Top 5 tips for photographing toddlers

Top 5 tips for photographing toddlers

My day job is a full-time professional family photographer and most of the families I photograph have at least one toddler, so photographing toddlers is something I’m a bit of an expert on.  Just the idea of toddler photography can make some people break out in a cold sweat!

Figuring out how to photograph toddlers with out losing your cool is the key!

Photographs of toddlers are among some of the sweetest, funniest, cutest and memorable of family photos, they have no filter, zero, so almost every capture is authentic and full of raw emotion.  Taming that emotion so we get more of the sweet and less of the cray cray, the back of heads, frowns, tears or stomping of feet, that’s our aim.  Even I find myself laughing at the lengths I will go to, to capture real smiles, to engage my subjects and to attempt to gain at times what feels like just a scrap of cooperation.

Even I find myself laughing at the lengths I will go to when photographing toddlers to capture real smiles, to engage them and to attempt to gain just a scrap of cooperation!

But really, we should be surprised that toddlers ever co-operate for photos at all!

I mean let’s think about a portrait session it from their point of view?

  • You’re little.
  • Your parents have likely put you in clothes you don’t love.  They might be scratchy or not as bendy as you’re used to.
  • There’s a very good chance your hair has been brushed, like a thousand times that morning.
  • You’ve been told all week that you have to be “good” and do what the nice lady says.
  • You drive to a place you’ve never been before, and it might even be a park where you’re expected to walk past the playground!! I mean really just walk past!!
  • You’re expected to walk past a playground!!
  • You meet this new person for the first time who suddenly acts like your BFF, yet she’s rather demanding, wanting to you stand here, run there, hug this person, kiss that person, look this way, put your tongue in your mouth, not pick your nose and smile naturally!
  • And – when you actually manage to do all this, they stick a big noisy black box over their face instead of just smiling back!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Yet – session after session, time after time, I still manage to capture gorgeous natural images, real smiles and adorable moments from these little cuties.

How?  What’s the magic secret to photographing kids?

[toddler image montage]

Let me let you in on my . . .

TOP 5 TIPS for photographing toddlers


One | Be silly

Leave your inhibitions behind and be silly.  If you want to photograph a natural smile from a toddler, then you have to make them laugh.  End of story.  Some of the classics are being an animal, playing peekaboo, clucking like a chicken, you get the picture.  The great thing about toddlers is they don’t get bored, so once you hit the sweet spot and crack a giggle, they’ll likely keep right on laughing!

Is there any length I won’t go to when photographing toddlers??  Very few apparently as these picture show, one reluctant toddler insisted I dress & be like a unicorn while she took some pictures before she would have a turn in front of the camera.  Sounds pretty fair to me. She didn’t do a bad job of the photos either!

Very few apparently  . . . as these picture show! The toddler at this session was relucent to be photographed, not uncommon.  She insisted I dress & be like a unicorn while she took some pictures of me before she would have a turn in front of the camera.  Sounds pretty fair to me. She didn’t do a bad job of the photos either!



Two | Include their special toy

My favourite toddler photo idea is to include their special toy!

Since my little guy was around 5 months old, he’s been attached to his bunny.  Bunny is so important that at one time we had 3 bunnies, just in case one was lost.  We even made sure they were all used on rotation so the wear and tear was even between them all! He won’t sleep with out bunny and would pretty much take him everywhere if we didn’t ban bunny from leaving the house –  there was a traumatic supermarket visit, where bunny 3 went missing, and frankly, we’re all still scarred!

But I digress, rather than fight your toddlers need to have their favourite toy around.  Work with it, I love the images of my boy when he was a toddler with bunny, he was and is such a big part of our household that he deserves to be photographed too. We are photographing our families memories and these toys are one of the biggest childhood memories.  As a bonus, your toddler will be more relaxed, a touch more coorporative and often just a tiny bit still for a few moments.


Three | Make it about play and games

Picture this, you’re standing in front of a toddler with your camera over your face and you say;

Look at me, look this way, smile, smile for the camera

And your toddler obligingly stands there and gives you the most beatific smile to boot . . .

Ha ha ha ha – ermm, nope. They will most like turn around, run away, look at their feet, cry, frown, cling to your leg or Mum’s leg . . . anything but look a the camera.

What if you said this instead;

Now let’s stand on this magic spot (a leaf, a mark in the path, anything) and I’m going to count to three and then let’s see how high you can jump, I bet you’re pretty good at jumping, you look like you’re a super star jumper.!  Now are you ready?

One.  Two. Three.


And they stand there giggling why you count (you take gorgeous giggling shots of your toddler) then they jump (and you take some more gorgeous toddler photographs)

Can you see how that works 🙂

Make it a game.  Play with them.


Four | Get their feet off the ground

Okay, so toddlers are busy.  Very very busy. You’re not going to get them standing still for very long no matter how amazing the game is.  And photographing toddlers on the move and being busy is a great idea, but sometimes we want that gorgeous headshot with the sweet smile to go along with the “action” shot.  How do you get them to pause?

