The School Photographer’s Ultimate Guide to Capturing a Child’s Natural Smile

Blog  »  Style, February 14, 2019, Rachael Davies

Trying to capture a natural smile from a child is like trying to spot a shooting star. It’s swift, fleeting, but is a wonderful sight to behold. In order to make these moments more frequent and longer lasting, we’ve compiled five tips that are sure to help you as a preschool photographer bring out a natural smile in every child.

1. Let Kids Be Kids

The first thing any preschool photographer must realize is that their subjects are kids. It sounds obvious. But you are not working with models, so you cannot expect the same amount of motivation or willingness from them to engage in a photo shoot. Trying to generate a genuine smile is almost an oxymoron; how can you create something natural? But we do believe there is a certain way of thinking that helps both you and the child enjoy the shoot even more.

The solution lies in recognizing that kids behave differently than older subjects and that capitalizing on these differences can lead to great results. In essence, you must let kids be themselves.

Give them the ability to be carefree and a little bit silly, and they’ll forget that you’re even taking photos! For instance, try turning the preschool photography session into a game, such as by seeing who can make the weirdest faces or by playing the classic peek-a-boo.

Asking who wants to go first out of a class also encourages the braver individuals to set a good example to their more timid classmates. Children will respond positively to less formal engagements and will light up when they see you having fun along with them.

Making sure that the child feels valued is important. Focusing on them, rather than the teacher or parent in tow helps them relax and feel more comfortable with you.

Engage with them as an individual and respect their unique personality. What works for one child may not work for another.

To get a natural smile from any child means developing a natural relationship with them in the short time you get with each one. Giving them each the same measure of respect is vital for that.

Get inspired by discovering how some other school photographers from around the world work their magic.

Smiling child, photo taken by Steven Mussel
© NiceSmile, Steven Mussel

2. Use Accessories To Keep Them Occupied

We all love to watch kids having fun — it’s the reason that so many of us got into school photography in the first place. And it is important to remember that creating an enjoyable time for children is paramount. That’s why if you want them to have fun during their turn, it could be worthwhile to invest in some fun photography accessories.

Phoxitog is a great example of simple but cute toys that can attach to a camera lens of any size. For younger children, in particular, spotting and laughing at the tiny animals perched on the end of the camera will most likely lead to some natural smiles directed straight down your lens.

You could even create something yourself if you want to save on spending. Simply attach a small toy to your lens with double-sided tape or wire. Incorporate such toys into your shoot by introducing it as “your little assistant”, or even ‘talking’ directly to it. This is sure to produce a few laughs and get the kids giggling along with you.

Also, some kids fidget. Telling them to sit still and not move around can lead to restless behaviour. Giving them something to concentrate on will simultaneously help them stay still long enough to photograph but without restricting them too much.

© Pan Xiaozhen

It can be as simple as giving each child a prop to hold or interact with, or playing some music. The key is to find that balance between entertaining and completely distracting! Some helpful ideas for props to use in shoots to good effect can be:

  • Bubbles
    Kids love them and they are great for drawing out a laugh and smile. Have an assistant blow bubbles or use a machine if you can. This simple addition will help get that perfect shot.
  • Pens, pencils and paper to draw
    Most preschools will have these freely available, but you can always take your own to be sure. It helps to keep the kids entertained and allows you to get great photos—double bonus!
  • Simple toys
    Bring along toys like small cars, teddy bears, and dolls and you will soon win over your audience quickly. These will easily keep the kids entertained while you snap away. You might want to be wary of getting too gender specific—kids are interested in all sorts of different toys!

It’s important to consider whether you want to use props from the beginning of the shoot, or whether to hold off and use them to increase the range of shots if necessary. It certainly adds something a little bit different to every shoot, has great potential to make your images more interesting and could be a great way to set yourself apart from other photographers. Since photos of the child looking directly into the camera usually are obligatory, you need them focused on you for at least some shots—another reason why props to sit on can be very useful.

By using props, you can create a relaxed, playful atmosphere—kids will be so engrossed in playing that they won’t be worrying about the person snapping photos. Plus, if they are waiting around and potentially getting bored or restless, what better way to keep them lively and energetic for the best possible photos you can capture than some carefully selected prop items?

