All it takes is one tip. Even if the only pictures you ever show are landscapes, closeups, flowers or horses; someone is going to ask you to make a family picture.

Here are five inevitable facts about family portraits, and one tip to beat them all.

  1. Kids under five always put a hand in the mouth. Always.
  2. Middle children under 11 always make funny faces.
  3. Parents are always stressed about the kids making faces and putting hands in their mouths.
  4. The best picture of the kids is the one with Dad scowling and pulling hands out of their mouths
  5. Older kids (and dads) hate family pictures because Dad was always pulling on their hands and scolding them for having fun.

One tip: Don’t say don’t!

The one tip I can give you to beat all these issues and he make family pictures is this: Don’t say Don’t!

If you (or Dad) say, “Don’t put your hand in your mouth,” the kid only hears “Put your hand in your mouth.” Instead, try, “Put your hand on your mom’s hand,” or, “Put your hands in your pockets” or, “Put your hand on Dad’s leg.”

Giving kids something to do is infinitely more effective than telling them something not to do.

(Hint: this works when teaching kids to ride a bike, too. “Go that way and don’t hit the mailbox,” always ends up with a kid wrapped around a mailbox.)

Similarly, when kids make faces say, “Oh, that was a good one; what else you got? OK, how about mad? How about a sad face? Now do ‘cool.’ How about serious? Can you do thoughtful? OK, let’s see a gentle face.” Fire off a bunch of frames. Give the kids a direction to go in, and they will follow.

The most important thing to do before you start, however, is to talk to the parents. Try something like this, “I’ll take all of the kids’ faces and poses, you guys just keep looking at the camera and smiling. The best picture of the kids is usually the one where Dad is looking down to make sure they’re smiling, so you just keep looking at me. I’ll make several exposures to be sure we get the right expressions.” Give the parents something to do (look at the camera).

Kids hear don’t all day long, and it’s not an enjoyable word. At picture time, if parents aren’t scolding kids and yanking on their hands, everyone has a better experience, which means next time the kids will enjoy themselves more. With this one tip, your subjects will rave about what a great photographer you are before they even see the pictures.

Check out more portrait tips here.