It might sound odd, but if you can get their feet off the ground then you’ll almost always have a small window to photograph a gorgeous toddler portrait.  Sit on a chair, stand on a log or bench, maybe you have a ride on toy that you can crop out of the frame . . . be inventive and look for a safe place to temporarily imprison your toddler 😉  I joke, but really – it works!

Just be quick, it won’t take them long to realise they can move 🙂


Five | Be prepared

That leads me perfectly into my final tip for photographing toddlers.

Be prepared!  Have your camera ready to go.  Don’t fluff around with settings. Don’t realise you should have moved the wash basket from the shot.  You almost never get a do-over with toddler photography.

Make sure the light is good, your exposure is right, check for clutter and then get the toddler in the shot.  The more confident you get with photography the quicker you’ll get at being ready and the more shots you’ll be able to capture.



These 5 Tips for photographing your toddler should help you get that winning shot without losing your cool.

Which one do you think will help you the most?

Don’t say Cheese! – How to get real smiles for the camera!

Don’t say Cheese! – How to get real smiles for the camera!

Capturing natural smiles!

Make it fun – not cheesy!

One of the questions I’m asked most as a professional family photographer is just how do I manage to capture natural smiles?  You’d think something we all do naturally shouldn’t be that hard, but let’s face it – it can be really hard, particularly with kids or for “posed” portraits.

I have two simple rules that will give you the best chance of photographing natural smiles.

Rule one: You have to make it fun!

Yes – It’s really that simple. Keep it positive and don’t ask people to say cheese or you’ll only get that fake square smile, particularly off kids. If you’re photographing your kids you need to work extra hard, make it a game, be silly, crack a joke and no matter what you do, don’t get frustrated and bring out your “parent” voice – it just doesn’t work for photos!  Instead, be as silly as you can. Try acting the clown or cracking a good poo joke. Seriously, poo jokes!! They work almost every time on almost everyone!

Keeping it fun is especially important if your first problem is that your little one doesn’t even want to stand still for their picture!   Rather than rattling off instructions like; “Stand here”  “Stop wiggling” and  “look at me!!!”   Give them something fun to do instead, something to focus on that’s not having their photo taken like looking for the dolphins, bugs, shells or throwing leaves or snow. With older subjects, the same goes, relax them, chat, ask about their interests, don’t take the shot while they are talking, but the smile after.

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Rule two: Be prepared!

Channel your inner boy scout and be prepared BEFORE you attempt to wrangle the subject.  Make sure you’ve found the right light, angle, backdrop and your camera has the right settings, even take a test shot or two to make sure the light is right and the exposure spot it, and then, and only then, call in your subject.  Nothing brings on the fake smile faster than having to wait while you fix your settings, or worse, missing the magic and having to redo the shot over and over again.

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Photo recipes | 008 | How to take an environmental award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 008 | How to take an environmental award winning family portrait

This image was a part of a family session, right from the time of booking Dad was keen to have a shot in their garage with his boys.  I love environmental portraits, they offer a real window into the life of the subjects.  This image won a silver award at the recent 2016 National Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPAs).

Time of Day & Location notes

As we were also shooting outside family portraits, the session took place late in the day, around 4pm.  The garage door was open behind me throwing a lovely soft light inside.

Setting the scene

This was all about the them, Dad’s garage, cars and boys.  They set the scene, I merely suggested where to stand and what to do.

The tech stuff

I used a tripod so I could shoot as narrow a depth of field as possible, and a wide angle lens to include as much of the garage as possible. Using my 35mm f1.2L, 1/50sec, no one was moving fast, f9, ISO1600.


First I corrected the image for the distortion the wide angle lens gave on the yellow struts and roof.  Then a reasonably strong HDR effect was applied to the image on most areas of the garage.  I also softened & darkened the strong light that came from the roof and highlights throughout the garage.  The image was printed on a matt paper that softens the effect so I went a little further digitally then I normally would.

How to take an award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 007 | How to a composite award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 007 | How to a composite award winning family portrait

I’m going to fess up and say this composite image was something I thought of after the session, it would have been easier if I shot specifically for it, but I didn’t.  It wasn’t until I was editing the session images that the idea came to me to put them together like this.  This image won a solid silver award at the recent 2016 National Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPAs) and a silver with distinction at the WA professional photography awards.

Time of Day & Location notes

The family wanted an early morning beach session, so we met at sunrise.  There is a very small window of time where the light is soft and lovely, before the sun breaches the hills behind the beach and the mood changes.  The light becomes harder.  I live on the west coast of Australia.  Here the sun rises over the city and sets over the sea.

Setting the scene

Dad suggested the races during this shoot, which was a gift for his birthday.  He loves playing at the beach with his kids and races are something I love including in sessions. When kids are about to melt down, it’s a great distraction, I get great images and they get to play and burn off steam.  Win win.  The family had at least 5 races.

