How To Get Your Kids To Behave For Family Portraits

Kids can be… unpredictable. Practically every parent I’ve worked with has expressed concern for the children misbehaving during their session and totally ruining their perfect family portrait. I’ve actually seen this fear scare parents away from having photos done with their kids, but let me tell you that family portraits can be a fun and wildly fulfilling experience. And if done right, it can be totally stress free, and leave you with amazing, hilarious, and heart-warming photographs you’ll cherish for the rest of your life.

I photographed Callaghan and his family at their home in the Niagara Region. It was fun evening filled with play time and food! The casual approach to their session allowed Callaghan to relax and be himself. He got to show off his mechanic skills, his garden, and how he cuts the grass.

My goal is to make your child feel comfortable and content for your session so that their true personality can be seen in your photos. This isn’t always easy. I deal with all sorts of personalities. Some kids are shy, some kids are hams but shy at first, some are hams at all times, and some get overly enthusiastic around new people. And in families with multiple children chances are that not everyone will share the same personality traits.

I’ve found that it can be a tricky game to break a shy child out of her shell or cool down uncharacteristic enthusiasm so that we can see what her parents see every day. But if practice has taught me anything it is that shouting and dancing behind the camera rarely works. Instead I have some easy strategies to help you prepare your kids and to calm your anxieties about your session.

Don’t talk in too much detail about your session. This can stress a child out and they should be arriving at their shoot excited. If you do talk about your session be sure to be positive and excited. Instead of saying, “You better behave for Sophia,” try, “We’re going to hang out at the park with Sophia!” This way your kids will look at the experience like just another day with a little extra fun.

Give your photographer some topics your kids like to talk about so that she can create a rapport with them. This isn’t always necessary, but can be helpful with particularly shy children. Kids like to talk about themselves and the things they like! So giving your photographer some insight into what gets your kids thinking and engaging can be an incredibly useful method to help open them up.

Avoid colourful foods and drinks for 24 hours. While those blue-tongue photos can be funny, stained lips are likely not what you have in mind for your new family portrait. Remember that sweet treats can leave marks around your kids’ lips and on their fingers so do your best to avoid them in the days before your session.

Be sure your kids nap before your session if they are of napping age. You already know that your kids can be a bit temperamental when they’re tired (and so can I).

Hide their diapers and do not dress your kids in dresses or skirts that will ride up easily. Expect to be picking your children up often! If, when you pick your kid up, you can see their underwear or diaper it will best to try another outfit. Photos like these make great blackmail for their future wedding slideshows, but they probably aren’t the overall goal for your family portrait.

All of these tips are in my Picture Perfect Guide for Parents! You can download a copy below! Just pop your name and email in and I’ll send it your way!

Bring props like hats and scarves, but don’t bring anything too distracting. And remember that sometimes kids don’t want to wear hats and scarves, and might try to remove them. Don’t take it as a personal assault to your sense of style. If they’re done with the hat, they’re done with the hat. Don’t try to force them to wear it as everyone will get stressed out and tears might ensue.

It might not be what you expect, but this is a real moment! I can’t remember why Callaghan erupted in tears, but this is life! You want to remember their sweet smiles and laughter. You also want to remember how they came running to you and cuddled into you when they were upset. Don’t disregard photos like these because they don’t give the impression of how perfect your family is, because these will be some of your favourites when your kids are all grown.

If there are tears, let them flow. Sure, I’m a fan of the realism of crying photos, but this isn’t why I make this recommendation. Your kids know when you’re stressed, and fussing over the crying can make it much, much worse and bring your session to a crashing halt. Instead, when they cry, just go with the flow. Let them be pouty and cuddly and it will pass. These moments can make for amazing photographs that will pull at your heart strings.

Clean their face, fingers, and toes. Obviously. You should also bring hair ties in case it gets windy.

Arrive early so you can introduce your kids to your photographer before the camera comes out. Often when I get started with shy kids they want to have nothing to do with me, but by the end of our time together they’re hamming it up for the camera. That little bit of extra time before your session with no camera can help ease them into the session.

Good bribes include Smarties or foods that won’t stain teeth or make a mess of their hands or clothes. However bribes should be used extremely sparingly as they can distract kids. Whenever parents bring bribes with them the kids are solely interested in getting that candy! Inevitably we wind up spending the session begging the children to behave “so that they can have a cookie” or to “smile for the camera one more time so we can go get ice cream.” If you can do without the bribes, don’t bring them! And try not to make promises for after-session treats as your kids will be consumed with finishing so that they can get the treat!

Don’t expect your children to behave for more than 20 minutes. This is about how long they can focus, and so this is about how long we have to get those smiling photos. Don’t set your expectations for 2 hours of strolling through country fields holding hands. Your kids will want to play, and that makes for great photos too.

Like I said above, kids will often be shy when we get started. So start by playing with them. Don’t insist on a photo on their own unless they’re comfortable. Often by just offering them that support your kids will open up and be ready for silly solo photos as your session progresses.

Don’t say cheese. Natural smiles are always better, and real moments make for heartwarming photographs. Expect to play!

Only look at the camera when you are asked to. If your child is looking at you, look at her. If your child is looking elsewhere follow her gaze or tickle her to bring her attention back to you.

Never expect children younger than 2 to look at the camera on command. At this age kids are notoriously uncooperative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents standing in front of my camera, cocking their head to the side, and pointing at the camera begging their 6 month old to look at it. Don’t be that parent! Prop your child in your arms so they’re more-or-less facing the right direction and get cuddly with them.

Do not scold your child for behaving like a child. Shouting might frighten her, and even excitedly begging her to look at you while waving your arms about behind the camera can confuse and embarrass her. Remain calm, cool, and collected.

Trust your photographer to get some great photos of your children in the moment. Some of the above instructions might seem very difficult! But your photographer will work her magic to snap amazing and smiley photos of your family. If you remember that and allow yourself to relax your session can be a fun experience, tears and all!

That’s it, folks! You now know my super simple instructions for ensuring your kids behave for your family portrait session. In truth it boils down to allowing yourself to relax. By managing your expectations for your children it’s more likely they will treat the experience as a normal, fun family day, and you’ll get those cute, sweet, and funny photos of who you know them to be.

Get all of these tips and more for your family portraits on your phone! Enter your email below and I’ll send you a download of my Picture Perfect Guide. Keep it on your phone and be ready for your next photo op!