Do you ever struggle getting little kids to smile and stand still for pictures? Maybe you’re just not sure how to talk to little ones at a portrait session or interact with them on a wedding day. If that’s you, we can help! This post will help you feel more comfortable and confident when you pose and photograph kids. Since we taught elementary school before we were full-time photographers, we have a unique perspective on how to work with little kids, as well as some tried and true tricks that we use at our weddings and portrait sessions to get the shot.
Flower girls and ring bearers are two of the cutest parts of any wedding day, but depending on their age (and whether or not they’ve had a nap and a snack) getting them to stand still and smile for a pictures — even for just a few — can be challenging. So it’s really important to remember a few things when you photograph kids.
1. Give Yourself a Long Window of Time
When we send our bride and groom their custom wedding day timeline, we ask them to have the kids there during the bridal party portrait time. That way, we have a large window of time to sneak them in for a few minutes of pictures whenever their mood is the best. In our experience, if we allocate a specific five-minute time slot for flower girl and ring bearer photos, and one or both (but let’s be real, it’s usually the boys who want to climb trees!) decide to have a meltdown at that exact moment, we risk a) wasting valuable time and b) not getting the shot. So, by having them there during a longer window of time, we give ourselves the best chance of catching them during a good moment. A lot of times, Jordan will be shooting the bridal party, and Amy will sneak over to the side for some super quick shots when the attention of everyone else is elsewhere.
For portrait sessions, we recommend allowing 90 minutes (60 minimum) when little kids are involved, in case you need to take a water or snack break, or one of the little boys just needs to take a walk with Dad to distract him from the fact that he’s at a portrait session!
2. Bring a Kid Wrangler
Oftentimes (not always) when we photograph kids on wedding days, the ring bearer and flower girl’s parents are in the bridal party, which can be really distracting and disruptive to the bridal party photos if Mom and Dad are wrangling their little one when it’s their turn to be in a picture. So, we recommend having someone nearby and on standby to help be the official “Kid Wrangler” during bridal party photos and family portraits (which we do back-to-back) just to make sure things run smoothly, Mom and Dad can concentrate on smiling for pictures and the ring bearer and flower girl can be little kids until it’s their turn. Grandma and Grandpa are perfect for this!
For our family sessions, we prep our parents in advance with our Portrait Session Style Guide. It helps Mom dress her family for outfit success, but also sets expectations for how she can set her kids up for success during the session behaviorally and gives her a checklist of things to bring to keep her little ones happy.
3. Get Down on Their Level
Little kids spend most of their time staring at people’s knees and looking up their nose. How comfortable would you feel around someone if that was you? So when we photograph kids for the first time, as soon as Mom or Dad introduces us to the kids, we stop what we’re doing, kneel down to their level to introduce ourselves, so they can see our face and look into our eyes — because research tells us that non-verbally, trust is (partially) transferred through the eyes.
4. Smile (With Your Eyes, Too)
Trust isn’t only transferred through the eyes. It’s communicated through our smile, too. In our early childhood education classes, we learned that kids trust adults based on the way our faces look. For reals. Now, that doesn’t mean that if you hold a baby and it cries that you have an ugly face. If that were the case, Jordan’s the ugliest man the world’s ever seen. What it DOES mean, though, is that smiling matters because it’s the first signal to a child that you’re a “safe” adult. Interestingly, smiling with our eyes matters just as much (if not more) than smiling with our mouths, because our brains use someone’s eyes, more than any other feature on their face, to determine whether or not they’re safe. How do you do that? Make them as big and wide as our smile. Like a Disney princess.
5. Use Their Name Right Away
Depending on the age, the kids you’re working with may not know a lot (or they may be too nervous to say much) but if there’s one universal truth we know about almost all kids, it’s this: They’re never too shy to tell you their name and age, or too shy to correct you when you call them by the wrong name or age. Be careful with pronunciations, too. Those little fact-checkers will bust you every time! Plus, isn’t it nice when someone says our name right as adults? When they say it wrong, even if it’s close, it just feels like, Okay, buddy, you reeaallyy don’t know me. In the best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says that a person’s name is the sweetest sound in any language to them. This is especially true with kids.
Bonus Tip: When they hit preschool/kindergarten age, sometimes purposefully calling them the wrong name can get some giggles! If your five year old subject’s name is Luke, and instead you call him Frank, he might just think it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened.
6. Sound Happy and Excited… Like a Disney Princess
The second we kneel down, as we’re smiling with our eyes and mouth, we take a big excited breath of air and exclaim, “Hi Madison! How are you sweetheart?!”or “Hey, Jackson! Nice to meet you, buddy!” As adults, we instinctively talk to babies with a “baby voice.” It’s what comes naturally to us, but there’s actually scientific research to back this up. A happy, excited higher-pitched tone of voice communicates not only that we’re safe… but also helps us get more smiles from our subjects!
7. Introduce Yourself & What You Do
As adults, we have enough “schema” or life experiences that we can use context clues in order to figure out who people are without asking or being told. For example, most adults have been to a wedding, know what an expensive camera looks like and understand that brides and grooms hire a photographer to take pictures all day. So, when an adult sees us holding big fancy cameras at a wedding, they don’t even have to think about it. Their brain automatically connects all those dots. For many kids, it’s not the same. They might not even know what a wedding is, much less anything else that happens at one; and, even if their parents tried to prep them ahead of time, it can still be overwhelming and overstimulating for them since there’s so much going on. Thus, our job is to break down any trust barriers that might exists by doing what a good doctor has: bedside manner.