The tech stuff

I stayed in roughly the same place, yelling at the kids.  Because I didn’t have a composite in mind, I used my 24-70F2.8 zoom lens, and I zoomed in and out to compose different images.  The post production would have been easier if I’d stuck with one focal length. 1/800sec to freeze the action and f4.5 for plenty of depth of feild.  ISO640.


The final image was a composite of five different images, the three main races, and one extra of the dog (who was missing totally from one race shot) and a different shot of the little girl. One that would tell a better story.  The little one is loosing, she makes a break and ends up winning!  All edited together as best as possible to appear as one image.  The ocean being the hardest, as the waves had naturally completely moved.

How to take an award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 006 | How to take a creative award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 006 | How to take a creative award winning family portrait

This gorgeous image was taken as one of my whimsical portrait sessions.  Where I work with the clients to take one amazing hero shot of their kids that really showcases their personality.  Whimsical sessions are great fun and result in a quirky personalised art piece for the family home.  This image won a solid silver award at both the recent 2016 National Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPAs) and the WA professional photography awards.  Here’s the inside scoop on how I set up and captured this image.


For these stylised sessions I ask a lot of questions about the kids, what they love, what they are in to, colours, foods, habits etc and brainstorm various ideas for a set up.  In this instance, the older swimming loving sister who also loves to draw was painting a picture of her little brother, lover of small dinosaur and animal toys with the usual destructive nature.

Time of Day & Location notes

As this was taken indoors, the time of day didn’t matter.  It was around 11am, and we cleared a wall in the kitchen by moving a table.  There was a bank of windows to the right, and a smaller set directly behind me. The scene was actually taken as two images.  The boy then the girl, and joined together in PS.  This was bot for reasons of space, and because it’s easier to get the exact individual expressions when capturing just one subject.

Setting the scene

The little boy wasn’t feeling great at our session, he’d been sick for a few days.  I made sure the entire scene was set up ready to go, the lighting was right and the camera set on a tripod before encouraging him into the shot.  This way, no time or good humour was wasted getting things right, all he had to some come in and play.  Be a dinosour and smash up the city.  His older sister was easy, happy to do what ever we asked.  However I still made sure everything was ready for her.

The tech stuff

Shot using natural light, I set the camera on a tripod so that if I had to make any composites it would be an easy swap. Also the tripod allowed me to not hide behind the camera which allowed better engagement with the subjects.  I used my 35mm 1.2L lens, at f4 – I wanted depth of field here.


Editing this award winning image was a matter of combing the two final images.  A lot of work had to be done to make sure the floor aligned as well as the skirting boards and blended so that no join could be seen.  I also removed distracting elements like power points and a small window.  A few marks on the walls were cloned off.  The final image was then given a slight HDR look with a heavy tonal contrast in PS. This gave the image and ever so slight cartoon look that I really think helped to set off the image!

How to take an award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 005 | How to take an award winning family portrait

Photo recipes | 005 | How to take an award winning family portrait

This gorgeous set of images of a little girl and her dog won a silver with distinction award at the recent 2016 Austalian Professional Photography Awards (APPAs).  Here’s the inside scoop on how I captured this set.

Time of Day & Location notes

Late in the afternoon in the height of summer, just as the sun was setting behind the trees.  I met this family a park local to them, and made sure I positioned myself facing into the setting sun.  The girl and her dog were playing on a walkway, that gave a beautiful leading line and framing to the image allow you to focus on what counts.  Their beautiful bond.

Setting the scene

This is the kind of image you can’t fake, the parents need to be comfortable with the interaction, the dog needs to be happy and calm, and the little girl needs to be very comfortable with the dog.  In other words, it really needs to be her dog, and this needs to be how they play daily.  I had a parent just outside of shot and we simply encourage the little girl to play with her dog, and I lay low to the ground capturing the interactions.  A few times the Mum and Dad would put dog and little girl back on the spot, but the rest was really up to them.  I find the candid nature of these images, while in a carefully selected location and set up is what brings the magic.

The tech stuff

For that gorgeous background blur, I used my 135mm f/2.0L lens, and made sure I was as low to the ground as I could be. I was actually lying on my stomach. The longer the focal length you can use the better to really get your subject to pop.  My aperture was f3.2, just in case either of them moved slightly forward or back and the shutter at 1/400, I perhaps could have raised this up a bit to freeze any really fast movements, but luckily in these three images everything was sharp. I then adjusted the ISO to ensure correct exposure (in this case ISO640).


Images I enter into awards often receive a different level of editing than standard family portraits.  These images were edited in Photoshop to remove any distracting elements from the original capture.  Bright patches in the background, distracting grass bits etc, and then the edges were darkened to really focus in on the subjects.  The black and white conversion the final element, I found removing the colour allowed the focus to be solely where I wanted it to be, on the two adorable subjects.

How to take an award winning family portrait