9 ways I get meaningful expressions in child portraits

“You will never ever hear me tell your child to say cheese” – Skye Hardwick

I love photos of non-smiling children. Most of the images I have displayed in my home are of my kids not smiling. But the difference between a beautiful, serene expression and a grimace is a very fine line. I’m encouraged to see many child photographers out there experimenting in this way, deviating from the typical forced smile. Or even real ones.

Yes, children are carefree and happy little souls. But they are also deep oceans – far more than we give them credit for. And so while parents have become pro at taking photos of their children laughing or smiling (be it real or posed), I feel a responsibility to also capture their deep waters when working for them as their photographer.

So how do I do this without crossing the fine line between grimace and serene? Here are a few ways I get those real, honest and deep looks from kids I barely even know:

  1. I Let them get the fakies out of their system. Let them get comfortable with the fact that someone is taking their photo without imposing too many orders or new ideas on them from the very start.
  2. By all means, go for the gusto. Laugh. Smile. Run, skip, jump. Feel the child out and see if their authentic expressions come quick and easy or if they will need some encouragement from you.
  3. I’ve taken this cue from Skye Hardwick: I never ever tell a child to ‘say cheese’. You’ll be setting yourself up for a session full of painfully forced smiles and it can be hard to get out of that flow once you get started.
  4. After setting up a shot with some posing and getting comfortable in the moment, we (hopefully) have some smiles, some laughter and then I just sit there. After a laugh, children sometimes give a very authentic look which is non-smiling, yet still joyful – basking in the little moment we’ve just had.
  5. I find it useful at times to ask parents to take a few steps back and allow me to spend some time alone with their child (yet within sight for obvious reasons). Parents can get overbearing in their excitement to make the money they just paid ‘worth it’. More often than not, it’s fine, but if I find that their hovering is unhelpful, I will ask for some space.
  6. At times, when the expressions just aren’t flowing and aren’t authentic, I will guide them in shaking it out. We jump on the spot, shake, rattle, roar. And then we take a deep breath and start over.
  7. When everything looks forced or tense, I will guide them in taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out with their mouth only opened a tiny bit. This will help them to naturally open their lips a little and prevent a pursed-lip, tense face. This goes for grownups, too. Opening your lips a little will prevent teeth clenching, lip pursing and the overall impression of being uncomfortable or tense.
  8. Body language! The position of the entire body – head to toe – will have a great impact on the face. When shooting head and shoulders, I still pose the rest of the body all the way down to foot placement. Keep this in mind when trying to capture honest facial expressions that have authentic body language to match.

And #9, the most important thing of all: some kids just won’t fit your plan so be flexible. Some are calm and deep, others are buoyant and giggly. You don’t want to make portraits that aren’t honest to their character, but I alway try to get some of both sides of their personality because you never know which is the ‘real’ them the way their parents will. And you want to wow them by being able to present them with images that they look at and say “wow. I love that expression. That’s HIM!”

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  • Leah

    Couldn’t agree with you more! Thanks for the tips to capture those authentic moments!

  • Melissa Burns

    Thanks!!  Helpful information!!

  • super helpful tips! can’t wait to try them out!

  • I love these tips! My mom had a fit when our wedding photographers were not getting me, my husband, and our daughter forcibly together for family pictures before and after the ceremony… but we had spoken with them before the big day to prevent the stiff and forced pictures I knew my daughter would give if forced, and the real, non-posed pictures we ended up getting while they watched us interact together are so much more precious!

  • Crystal Hunt

    One of my favorites (if they’re old enough) is to get them to tell me a joke they know.  The photos I get after they’ve finished the joke and are delighted with themselves are always the best.  After they’ve told one, I get to tell one–that’s when I get good “listening” shots.  They pay attention to me, look right at the camera, and then I usually get a sweet little shy smile when I’m finished with mine.  

  • Great tips! I agree %100 on photos with children not always smiling!! I love that deep, soulful, “look” .

  • Beth Crocker

    Your work is stunning! I found you on Pinterest.

  • Nishkee

    LOVE your photos!!!

  • Frontiergirl

    Love that you said you don’t know what is the real them like their parents do. HATE when I go to studios and the photographers “choose” for me which prints they think are the best — “this one is so great!!”  Yeah, but that one doesn’t look like my child… she NEVER makes that expression! They always seem taken aback that I don’t choose the photo they think is so great…

  • Cindy

    Thanks, great advice!

  • I saw this on Pinterest and immediately thought it was a pattern for the sweater the little boy is wearing! Would love to track that down…

  • Ibelieve1982

    I hate when parents make the kids say cheese and they have this big fake cheesy smile that isn’t them at all! I like the child’s natural smile!

  • Clients are paying for the pics they want… Photographers should give them what the THEY want, not the photographers choice… force them to buy a pic they dont want and next time they will go somewhere else… Thats what i do for my studio…And i have had MANY modeling agents tell me they LOVE LOVE LOVE my pics….

  • cathleen brickhouse

    When I was around 1, my mom had pictures taken of me for my father, who was serving in Korea….Korean War! Yes, I’m old. He took one where I wasn’t smiling but had my mouth in almost an 0. At first she wasn’t happy about that, but when she saw the picture she realized that that was a common expression for me and was thrilled that that had been captured. I have that picture on my library shelf after all these years.