Say ‘Cheese!’ – how to get children to smile for photos

Don’t say “Cheese”!

Trying to encourage a smile from anyone in front of the camera is usually the ‘Holy Grail’ for any photographer, everyone wants lovely smiles in their pictures and the question which pops up most often, especially from parents, is:  How do I get my child to genuinely smile?



Smiles - The 'Holy grail'?
How do you get encourage smiles?


We’ve all seen those ‘cheesy’ false smiles that kids produce when we point a camera at them, what we are after is a real, belly laugh of a smile!  The solution is to give them something to actually smile about.

Here’s my guide as to how you can encourage children of differing ages to smile:

Young babies

Babies can smile from a very early age (OK – it’s wind we know!) and you just have to be prepared and very quick to catch very young babies smiling.  A gentle stroke of their cheek can sometimes encourage a smile.  As all new mums know, a baby will often smile at the sound of a parent!

Babies from approx 3 months: Talking in a sing song, high pitched voice and moving in towards their face and then away again or, a simple game of ‘peek a boo’ behind your hands can produce very quick results.  If you are the one holding the camera you will need to be reasonably quick to catch those fleeting little smirks.  Ask someone to do the peek a-boo/take the picture for you instead if possible.

Some babies are ticklish and it’s worth tickling their feet with one hand and focusing the camera with the other (make sure your hand is out of shot)


babies 3 months +

Play peek-a-boo!
Twins having a giggle at their older brother behind me.


Tickly puppets!
One smiley chappy!


As babies get older, they are capable of much more reaction and interaction with you.  It pays to tread carefully as they can also spook easily, so do take it at their own pace.  As above, the ‘sing song’ voice works well but also at this stage you will have begun to learn just exactly what makes them laugh, whether it’s a silly sibling or blowing raspberries.  One toddler I photographed would giggle very loudly to the phrase ‘Not in the bath!’.  I’ll leave it to your imagination!!

Toddlers (up to the age of 2/3) are not always the easiest of subjects to photograph anyway let alone make them laugh!  Putting them in area where you want to photograph them initially and giving them something to do or a game to play is a great start.  Hand puppets can capture their attention and being tickled or having their face stroked using the hand puppet also works well.  Having another parent or a friend behind you singing songs or generally being silly will distract them, make them look towards the camera and hopefully smile.

As they grow older and their speech develops, you can start trading silly phrases such as ‘smelly wellies’ or ‘silly sausages’.  Ask them funny questions such as ‘are they married?’, ‘what car do they drive?’, ‘is Mummy a silly sausage?’ Etc.

Next time you go to a child’s birthday party listen to how a children’s entertainer engages with the children and makes them laugh, then use some of those ideas.  The sillier you can be, the funnier they’ll find it!

Breaking wind, pooping, whatever you want to call it, makes children laugh.  Make the noise then ask if they did it or accuse another person in the room.  There’s nothing like a silly bit of slapstick humour to make children laugh, especially if you ask who has the biggest bottom or the smelliest feet!


Older children

Tell a silly joke
The words 'poop' 'silly sausages' etc work well!


Catch them unawares
Her Dad had just done something totally silly and unexpected behind me!


Older children respond well to all of the above and can also understand silly jokes (My fave: What do you call a wizard with a runny nose?…Harry Snotter!) and having a few  up your sleeve can be effective.

Teenagers…hmmm – being plain silly usually works…telling them NOT to smile then start giggling yourself means they will eventually, although all they really want to do is look cool. Perhaps do the shoot with one of their friends and ask their friend to be silly behind you!  Asking them to think about the latest band member/fashion must have/favourite something or remember when Dad…..(did something truly hilarious!) will bring about a smile too.

Whilst all this hilarity is going on, make sure you take lots of photos and keep interacting with your child.  You won’t have very long before they get tired or bored or both so take photos from various angles and walk around them so that you have a selection of images, not just loads from the same angle.  Have a well earned treat planned (special game, mini outing to the park, food etc) so that they can begin to associate photography with laughter and treats.


Not just smiles

Capture their other moods
Sometimes their other expressions are just as priceless

Who needs faces?

This still tells the story
This is one of my favourite images.


One final note.  Capturing children’s laughter is a joy but don’t dismiss their other expressions too.  A photo of a child deep in thought or concentrating hard on a task will also make a beautiful image.  Images taken of the back of your child can also speak volumes.  Have fun and DON’T SAY CHEESE!