First, we tell them our name. Second, we tell them who we are and how we know their parents (or the bride and groom). Third, we prep them for what’s going to happen. And, fourth, we ask them to do something for us. We also throw in a little color along the way. We might ask them something about them, like their age. If it’s a girl, we’ll compliment her pretty dress. If it’s a boy, we’ll let him touch the camera. It goes something like this… “Hi Madison! I’m Amy! I’m the photographer for the wedding today. That means I’m taking pictures for Megan and James, including yours. You look so pretty today! I just love your dress! We’re going to take your picture with the pretty bride, Megan, now! Will you come with me?!”
(If you need more advice for shooting your first wedding, click here.)
The same thing is true for a portrait session. Even though their parents probably already told them what they are going to be doing, we tell them again! “Hi, Jackson! I’m Jordan! I’m going to be taking some pictures for your family today! Do you want to take a look at my camera? I bet you can give THE BEST smiles!”
8. If You Have a Choice, Have a Female Shooter Do All of the Above
In general, like dogs, little kids just trust women more than men. Guys, it’s not your fault. It’s just the way it is. They trust Amy more than Jordan. Because of that, at almost every wedding (or whenever we photograph kids, really) we have Amy interacting directly with the flower girl and ring bearer. If you have a female shooter on your team, we recommend you do the same. If you’re a man and don’t have a female shooter with you, be the best Disney princess you can be.
9. Get the Most Important Shots First
There are five flower girl and ring bearer shots that we think are more important than getting them in the big bridal party shots. Mostly because they’re smaller groupings and closer up, which means we get to see more of them, versus when they’re one of twenty people in a large group shot but half the size of everyone else. So, in other words, really hard to see. Thus, when we photograph kids at weddings, we do these shots first before adding them in with all the bridesmaids and groomsmen. (Here’s a helpful post if you need help photographing a big bridal party.)
Here’s the list:
1. Flower Girl by Herself
2. Flower Girl with the Bride
3. Ring Bearer by Himself
4. Ring Bearer with the Groom
5. Flower Girl and Ring Bearer with the Bride and Groom
For portrait sessions, the list might look like this:
1. Son with Dad
2. Son with Dad and Mom
3. Daughter with Dad
4. Daughter with Dad and Mom
5. Son and Daughter with Dad and Mom
10. Take-Size Appropriate Pictures
Sometimes flower girls are infants or toddlers. Sometimes ring bearers are elementary school students. Or full-grown adults. Just kidding. Either way, it’s important when we’re taking their pictures that we consider their physical size in relation to the bride and groom. If they’re infants or toddlers, we ask the bride and groom to hold them. If they’re elementary school-aged, we ask the bride and groom to squat down next to them so that their heads are close to the same height. To be clear, we definitely take a full-length vertical photo of the bride and/or groom standing with (or holding) the flower girl or ring bearer. But once we get it, we like to move in close.
Pro Tip: Make sure the grass isn’t wet before your groom kneels down. Been there, done that!
11. Ask Mom to Stand Behind You. RIGHT Behind You.
For really little ones who have trouble looking at the camera, we ask mom or dad to stand right behind us with a bright, shiny object — or something that will get their attention and help them smile. If it’s Sofie, the giraffe, have them put it right over your lens so the little bitty is looking right at the camera. A lot of times, parents and (droves of) other relatives will stand to the side. If that happens, either a) ask them all to come behind the camera, or b) ask them (nicely, of course!) to step away from sight so the baby or toddlers doesn’t get confused with too many distracting faces and sounds.
We learned so many of these tips and tricks for wedding days by shooting a LOT of portrait sessions earlier in our career. If you’re a portrait photographer looking to break into weddings, here’s a post with five reasons shooting portrait sessions made us better wedding photographers.
12. Show Them the Back of Your Camera
Little kids love looking at themselves. So, if they’re old enough to look at a screen, we’ve found that showing them the back of our camera creates instant buy-in. They become a lot more excited about the process when they see their own face, and they’re more willing to smile the next time the lens goes up. Just be prepared to show them the camera a lot. Haha!
13. Stay Cool if Things Don’t Go According to Plan
If you have a child… or know a child… or were once a child!, you know that the younger kids are, the less predictable they become — especially on big days, like once-a-year family portrait session or wedding. It’s not a matter of if a child melts down or doesn’t look at the camera. It’s a matter of if it’ll ever end. With that in mind, when you photograph kids, always remember… Keep shooting. Keep shooting. KEEP SHOOTING! We do our best to get at least one picture of a happy, smiling child, but we don’t spend all day on it — especially at weddings. But we keep shooting. Parents and our brides and groom will totally understand if we deliver shots of the kids crying, running away, throwing a fit, climbing over their shoulder, and doing just about anything else. Because they were there, and that’s how it was. But they’ll be less likely to forgive if we don’t deliver any pictures of the flower girl and ring bearer at all… because we didn’t shoot… because they weren’t smiling. Get safety shots. Smiling ones are a bonus!
Plus, sometimes the “imperfect” ones are the best anyways.
Lastly, Reassure Everyone
In the event of any of the above, we always reassure parents that a meltdown totally normal and happens all the time. When we photograph kids, it’s really important (no matter how we’re feeling on the inside) never to let frustration show on the outside. (Most) parents feel bad enough when they’re kids aren’t cooperating. They don’t need us to make them feel worse. So, try and say something like, “Don’t worry at all! This happens all the time. It’s totally normal. We’ll do out best to get a smiling one of her looking at the camera, but even if we don’t, we’ll have some really funny memories! We can always try again at the reception!” That way, we’re setting their expectation in the moment that we’re not miracle workers in case the perfect shot doesn’t happen. Oftentimes, those imperfect shots mean more to the family than the perfectly posed ones, because they’re more true to real life.
We hope these tips are helpful the next time you photograph kids! Good luck! We’re cheering for you!