For the children who become too distracted simply prompt them to “look up and smile.” The sudden reaction will be a reflex for most kids and make for natural smiles.

Another way to accessorize your shoot with something that you will already have is to let the children be able to see their own images. Don’t have the screen fully visible at all times, as they might get distracted or stop looking down the lens. Wait until you get a fun image, and then turn your camera around so you can see. Evidence that they are doing a good job will give the child a confidence boost and mean that their next image will be even better than the first.

3. Let Them Entertain You — And The Other Way Around

Some kids love to be the centre of attention. They may like to dance, show tricks, and play, but even more so when they have an audience. So why not become that audience for them?

Ask them to tell you something special about themselves. Whether that be asking them how high they can jump or what their favourite game or sport is, try to find something to engage them. This will not only make them feel more comfortable, but it will also put them in a happy and trusting mood, making it much easier to draw out those natural smiles.

If you decide to take some group photos, it is often more troublesome to capture good-looking smiles when there are more children in the picture. Try and make all of them focus on you at the same time by speaking up, waving, maybe even experimenting with different moves. For the last shots, you can think of a more fun idea like asking the children to raise their hands and cheer or shout out a certain word.

For some kids, we find that simple jokes work a treat. Keep it short, and think of a mix so they don’t hear repetitions from ones you might have told their classmates earlier. A few of our favourites are:

  • What do you call a fly without wings? A walk!
  • Why do bees have sticky hair? Because they use honeycombs!
  • Why did the maths book look so sad? Because it had so many problems!

The best part of joke-telling is that while they wait for the punchline, the child will be looking straight at you, setting up the perfect angle for you to capture their natural smile when they laugh. Try out your material and see what works best. Don’t be disheartened if not every joke hits the mark.

It is important to stay aware of the mood amongst the kids that you’re photographing. That cannot be emphasized enough: each child is unique. If they aren’t engaging with your idea or just aren’t getting it, stay flexible and move onto something else.

Show off your best work with these handy tips on how to hone your personal photography style.

4. To Pose Or Not To Pose

Getting kids to pose can be tricky. Some may not know what to do without guidance, some might feel stiff and restricted with too many requests. The important thing is to adapt to each child, no matter how short time runs — but there are also a few tricks of the trade that might help you get some natural shots of the kids without putting them under pressure.

Giving the child a prop to pose with is a good way to help them focus on something specific. Holding a toy or peering through a frame gives them something concrete to focus on.

Similarly, giving them a definite aim, like “See how high you can throw this ball”, helps them feel active and can also introduce the element of competition with their classmates. A key tip here is to make sure the object being thrown is small and soft — otherwise equipment or even people might get hit! Try and give the child plenty of space by not standing too close to reinforce that the photos should be fun, rather than stressful.

If you are taking multiple poses, then let them relax in between takes. Being forced to stay ‘posed’ can end up with them looking stiff and unnatural. The most important thing is that the child feels comfortable in front of your lens, so read their body language and adapt to what they need.

5. Get On Their Level

We mean this metaphorically and literally — physically get down to their level. It seems obvious but not only will too high a shot not look natural, but it can make the child feel vulnerable. Crouch down if you have your camera in hand, or lower the tripod if you are using one.

Keep chatting with the child while you shoot too, so that the atmosphere stays friendly and relaxed. It’s especially important to practise talking while photographing if you will be holding your camera. Being able to take photos with one hand allows you to interact with the child by waving or holding a toy. The most important thing is to know your gear inside and out so as to always stay as flexible as possible.

If you set up one angle, it can be useful to shoot it at least once even if it doesn’t fully work out. Switching it up before taking a picture might make the child think they’ve done something wrong, making them nervous and less likely to behave positively in later shots. Encourage and praise them — confident kids will shine, and more reserved ones will blossom.

So, remember: embrace the fact that kids will be kids, recognize their individuality, and use their behavior to your benefit. And whenever you talk to them, be sure to really mean what you’re saying.

Speak from the heart. Because one thing’s for sure: you’ll always engage with a child better and more deeply with feelings rather than words.

Following our tips, you are sure to spend less time coercing smiles and more time photographing them.

Do you have any tips on getting natural images from kids based on your experience in preschool photography? Be sure to share them in the comments on our related Facebook post!

Rachael Davies