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Tips & Tricks

My Trick For Getting Kids to Smile Naturally in Photos 99% of the Time

By Tanya Goodall Smith on November 9th 2015

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.

When I first started photographing kids, I was sometimes a little baffled by how to get a genuine smile from them. Especially from those who are old enough to “Smile on Demand.” While the Smile on Demand (S.O.D.) is ok, as a parent, I myself want to have the genuine look of joy my kids exude frozen in time forever in a photograph, and I love giving that gift to other parents.

Every kid is different and what works for some will not work for others. But for most kids (and even adults) who seem to be giving me that S.O.D., I’ve devised a little trick for getting kids to smile naturally in photos 99% of the time. I call it the Serious Face. It’s so simple and it’s effective on most anyone who isn’t a trained model or actor. Here’s how it works.

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Here’s the Smile on Demand. Not bad. Still super cute. But it’s missing that genuine, real smile quality. Every mom can tell if her kid is really smiling or fake smiling in a photo. I’ll let you in on a little secret, too. If you have 10 technically perfect photos that don’t have that genuine smile, and one slightly blurry one with the “real” smile, moms will pick the imperfect one every time. I would anyway.

how-to-kids-smile-serious-face

Now, here’s what I do. I ask the kids to give me a serious face. You could also try mad face, clown face, etc. But I find asking for the serious face to work best. Here’s why. From my own research, not many people, especially kids, can hold a serious face on demand without laughing. It’s almost impossible. Here’s what happens…

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Seconds after giving me the serious face, a slight smile starts to creep in. They can’t hold it! I’ll even say “hold the serious face! Don’t smile!”

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Then they laugh. It happens every time. You have to try it.

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But it’s not the laugh we’re after. It’s that real smile that shows up a split second after they are done laughing. Watch for it. Keep your camera ready. Have your settings dialed in so you’re ready to go. Sometimes I’ll even set my camera to continuous shutter so I can just hold it down and make sure I capture every frame for those few seconds.

how-to-kids-smile-before-after

Here’s the before and after. It’s a very subtle difference, but one that can set you apart from those photographers who aren’t able to capture this kind of expression. It’s one more reason parents will hire you, because try as the might, they can’t get this kind of photo with their cell phone.

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Guess, what? The Serious Face trick works on many adults as well! Learn more ideas for getting a natural expression from adults in our Natural Light Couples Workshop DVD and my favorite, Photography 101.

CREDITS: Photographs by Tanya Smith are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Catherine Lacey Dodd

    Nicely put!

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  2. Robert McBride

    Great tip! I had a son of bride in a recent session that refused to smile. His obstinance started to affect her smile after she tried bribing him , then giving him guilt, and finally just having him step out of the picture. He just didn’t like the camera or attention. Luckily I got a great shot of a huge smile of them looking at each other when he wasn’t looking and his Mom said, “ok, we’re all done.” it was one of her choices for the album.

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  3. Barry Cunningham

    Using reverse psychology on kids?!
    Who woulda thunk?

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  4. penelope peralta

    I found this very helpful. Thanks!

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  5. Len Currie

    Excellent tip!! Never thought of doing it.. unless of course you get the kids that can hold serious face FOREVER!! :D You know.. the actor types.

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  6. Stealthy Ninja

    So… seriously, get them to laugh? That’s the tip? LOL

    I’m being silly, your tip is actually a good one.

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  7. Gabriel Rodriguez

    Got two little ones that I have to try this on..thank you for the great tips!!

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  8. nita wright

    Very clever. And YES.. it does work. LOL

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  9. Neil Holloman

    great article. solid information.

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  10. Dolores Wiens

    Thanks for this tip, Tanya! I’m going from Southwest to the East Coast to see my grandchildren. Getting a natural smile is always tough. I KNOW this will work with my 4 year old grandson who is an extreme extrovert. The tough one will be my extremely introverted granddaughter who is pretty good at holding a serious face. None the less, I’m going to try to trick her! With her, I might try “See how fast you can make these faces and then give a series, mad, sad, surprised, etc., as fast as you can!” And then hold the shutter down. I think that might work to get her to laugh; then I’ll watch for the genuine smile!

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  11. robert s

    BRAVO!

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  12. Donatas Vaiciulis

    Nice. Smart trick.

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  13. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Smart. Very smart.

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  14. Paul Empson

    nice idea..

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  15. Colin Woods

    Yup, great idea. I’ll try it on my boy later. Every time I ask him for a smile I get a ghastly leer, reminds me of Jaws in the James Bond film.

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  16. Kenny Van

    Nice trick there!

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  17. Joseph Prusa

    Great tips!

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