(Editor’s Note: We welcome Jemma Pollari to Photofocus. Jemma is a photographer on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, where she photographs in between mothering her two little boys, writing, teaching and designing. She delivers free weekly photo prompts on her blog the Promptographer Photo Prompt Guide.)

Capturing photos — good photos — of toddlers is challenging. They move fast, they don’t follow instructions well and their emotions flip from joyful to rage-quit in a split second.

When I started my photography business, I felt nervous and awkward posing families. I’d fall back on the same poses over and over. I wanted to create something unique for my clients and I didn’t feel like I was getting there. When I found photo prompts, they gave me a quick way to spark ideas, and I was able to confidently produce galleries with more variety.

In the three prompts below, I’ll share what makes it easier to create beautiful photos with toddlers.

Prompted photography sits between posed and documentary photography: The goal is to guide natural interactions with simple instructions. Prompts are particularly useful for toddlers because it gives them something natural to do — and avoids forcing the dreaded “sit still and smile!”

One of my favorite images created with Prompt 3: Bubbles and Dandelions.

Basic principles of photographing toddlers

When working with very young children, know your camera and work fast. Toddlers have brief attention spans: a smile might last an instant before they are distracted. Get down on their level to catch expressions as they play. As they move around, track from in front.

Know your settings and be prepared. Here’s what I suggest:

  • Set a fast shutter speed (1/200s or faster).
  • Set aperture for creative effect and needs of the moment. Lower (f/1.8) to blur background and let in more light. Higher (f/8) to show background, greater depth of field for quick movement or for people at different distances.
  • Use burst mode in key moments to catch fast-moving expressions.
  • Use continuous focus mode and move your focal point to keep it on an eye (as a general rule, unless experimenting with selective focus to blur the face).
Selective focus on his hands shows the world from his point of view.

OK, got your camera ready? Let’s try some prompts!

Prompt 1: Go on an adventure

This is a great prompt to get a toddler used to you — and your camera.

Ask the toddler if he wants to go on an adventure. As you wander around:

  • Point out bugs, rocks, sticks: “What can you see there? What color is your leaf? Wow, how does this feather feel on your skin?”
  • At random times, call him to look at the camera: “Look at me!” Make suggestions like running, jumping and spinning.
  • Play with selective focus. Have parents stand behind and hold hands or hug, then capture toddler in focus and parents blurred behind. Switch so you are closer to the parents with him in the background.
  • Once you’ve captured him on his own, get parents involved: “Can you show Mummy?” Have the parent point out birds, plants, etc. Capture the shared gaze and smiles.
I love a themed “adventure” for holiday photos!

Prompt 2: Simple “Simon says”

Have the parents sit with the toddler, and orient the group so you can see everyone’s face: Profiles are fine, as long as you’re not photographing the back of anyone’s head.
Give the toddler simple directions at her level of understanding:

  • Can you cuddle Mommy?
  • Snuggle in under Daddy’s arm
  • Kiss Mommy’s cheek“
  • Boop Daddy’s nose
  • Tell Mommy a secret
  • Blow in Daddy’s ear
  • Sniff Mommy’s cheek
  • Listen to Daddy’s heartbeat
  • Stroke Mommy’s hair like a cat
If I set up this photo again, I’d make sure I got Dad’s face in too, but I still love the interaction.

Prompt 3: Bubbles and dandelions

Finally, this prompt works well for a bored toddler. All it takes is a few props. Give him something to do:

  • Run a bubble machine and surround him with bubbles. Shoot him looking up, reaching, jumping to pop them, etc. Move around to find the best light for bubble rainbows.
  • Give him a bubble wand and have him run across the scene, trailing the wand to make a stream of bubbles.
  • Give everyone a small bottle of bubble mix (or a multi-pack for parties) and have them all blow their biggest bubble, or all blow bubbles toward Mummy, etc.
  • Send him on a mission to find flowers or dandelion puffballs and bring them back for everyone. Have the family blow the dandelion seeds at each other, at the camera, pull the seeds off, etc. Ask him if he can see a fairy or dinosaur hiding inside the flower to get him to study it.
Remember to get down low: Shooting from standing height would have lost this moment.

Managing a family portrait session

When planning the photoshoot, talk to your clients about their toddler’s routine, and if possible, time the shoot when she’s likely to be at her happiest. If she isn’t cooperative, reassure parents you have plenty of time and that meltdowns are part of the process. When parents are stressed, kids pick up on it. If you are calm and confident, parents will relax too.

As you work through the session, remember to check in: “OK, we got the whole family and each kid on their own — did we forget anything?” Leave enough time to address anything that comes up.

Adding flowers with Prompt 3: Bubbles and Dandelions also gives a great color pop.

To get toddlers looking at the camera in a family group photo, this prompt can help. You can get my free planning checklist to help you prepare for your prompted photoshoot from here.

Now get out and practice

Capturing the moments that matter has never been more important than right now. Spend some time this week with your camera trained on your own children, and when the world opens for business again, you’ll be ready to confidently photograph your little toddler clients.