photography tips: how to get a great smile from your toddler or preschooler


Ever asked a three year old to smile? If you have, you know that you generally end up with something more like a grimace than a grin. Toddlers and preschoolers are tough to photograph – getting pictures taken feels like a chore to them. They’d rather be running around and playing, so if you’ve convinced them to sit still for a minute, chances are you’ll end up with a cheesy smile or a grumpy look. Here are five ways to get a great, natural looking smile from your toddler or preschooler.

tired of cheesy grins from your kids in photos? try these 5 tips for getting a beautiful, genuine smile from your toddler or preschooler. I'm going to try #5 for sure!

***My standard photography disclaimer applies: this is not intended as “professional” advice – I’m just trying to share what I’ve learned to help you get better photos of your children/grandchildren etc.***

1. Start by chatting for a bit. You CANNOT just tell a toddler to please look at you and smile for a good picture and expect it to work. Some young kids are very shy and won’t even want to make eye contact with you, let alone smile at you. And believe me, little kids are stubborn – they’ll wait forever, looking everywhere except at you, until you’re ready to throw in the towel.

When I have a reluctant toddler or preschoooler, I lower the camera and spend a few minutes making very silly small talk. With this little girl I talked for a few minutes about favorite TV shows and then started snorting like a pig and pretending I couldn’t figure out where that noise was coming from. Once you’ve grabbed the child’s attention, you can bring the camera back up and start asking silly questions: “does your Daddy wear diapers?” or “is there an elephant on my head?” or “how old are you? about 25?” Once she’s more comfortable you’ll be much more likely to get a natural smile from her.

2. Offer a small, tidy treat. If your toddler is on the younger end and talking to her isn’t working you might end up with photo after photo that looks like this:

Sometimes a little something sweet can break the ice. I try to always keep Smarties handy when photographing kids – they’re tiny, they don’t make a mess, and I can dole out one at a time over and over again without giving anyone a sugar high. Hand over the candy and give your child a minute to start eating. Then be ready to snap a shot when she grins in enjoyment.

3. Don’t ask for a smile – surprise him into one. If you request a smile from an obliging preschooler, you’ll probably end up with this:

Good try, but not quite what you’re looking for. Instead, ask him to close his eyes and then after a minute make a loud sound like a sneeze or a bark. He’ll be startled at first, but will probably laugh for a few minutes and maybe even smile at you afterward. (Be careful about using this with very shy kids who might get scared.)

4. Ask for a sad face. When he gives you a look like this:

…you can say, “Ok, now don’t smile. Don’t smile! Not even a tiny bit – no I’m serious, don’t smile!” Most kids bust up laughing after a few minutes of trying hard not to smile. (But don’t forgot to take a picture of the sad face as well!)

5. If all else fails, ask him to scream as loud as he can. It might take a little encouragement, but most little kids love to scream. And after they do – they’ll smile. You just can’t scream as loud as you can for no reason and then NOT smile. It’s a universal law of nature. Or something like that.

Remember, it’s HARD to get a good picture of toddlers, and you can’t expect the perfect eye-contact and a cherubic smile every time you try. Some days it just doesn’t happen. The good new is that a smile isn’t the only expression worth recording. Sometimes other expressions are just as precious:


  1. 3

    Denise says

    I tried the screaming one on my mother-in-law’s wedding day. (No worries — it was outside before the ceremony.) My sister-in-law was mortified. But I got better pics of the flower girls than anyone else. 🙂

  2. 5

    [email protected] says

    WOW! this could not have come at a better time! This week my kids are having their closeups! Def going to be using these tips. Thanks a MILLION!!!

  3. 7

    Kathryn says

    Great tips! I currently have a kindergardener, a preschooler, and a toddler– and trying to get “keepable” pictures of any of them is tough! I think I’ll have to try the screaming one… outside, of course! (Fortunately our neighbors don’t live too close…) 🙂

  4. 8

    [email protected] says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us at Someday Crafts! I will be featuring your project tomorrow on our blog. Please stop back in and grab a Featured at Someday Crafts button for your sidebar. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. 16

    liz says

    These are great. Another thing people should never do after taking a photo is say things like, “That’s not a real smile. Give me a real smile.” It is the most heart wrenching thing when I see this happen because the kid always looks so defeated afterward and the parents most often won’t ever notice. Why would you say something like that anyway? It is the same thing as saying, “That smile is ugly.” And the kids can sense that! Your child is beautiful regardless of how he/she photographs.

  6. 18


    Fabulous tips….I have a 6, 3, and tiny little guy. These tips will work wonders. Plus, I dabble a little in photography myself. But then again, who doesn’t when they’ve got kids! Thx again.

  7. 19


    Just came here from your other toddler photo post and I love these tips too! I have tons of nice pictures of my son with his serious face, but it’s rare that I get one with a genuine smile 🙂

    I have another question about toddler photo shoots though (and maybe you already have a post about this–I’ll search later): how do you get great composition with a toddler who moves so fast? I’m forever cutting off an elbow or the top of his head because he moves so fast and my composition reflexes are not instantaneous 🙂 Or he moves and the place I had set the focus is suddenly not right. It sure is a fun learning process but sometimes I get discouraged that out of so many, most of them have a significant flaw 🙂

    • 20

      autumn says

      Good focus and composition is SO HARD with a toddler. The key (for me) is really to find a way to get him to stay still at least for a few seconds – having a kid size chair for him to sit in can be really helpful! That said, I don’t worry too much about the standard composition rules for photos of my own kids – if I catch an expression I love I try not to worry about an elbow that got cut off, etc. Most people don’t notice those kinds of details anyway, so try not to feel bad! BTW – I took photos of my 3 yr old daughter yesterday to try to get good pictures of an outfit I’d made for her and even with my husband’s help she was all over the place – I shot 550 photos and ended up with 15-20 that I actually like. That sounds like a terrible ratio, but I got what I needed and deleted the rest. I’m just grateful for digital cameras! Thanks for your comments.

  8. 21

    Kate Kennedy says

    Please, please ask the parents or guardians before offering kids candy! Even if it’s “just one,” it’s not your call. I would be livid and walk out of a photo session if the photographer (or even a family member) offered one of my kids candy without asking me first.


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