Dealing with naughty children (and naughty daddies)

Q. Do you have any tips for shooting naughty, uncooperative children that just DON’T want their photo taken and all the bribery in the world just wont work! And also families? There is ALWAYS one who wont smile or look at the same time as everyone else. It drives me bonkers!

A. Well for the first question, I don’t find that children are truly naughty. I do find that they act out when they feel that they’re on stage. They can feel crowded and threatened. I mean how would you feel if someone twice your size (who you didn’t know) was holding a gigantic black camera in front of their face  and giving you orders? Children often take their queues from us as to how to behave and they often misbehave during photos just because they’re feeling out of control. I play a game where we take one pose they want, one pose I want. One spot they want, one spot I want. I give them some control and treat them as an equal and that usually heads off the whole thing from the get-go. Also, asking the parents to give you space is helpful. They’re probably standing over you shouting for them to smile or whatever and it puts them off. I place a couple chairs and a coffee table outside with a coffee or tea so they know that’s where they can sit while we walk around in their sight but gives the parents the message that I need some space.

If a child is being entirely uncooperative and does NOT want their picture taken, I would explain to their parents that it’s just not ‘working’ and you can either reschedule or give them a refund and wash your hands of the whole thing. Or you can say that there’s no refund when the children are unwilling because I’ve still blocked a whole session out of my diary.

It can be very helpful to ask questions during the booking conversation to help you feel the child out and know if maybe, you should even pay them a visit a few days before. Such as “do you take lots of pictures?” If so, this will mean that they probably have a cheesy smile ready for you and you’ll have to get them truly laughing instead. Get some jokes ready! Ask if they even like having their photo taken. Some of the worst sessions I’ve had were with children whose parents were ‘photographers’. You can tell that they’ve been abused with daily photo sessions since the day they were born and so you just need to appeal to them in a totally different way.

If it’s a family, I sometimes use reverse psychology and say “it’s ok we don’t need you” and keep shooting the family, ignore them and they’ll come back. When there’s an adult in a family who is being a brat, I will joke and say “uncle joe is the only one not smiling! If you hate these, you can blame it on him!” I’ll pick on him while I continue shooting. I’ve had plenty of men who were forced into it acting like sulky babies and you just have to take control and acknowledge that there’s probably a football game they’re missing or something and see what you can do to get them to loosen up.

It’s important that you be prepared and try all the tricks in the book to give them a great session because you’re a professional and they expect you to know more than they do about dealing with their kids during photos than they do. You have to be able to say that you tried everything you can to give them exactly what they expected.

  • kellytonks

    great post Elisabeth, I love the last shot, it gave me a smile!
    In my small experience with families, but 25 years with kids, they’ll feed off your energy. Jokes are good and a mild “Poopy” joke will make all pre-schoolers laugh. In a tasteful way, I don’t leap right into that but it works in the right moment. Maybe the size of an elephant vs the size of a mouse?

    I found on shoots some space away with kids helped to. , it We can chat helped and even my cousin of all people yelling, bribing over my shoulder made everything worse, but after a short but major melt down we were back in bussiness and got the shots, by chatting with the kids alone. I’m going to use your “uncle joe” line. Sometimes saying “just a litttle smile” or ” a nice big one for Mom!”


  • Jolene

    Hi Elizabeth. I’ve just recently started taking pictures with my new Nikon and was in charge of taking the photos for my son’s destination wedding in Jamaica. I wish I had seen your site prior to going…it would have made my job much easier. Your insights and tips are right on target and I’d like to thank you for posting such beautiful pictures. I’m taking all your wisdom and trying to put it to good use in my own photography. Even though I’m no pro, the wedding pictures are quite beautiful and the bride and groom are very pleased.
    Thanks again.

  • elizabethhalford

    @Jolene: Wow thanks so much! Email me any time you have questions and I’ll do my best to be there for you!

  • If the child is at least 3 years and up and they are acting up or getting nervous because there parents keep saying “don’t smile like that” I always tell the kids “does mommy and daddy need to go to time out” They always think this is the funniest thing ever and it kinda lightens the mood of and entire shoot. Plus it really helps the parents take a deep breath and calm down…I play the name game with the kids too. They always love it cause we usually start out with there mommys or daddies names. Also sometimes if a child is really shy i say hey lets go on a treasure hunt and we walk around for a few minutes and find flowers, rocks, or sticks. And as soon as I see they are comfortable I start shooting away…lol
    I always have kids at the end telling me they wanna come back and play with me again its really cute.

  • Allison

    I have problems with this every so often. Or else I will have children that are perfectly capable of behaving and EVERY MEMBER of their family (that are not getting their pictures taken but showed up for some reason) follow like bees to flowers. They are giving 80 million directions and the poor kid is discombobulated. My thought is, if you hired me to do this job, let me use MY techniques and poses. If you want a forced cheese, take a snapshot with your own camera. I have had 2 of these before. One was with a family with twins and a (terror of a) 4 year old (sorry, but he was…..eye rolling at mom, blatantly ignoring her, running in front of the camera when I tried to take the twins’ pictures) and wouldn’t you know GRANDMA was there! The twins were whining for grandma, the other boy was acting horrible…..but the mom ended up loving the pictures. Meh. You just never know.

  • corrine

    How can I make parents understand that not every photo of a child has to be a smile? I mean they are programmed into thinking that all portraits should be this happy cheerful child with a huge smile but I think children are just as beautiful with natural expressions and actions. I get parents who dont want to let their children wander outside because they might get dirty and I spend way more time on sessions than I should because they want to make sure every photo is a huge smile and they wont stop until they get it.