You’ve seen them. Websites designed specifically to make fun of those awkward studio portraits. Little kids with gritted teeth and bulging eyes, as if Pennywise the Dancing Clown from It was standing behind the camera. Or that funky look we recognize as the signal that the floodgates are about to open and unleash a biblical flood of tears.

Kids need to feel comfortable in their environment before I can capture their genuine smiles and personalities. I’ve discovered a few tips that usually work when my young subjects are nervous, intimidated or on the edge of a meltdown.

In another blog post, I discuss the importance of setting aside time before the session begins to let your kids feel comfortable around me and my camera, so be sure to check that out. For now, we’ll focus on “cheats” to use while your children are in front of the lens, no matter if your portrait session is in my studio or on location.

Ready? Let’s have a look at my toolkit for turning fake smiles into glowing grins.

Funny Words

I recently met a kid who goes into giggle fits whenever she hears the word “socks”. Funny words, when used at the right time, usually cue laughter and smiles from children. In the days leading up to your child’s portrait session, engage him in a game in which you take turns revealing your favorite funny words. This “homework” assignment is a lot of fun for both parents and their kids and often reveals a lot about a child’s developing personality, imagination, and sense of humor.

two-boys-being-silly

In the weeks leading up to your portrait session, when you read to your kids or watch a movie or TV show with them, keep an ear out for words or lines that get them laughing, or which they like to repeat when the show is over.

Just think: All those times when your little one drove you nuts by blurting out random dialogue from Frozen or Moana might finally pay off with some great photographs.

Favorite Jokes

Most kids love riddles, jokes, and puns. Letting her rattle off her favorite “knock-knock” jokes helps her feel more in control of the situation. Reciting favorite jokes back to her can elicit that “I KNOW THIS ONE!” excitement.

Some of us aren’t that great at memorizing jokes, so lucky for us there is a ton of web pages created just for age-appropriate jokes, riddles, and puns.

Favorite Music

Does your child love to ham it up and dance or rock the air guitar to a favorite tune? Does singing a particular song cause her face to light up with ear-to-ear grins? I like to encourage parents to bring a playlist on their phones or be prepared to sing along to help keep children engaged in their portrait sessions.

portrait-of-two-brothers-laughing

Favorite Sounds

Kids delight in funny sounds, especially those that might otherwise earn them the “stinkeye” at home. Are you or your spouse gifted in the art of armpit farts? Can you haul in a favorite uncle with a degree in rude noises? If not, there are plenty of iPhone and Android apps with vast repertoires of hysterically obnoxious noises. (I think you can figure out the search terms on your own.)

Sometimes, when a child is regularly admonished for using certain words, phrases or sounds in public, the “special occasion clause” can work in our favor. This helps boost the “magic” factor with their photography session. And…trust me, I’ve heard kids say the darndest things, so don’t worry about offending my delicate ears. Chances are, we grownups will be grinning as broadly as the kids.

portrait-of-two-sisters-smiling

Many small kids or babies will smile at the sound of a favorite squeaky stuffed animal or other noisy toys, or at a parent playing an animated round of off-camera “Peek-a-Boo”. If your child hasn’t yet discovered the joys of potty humor, there’s no need to corrupt them so early in the game. (That’s what favorite uncles are for, after all.)

Favorite Topics

When kids feel in control of a situation, they tend to brighten up and re-engage. Is your child your family’s expert on Emoji characters? Does your daughter know the name of every single My Little Pony? Taking a moment to let your child enthusiastically talk about their favorite subject will empower them and boost their self-confidence during our portrait session.

Flat-Out Bribery

Sometimes, in order to bring out a kid’s best behavior, we have to resort to bad behavior on our own part. Announcing that, after the session, you’re taking your child to get ice cream (or a new toy, or a trip to the zoo, or a shiny new Ferrari) might revitalize his enthusiasm for the process. It’s usually best to make the announcement during the session rather than as part of the “If you behave today, this or that will happen later” approach. For one thing, the spontaneous announcement encourages kids to react in the moment; second, if the child is apprehensive and in the dark about the session before it begins, he might not find the reward a worthwhile enticement.

portrait-of-brothers-making-silly-faces

Professional Portraiture: It’s More Than Photography

Believe me, I’ve learned a lot about connecting with my subjects in my photography career. Interacting with kids is often the most rewarding (and hilarious) part of my job. I love it when parents send me a list of their kid’s “giggle triggers” ahead of time, so I’m better prepared to capture their own, individual personalities.

And as a bonus…most of these tricks are pretty handy when it’s time to drag your husband or boyfriend along for a family shoot. I’m not just a photographer; I’m a guy. Trust me: We’re easily amused.