There’s nothing sillier than expecting people to give you a great expression because you say, “Smile!” Especially children. If you want people to smile in your photograph then you need to do something worth smiling about. Here’s a technique I learned from Drake Busath and refined to fit my own style. You can use this verbatim and adapt it to fit your personality, too.
Discipline an object
Kids also get a thrill from seeing something ridiculous get into trouble. This one is also gold for getting dads and moms to smile. Parents are usually stressed when they come for pictures. There’s not a lot I can do about that, but I coach them every time saying, “I’ll take care of the kids’ expressions, but I need you two to keep looking at the camera no matter what I’m saying to the kids. The best picture of the kids is always the one where dad is looking down at the kids, so please keep looking at me.” One more thing before the technique: as you do these things, you’ll find kids putting their hands in their mouths. I don’t know why, but they do. You’ll want to say, “Don’t put your fingers in your mouth,” but all they hear is “fingers in mouth” and they don’t move (but dad will now try to control their hands and it ruins everything). Instead say, “Please put your hand on your dad’s hand,” or, “Can you put your hand in your pocket?” Give them something specific to do and they’ll do it, and just tell them over and over again before each shot if necessary.
So, here’s the technique I learned from Drake Busath, who is probably the best portraitist I’ve ever seen. Kids love it when someone else gets into trouble, and they sit on the edge of their seats to watch this happen. Here’s the dialogue of what I do:
“Has anyone seen my keys? I’m always losing them …” Patting pockets and turning around in circles looking
“Ah! Here they are! John and Maddie, I need your help so I don’t lose these keys again, OK? I’m just going to set them right here on top of my head, and you tell me if they fall down. Will you do that?” Place car keys on top of head.
“OK, for this picture, I’d like you to–” tilt head so keys fall off, kids laugh and point, I look surprised and appalled.
Addressing keys, looking at them with scowling eyebrows, “Don’t you fall down again! You are embarrassing me! If you can’t behave, you won’t get any ice cream later!” Put keys back on head, kids are riveted, watching anxiously for the keys to get busted.
“Now, let’s make a picture. Maddie, will you please put your hand on your mom’s arm? Thanks. Ok …” keys fall off, kids laugh and point and keep smiling, I’m clicking away.
Wash and repeat. I just keep doing it over and over, clicking away each time. This works best if your camera is on a tripod (here’s the one I use) so you can just keep on clicking and not worry about framing or focusing. It works great with the kids, but you’ll be amazed at how well it engages with dads and moms, too. The kids are laughing, and the parents can’t help but anticipate the next fall of the keys.
If you’re a little more daring, this is a great time to poke at the parents a little and tie it more closely to the kids. You may have heard the parents using their specific language talking to the kids. I recently heard the parents telling each kid what “level” they were at and how close they were to earning something good. So, when I disciplined the keys, I said, “You’re at a level five right now, and you’re not going to get ice cream if this keeps up.” the kids loved it because they know exactly what that means and the parents laughed as well. Gauge the situation, but it’s a fun way to ease the tension.
When you need kids to do something besides what they’re doing, give them something else to do without drawing attention to what they are doing. Coach the parents to look at the camera. Use slapstick techniques to make kids laugh and you’ll make the best portraits a family has ever had, and even dad will have a good time doing it.
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