Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera, and you can come along if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here, so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. This phrase could most certainly be used to describe my experience raising, not to mention photographing, toddlers. Toddlers. Oy! They can be so adorable and yet so maddening at the same time. An otherwise perfect family photo session could be ruined in an instant by the toddler who refuses to look at the camera, sit still, be restrained or follow any direction in general. I hate to break it to you, but you will not be able to beat a Toddler at his own game so you might as well join them. Here are my 5 tips for photographing toddlers without losing your cool.

1. Timing is Everything


When scheduling a session with any child, I always inquire about the ages of the children and mention to the parent that we should choose a time for the photo shoot when the kids will be happiest. I don’t care if this doesn’t fall within the “golden hour.” I can always create or modify light. I can’t make toddlers happy if they didn’t get a nap and have missed lunch. Timing is uber important. If scheduling conflicts make it absolutely impossible to photograph the child at an ideal time of day, just be prepared for possible meltdowns.

For comprehensive training on modifying natural light or adding fill light with on-camera flash, check out our Photography 101 and Lighting 101 workshop DVDs.

2. Remain Calm


Deep breaths. Breath in, breath out. It’s ok. This too shall pass. Freaking out because a kid won’t sit still is not going to help the situation. It’s a good idea to remind mom and dad (and yourself) that this kid is normal, and it’s ok if they are running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Arriving armed with some of the tips I’m about to share with you should help you remain calm and confident as you approach the seemingly untamable little monster.

Whatever you do, don’t make any negative comments about the child or the parents. Don’t roll your eyes and sigh, as this will only make you look like an impatient jerk of a photographer. You think I’m joking? I’ve heard horror stories from families whose photographer made them feel awful during their photo session with comments that were made or negative body language they projected. You must have a smile on your face. You must remain upbeat. YOU set the tone for your photo shoot.

3. Expect & Encourage Movement


Sparing you a lengthy lesson on child development, Toddlers just aren’t going to sit still on demand. Their attention spans are very short. Their little bodies simply cannot sit still. Fighting this will make things worse, so you have to figure out how to photograph them in motion. Here are a few things you can try:

Let them play. Follow them around with your camera and if you are very diligent and observant you’ll get some great shots. These are often the most treasured images of the entire session. A genuine smile on a toddler’s face, while he’s coming down the slide, is much more valuable to a mom than a posed, tear stained face. You may need to bump up your shutter speed and close down your aperture so you can nail the focus. Choosing AI Servo focus mode can help with this, too. For more tips on freezing subjects in motion, check out our Photography 101 Workshop DVD.


Give them something to do. You can still be in charge of the situation by directing their play. Ask them to run and jump. Throw a ball to you. Give mom a kiss. Play peek-a-boo, play pat-a-cake. Be a cowboy. Plan some of these in advance and then you won’t be so flustered during the shoot. Also be prepared to be flexible and go with whatever they might want to do.


Give them something to hold. Little hands like to hold small things and play with them. They like to push buttons. Choose some props in advance that will make sense with the scene you are shooting so they don’t end up holding an iPhone or the squeaky toy from your camera bag in the shot just to keep them from running away. You could use a flower, balloon, lollipop (see tips on food props below), their favorite stuffed animal or whatever you and the parents think might be appropriate.

4. Involve the Parents


Get the parents on your side! I had this lightbulb moment while sitting in on Lisa Tichane’s class during Click Away last year. She asks the parents to help as much as possible while taking photos of their kids. She might have them tickle the child, hold them upside down, jump on the bed with them, etc. Have the family hold hands and walk toward you. Tell them to give each other a hug. These are a few I use on a regular basis.

5. Bribe Them With Treats

Image by Pye Jirsa from our Photography 101 Cookie Jar Lifestyle Shoot

I’m sure there will be a lot of haters and negative comments about this one, but honestly if all else fails, bribes of sweets and toys are a last resort. Of course, you should check with the parents first since many kids have food allergies or are not allowed to eat sugar.

Keep in mind that some sweets will make a huge mess, so if you can hold off until the end of your session to pull out this little secret weapon, I would do so. Or, incorporate it into the shot. A photo of a toddler eating a giant cookie would be pretty cute, in my opinion (see the Cookie Jar styled lifestyle shoot from Photography 101 for some more inspiration).


Photographing toddlers can be very rewarding because you have to work so hard just to get them to look at you, let alone sit still or smile. But when you get that one shot with a genuine look of delight or capture their cuteness in action, it’s worth the effort. What tricks do you use for grabbing a toddler’s attention?

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