How to Capture a Natural Smile when Taking Pictures of Kids

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I think we can say unanimously that no one likes the fake cheese that comes on a child’s face when we pull out the camera. So today, I’m sharing my tips on How to Capture a natural Smile when Taking Pictures of Kids.  I shoot with my dSLR camera and my favorite lens for individual portraits of kids.

Tips for a happy smile in kids

I’ll admit, my favorite kids photographs are the candid moments taken during playtime. However, every mom and grandma out there still wants the perfect smiling-looking-at-the-camera shot with children’s portraits.

My biggest word of advice, “Don’t say CHEESE!” That prompt will get you nothing but gritted teeth, and fake happiness from young kids, as they’ve heard it far too often. For the natural smile, I’ve got a few tools and a little creativity to share with you. As a photographer, I’ve learned some tricks, and as a mother of 4, I use them often. From babies to teenagers, most of these techniques apply to all ages, you just have to change it up a bit to fit the age.


1. Sing Songs. Babies love it, toddlers groove to it, teens are so annoyed by it, they laugh. With toddlers, if you sing the WRONG words to a familiar song such as “Old McDonald” they think it’s pretty funny as they try to correct you. Their favorite songs make them happy, and will produce happy smiles.

kristen duke sisters2. Story Telling. Get them talking about something they love. This is obviously not for the babies, but if you ask kids about their favorite toy, character, sport, etc. they will tell a story with a smile on your face with pauses in-between an a smile. Just make sure you keep reminding them to look at your “circle” or the end of the camera lens. Ask questions like what did they get for their birthday that they loved, who has a crush on who at school, what did you like about a family vacation?

3. Potty Talk. Ok, this isn’t for everyone. It’s hard for me to do sometimes, but kids and teens think it is HILARIOUS! I often ask 5-7 age if “Daddy wears diapers” or talking about any bodily function. Especially those young boys.

kristen duke siblings4. Tickle Monster. I’ve carried a feather duster with me at times, or I’ll run over and use my fingers, but the tickle monster may need to come out for those that are grumpy.

5. Handy Words. There are a great number of words that form a happy upward arch to the lips that actually work better than “cheese.”  My favorites are, “YEE-HAW” and “HOWDY!” Some kids will leave their mouths open too long, but generally it brings happiness. I’ll also have them repeat after me words like “pizza” or “cookie” or “ice cream” just to get them thinking happy thoughts.

Kristen Duke Portrait6. Treats. Kids need to be reminded that this is something you really want, with the idea that a reward will be coming. It’s hard for kids to sit still, and they often don’t like the pressure of the perfect picture, so help them with a little goal in sight such as ice cream after, or an outing they will enjoy. Tell them about the treat before the shoot, and remind them during the shoot.

7. Have Fun!  Just have fun with kids and pictures. They don’t often understand the end result, so explain to them ahead of time how important it is to you. Maybe even pull out old pictures and let them know how much you treasure them, and want an updated version.
Taking pictures of kids

If you love photography, you may love my Say NO to Auto books and other photography tips such as How to Start a Photography Business, Tips for photographing Newborns,  and How to decide what camera to buy.

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  1. THose ideas so cool!! Really great Kristen!!

  2. My daughter is the queen of cheese right now. As soon as she sees the camera pointed in her direction she stops, puts her hands down by her sides and smiles (not a really good, genuine smile, though). Sometimes, yes, I want her to stop and look at me, but other times I don’t. I tell her to go back to what she was doing. Such a fine line.

    Now if you can come up with some more tips for adults (ahem, my husband), I am all ears! He stands so stiff for a posed pic. I need him to loosen up 🙂

  3. Some parents “hat train” so that there kids will keep hats on. I “picture train” my kids. Brodie knows when the camera comes out (or my phone) it’s time to take a picture.

    He really likes seeing his pictures after which I know can end up taking some time. I also tell him I will send it to nana. He love sending pictures to nana! 🙂

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I think I may have trained my kids, too. Sometimes they act up to try to be funny, but I give them that glance, and they smile pretty well!

  4. I especially like that last one – it’s a new one to me. Something similar but different is showing kids on the screen how the pictures are turning out – they usually like that. The other day, I happened to have my camera in the right place at the right time in my first/second grade classroom, and I caught one of my first graders with a cute nose-wrinkled expression as he was concentrating on his workbook. I showed him the picture, and expected him to laugh, since that’s what my kids usually do about those kind of pictures. His reaction?” That’s weird, I’m positive I didn’t make that face. Your camera got it wrong.” 🙂

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I do love those scrunched up faces, too. But agreed, kids don’t often like those candid moments that we do….your camera is wrong…ha ha!

  5. Love your pics and suggestions, Kristen. My daughter has a three-year old that is impossible to photograph and 9 1/2-month old triplets, so I am looking for all pointers! Thanks so much!!!

  6. Great tips!