Aria opening, eating, and enjoying her treat, and ended up with some fantastic smiles and reactions that are way more revealing of her actual personality than any posed photo could ever be.
(*Side note: If you are not currently parenting a toddler, you might not know what a big deal Kinder Egg You Tube videos are. They are a REALLY BIG DEAL. They are kid crack (which is sort of fitting since they are also totally banned in the US and have to be smuggled in like drugs too). My daughter would literally watch videos of people opening Kinder Eggs all day every day if I would let her. She’s weirdly obsessed. Her level of excitement over these eggs was EPIC.) Anyway back to the real post…..2.) Record the little details – here, the mess she left behind opening the eggs and her tiny little toddler feet in her ballet slippers. It aids in telling a visual story, and it records the little, ordinary things I know as a mom I’ll miss someday. 3.) Switch up your viewpoint. Get down on your toddler’s level. Get close. Then back off and give them some space (especially helpful if you’re photographing someone else’s child and they seem uncomfortable or timid). Changing up your viewpoint can change the whole mood of the photo. 4.) Record the everyday and just roll with it. Toddlers are unpredictable and moody. One minute they’re all into one activity, the next thing you know they’re so over it and on to the next thing. Go with it. Don’t try to force something into happening that isn’t happening – you’ll only end up stressing yourself and your toddler out, and in all likelihood, causing a potential meltdown. Roll with the punches and move to the next activity with them. 5.) Eliminate clutter. These photos wouldn’t be nearly as effective or appealing (in my opinion) if they had been taken in a cluttered playroom instead of on a clean floor free of any distractions. With toddlers, my personal opinion is to let them and their cute personalities shine though – so the My Little Pony toy (a current favorite) and my daughter were the only props I wanted in the frame. 6.) Play with your toddler. Even when I’m shooting someone else’s child, I get down on their level, talk to them, and play with them. The same goes if you’re photographing your own child. Don’t try to make things too formal or give too many directions (toddlers don’t do directions anyway). Make the photo session comfortable, fun, and natural for them. 7.) Enlist help. Grandparents, aunts/uncles, and siblings are great for this. As a photographer, I have seen again and again how the photo sessions where mom and dad bring along grandma as behind-the-camera backup go so much more smoothly than sessions where mom feels stressed because she’s trying to corral her kiddos and look at the camera herself. Grandma can stand next to me off-camera and get the toddler’s attention, coax smiles, and even add a helping hand when needed, while mom is free to just smile and say cheese herself. The result? A photo where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling. If you’re thinking of getting professional family portraits done, seriously think about enlisting that help!
Even if you’re not getting professional photos done, and you’re just taking the photos yourself, having someone else to coax smiles from your kiddo is a winning formula. I can’t look through my lens, release the shutter, make sure exposure is spot-on, AND keep eye-contact with my energizer bunny child at all times. Ask any mom – help is so appreciated. 8.) Consider the light. Whether you’re taking photos with a DSLR or your iPhone, your light is critical to the overall quality of your photo. With an iPhone or other cell phone (and most basic point-and-shoots, though it seems everyone just uses their smart phones anyway), for example, you’re really going want good natural light so that your camera’s shutter speed can stay FAST. Why? Toddlers move fast. Fast shutter speed = not a blurry photo. Slower shutter speed = high likelihood of a blurry photo. If you’re shooting in manual, your shutter speed is something you can control (though you may need to play around with your ISO or use some artificial light to compensate, depending on your natural light scenario). If you’re shooting on your smart phone or point-and-shoot, you can’t control your shutter speed, so you need to watch your light, and natural light is your best friend. 9.) Be patient and time it right. Skipping nap time, lunch, or mixing up a toddler’s routine too much is almost always a bad idea. Time your photo session so it doesn’t disrupt your toddler’s routine more than necessary, and make sure they are rested and well-fed. Believe me, I know getting your toddler to nap is a crap shoot sometimes and that it doesn’t always happen – my kid is probably the single worst sleeper on the entire planet (just ask my friends and family members). Still, try to make it happen if you can, or schedule your session for a time you know your toddler is typically in a good mood. Then, be patient. Don’t force stuff. Just let it happen. Like I said above, going into any scenario, especially photos, with children and too high of expectations just leads to stress. Go with that flow and just let natural, fun photos happen on their own as much as you can. 10.) When all else fails, bring out the chocolate. Or whatever treat your toddler likes. One mom friend of mine brought a bag of mini marshmallows to the studio which, in my opinion, was genius – they’re totally mess free, small, and cute enough to be a photo prop if you’re kid can’t part with them. Now, I know there are a few people out there who will be like “but that’s bribery!” – Yep. Yep it is. Guess what? I bribe my kid sometimes. I don’t think it’s bad parenting either or even that big of a deal to promise my kid a piece of chocolate for smiling at the camera (#sorryimnotsorry). We do rules and rewards charts, eat our veggies and teach personal responsibility as much as we can in our house, but our kid is TWO. Heck, I get rewards for doing stuff too (hello, paycheck).
I’m sure there are a lot of moms/dads and photographers who could add to this list, and I’m all ears! If you have tips for taking better photos of small kids, share them in the comments here or over on Facebook!