Do’s & Don’ts for Capturing a Natural Smile

Capturing a natural smile should be easy, but it’s often one of the most difficult tasks asked of a photographer. For whatever reason, people (children and adults alike) tend to grimace or give a forced expression when asked to smile for the camera. We won’t get into the how or why this happens, but today we will offer a few do’s and don’ts for capturing a natural smile from children. 

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Contrary to popular belief, the most natural smiles do not appear when you “say cheese,” or ask a child to smile. It just doesn’t happen. And it definitely doesn’t happen when we get desperate for a smile.

Unfortunately, we  know that “CHEESE” magically finds its way into every kid’s vocabulary, regardless of how much we try to avoid it. In fact, we’ve often talked about how our own kids will say “cheese” on their own when they see a camera.

If you must say anything, try saying “PIZZA,” or “SNAKE.” Better yet, find out if the child has a trigger word that makes them light up, such as “POPSICLE!” Just be prepared to get that kid a popsicle after the session as a reward.

DO: Act Silly

A better way to capture a natural smile is to act silly. Kids love to be silly and if you’re acting like a fool, there’s a strong chance of that child laughing at you.

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This approach often works better on other children, you know, the ones who don’t live with you. Your own kids know your old tricks, but other children don’t often see all that silliness coming. Try telling jokes, or saying the wrong words on purpose, or dancing, or making ridiculous noises.

If you’re doing your job, by the time you’re done taking pictures, you’ll be exhausted. 


The best time of day for photography is during the hour right after sunrise or the hour just before sunset. For the most part, this works equally well for most kids who rise early and don’t want to go to sleep until the sun has gone to sleep. If possible, plan your photo sessions during those times.

If that’s not possible, you should at least avoid nap and meal times. A tired and hungry child will cry, not smile. Pay attention to those basic functions and you’re much more likely to capture a natural smile.

DO: Keep it Moving

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Before you ever start shooting, have a mental plan for your shoot. If your session requires props, have those props ready; and if you need time to adjust your settings, do so before asking your tiny models to join you.

Kids get bored if they have to wait more than a minute so be prepared and keep your session moving. Most young children do well to change things up every 2-3 minutes. 

Just remember that a successful photo session is not measured in the amount of time you spend shooting. Success is measured in your ability to capture a smile.

Don’t: Smile…No Really, PLEASE Don’t Smile 

For some reason, kids eat it up when you tell them NOT to smile. It tends to go something like this:

“Alright, if you’ll just sit there and look serious, that’ll be great. Whatever you do, don’t smile.”
Kid starts smiling.
“What?! I thought I told you not to smile?!”
Kid starts to giggle and you’ve got them right where you want them!

Variations of this method are just as effective. Ask for a mean face and then scream as if you’re scared. You’ll not only get a smile; you’re bound to get a few laughs. Just make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to capture all the happiness. Chances are that you’ll be laughing just as much and you don’t want to miss the moment because of a little camera shake.

DO: Get to Know Your “Customer”

One of the best ways to capture a natural smile is to know the child you’re photographing, and put them into an environment that makes them happy. With your own children, you have the opportunity to capture happiness often (easier said than done).

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However, when you’re asked to photograph other people’s children, be careful to spend some time making a connection with the child you’re photographing before you ever start shooting. 

Find out what the child likes to do. Do they have a favorite color or activity or dance move they want to share. Get them involved in the session and it’ll be a lot more fun for everyone!


The great thing about digital photography is that you take as many pictures as your memory card will hold. Some call this the “spray and pray” approach, meaning that you may take 100 or more pictures with the hope that maybe 10 are worth saving.

Take advantage of the continuous shooting mode on your camera. Each time you press the shutter button, you’ll be able to capture at least 3 frames per second. With any luck and/or skill, you’ll capture a hand full (or more) of beautiful and natural smiles! Just remember to delete any duplicates or unfocused shots in post-processing.

Do: Show Your Screen

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Kids love to see what you’re doing. If they ask to see your screen, show them. In many cases, they’ll think it’s funny to see themselves in your camera and want to do it again.

Or they’ll love the instant gratification of seeing whatever face they thought was so great in their head. With older kids, you can show them the difference in a fake smile and a real smile.

Don’t: Use “Discipline” to Force a Smile

Feel free to discipline your children however you see fit, but try to avoid using any sort of discipline tactics to force your kid into smiling. In our experience, if a child has decided that they are not in the mood for photos, they will rarely “shape up” just because you said so (or worse, because you punished them).

It’s better to just end the session and reschedule for a better time or take a break to address any biological needs (example: snack or potty break).

Do: Have fun! 

As far as kids are concerned, their sole purpose in life is to have fun, so why not join the party? Set the stage for fun by creating the perfect environment for their little imaginations to run wild. 

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Bring along a box of dress-up clothes, a tea party, bubbles, a kite or any other fun props that you think they might enjoy and see what happens. Alternatively, just go to a fun place or turn your photo session into a game. Whatever the case, have fun with it because “fun” is the key ingredient in a natural smile. 

Whether it’s a big toothy grin or a shy smile, with the right moves, a natural smile is within reach. Just take your time to make a connection with your subject, then have fun!

Want more tips for photographing children, check out 10 Tips for Photographing Small Children.

Photo Credit: Ashley Sisk 

Ashley Sisk
Ashley Sisk
Ashley lives in North Carolina with her husband, two kids and Kitty Paw. She’s a work-from-home mom with a natural light photography business and a passion for sharing everything she knows. Since leaving the corporate world, she now spends her time trying to get through elementary school with her daughter, chasing her firefighter loving little boy, writing and finding ways to enjoy life. You can find her on Facebook, Google + or on her website.

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