Photographing Toddlers – 5 Tips for Keeping Your Sanity

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“Having a two-year-old is like having a blender that you don’t have the top for.” – Jerry Seinfeld

No doubt, you’ve experienced the frustration of photographing your own toddler or a family with toddlers. Frustration and anxiety come from not knowing how to relate to toddlers and get them to cooperate for photos. But there is a way to have a great experience photographing toddlers even if they are grumpy, unruly, shy or scared.

I’ve developed five strategies based on my own career as a portrait photographer and insights from childhood psychology.

If you struggle when photographing toddlers, these five tips will transform your experience and theirs too!

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This is often how a sibling photo with toddlers goes! There are times when you need to forget about the perfect photo and go for comical instead.

1. Meet the toddler where they are

“The fundamental job of a toddler is to rule the universe.” – Lawrence Kutner

Most toddlers are not interested in sitting for a picture. For them, life is all about exploration. They don’t understand the picture taking process. Photography is about cherishing their childhood and marveling at their growth.

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Toddlers love to explore. They were born for picking up sticks and wandering off.

Begin by realizing that a toddler does not know what a photography session is about. They may even be confused or scared during this new experience.

I was photographing a family and the mom and dad told me that their little guy was terrified of the camera. When he saw my camera he burst into tears and ran away. It seemed like an impossible situation.

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Never fear when a toddler runs away from a photo. Turn it into a fun game of chase.

2. Promise to be patient

“You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.” – Franklin P. Jones

If you’re planning to photograph your own toddler or another family, you must begin by promising to be patient.

This should happen long before you pick up your camera. Patience must be built into your photo session. Make the decision in advance that nothing will cause you to become upset.

Photographers only feel impatient with toddlers because they’ve lost control and don’t know what to do. When you promise to be patient, your mind will be clear to think of solutions.

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Embrace a variety of emotions. Sometimes a grumpy look adds an interesting mood to the photo, especially in black and white.

When that little boy ran away from the camera, I had to be clear in my thinking and figure out what to do next.

Promise to be patient no matter what happens and then begin to create an environment in which toddlers will thrive.

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3. Develop a friendship

“My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”– Henry Ford

Kids love to make new friends. During photo sessions with toddlers (or older kids), you must make time to befriend them. A fun grown-up is like a superhero leading them into adventures.

When a toddler is shy, give them time to warm up. They’ll let you know when they’re ready to be friends.

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Go ahead and provoke a great expression by being a comedian, toddlers will love it.

You can even make friends with misbehaving toddlers. Give them time to run free and pretty soon they’ll pull you by the hand to go play. This will give you great opportunities for candid photos.

The terrified little boy took about 20 minutes to calm down. In a few more minutes we were friends and my camera was no longer a threat to him.

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This was actually a grumpy moment, but nobody can resist a funny photographer!

4. Give the child high fives

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Toddlers love to show off and make you laugh, and they love to receive praise from grown-ups.

When they do something well, give them a pat on the head or a high five. Simple gestures like this bring them to life.

Note: Be aware of cultural differences. Touching an Asian (or more specifically, Buddhist) person on the head is an insult.

If they give you rocks, leaves, or sticks as gifts, receive them with excitement!

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Allow time for true joy to emerge.

Now that you’ve established an encouraging friendship, you can ask them to sit or pose. Get your pictures quickly, give the child a high five, and move on.

I didn’t force the terrified little guy to sit and smile properly. There was nothing but friendship, encouragement, and high fives. He would gladly sit for a moment or two. I was quick with my camera and captured many candid photos too.

When you focus less on telling the toddler what to do, and more on drawing out genuine happiness and laughter, you’ll get the photos you want without the stress.

You won’t even need patience if you create a toddler-friendly experience.

5. Don’t force the moment

“The quickest way for a parent to get a child’s attention is to sit down and look comfortable.” – Lane Olinghouse

One of the toughest problems you’ll face is toddlers not wanting to be in group photos. The more you try to force the toddler to sit for a photo, the harder it often becomes.

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All sorts of fun can happen between the poses. Look around your environment to see what fun elements can be used in your photos.

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Just moments later came a perfect pose and a smile.

Allow for a contrast of sitting for a photo and then time to explore.

When toddlers refuse to join in the family photo, I don’t force them. Every parent knows that toddlers love to interrupt what adults are doing. As soon as I start photographing Mom and Dad together, the toddler wants to be picked up. It’s a perfect moment for group cuddles, bringing out beautiful smiles from everyone.

That terrified little boy did not want to be in photos, but he did want to be comforted by mom and dad.

As he sat with them, I did things that would make him smile and laugh. I made a teddy bear dance on my camera. He smiled at Teddy which was as good as smiling at the camera.

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Bring in the background as part of the photo. Let the little one wander off and then call their name when you’re ready with the camera.

Bonus: Dealing with the toddler’s parents

We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next 12 months teaching them to sit down and shut up.” – Phyllis Diller

Sometimes the hard part is dealing with a toddler’s parents. Some parents will be easy-going and let you run the photo session the way it seems best to you. Other parents will not. They have a deep need for things to be orderly and go as they planned.

During the session, keep reassuring parents that everything is going well, even if it doesn’t feel like it to them. Assure and show them that you know how to handle toddlers and that you will make beautiful photos.

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This moment took a lot of work. It was a tiny moment of stillness in the midst of chaos.

Remind them how much their child has accomplished in these early years of life. Inspire parents to see the fun of the moment. Remember, you promised to have patience with the toddler, and his/her parents!

Let them be toddlers

“There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Remember what it’s like to be a two-year-old. They don’t care about pictures like we do (but they will one day).

Promise to be patient and then create an environment for toddlers to thrive. Even when they start out cranky, angry, shy or scared, you’ll let them be themselves and experience friendship and encouragement. This is what leads to wonderful photos of toddlers.

I’d love to hear about your experiences photographing toddlers in the comments below. Please share your thoughts and images of toddlers.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • Emmanuel Nambu

    Check out this library of some awesome lightroom presets of popular photographers here’s the link http://oke.io/N8OGVKWg
    You are welcome

  • Sharon Harris

    Both the article and photos were priceless. Thanks Mat.

  • Mat

    You’re welcome, Sharon. I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Bernie

    Assume you are doing street photography rather than portrait. Give them something to do or play with, and follow them. Enjoyed the article, perfect pics to illustrate the narrative

  • Mat

    I love that idea, Bernie. It brings an entirely different mindset and set of expectations. Thanks!

  • Michelle Neeling

    Wonderful article! I have twin toddlers so I’m very used to the practising patience bit! I rarely try to get my kids or anyone else’s to smile or pose, but just try to capture the moments when they do what’s important in their own amazing little minds. Here’s a picture of one of my boys showing his daddy what mint smells like. ?

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b94fea25c719642c66e0c657d0d33bf00f08e18a1ab579c8010263d3a1795cfa.jpg

  • Mat

    I love the photo, Michelle 🙂 Wow, you must such a great time with twins!

  • I love taking pictures of my kiddo. This past session I just let things happen and got some pretty great photos! Great advice!
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a019aaed62b5368087189ef9961c1567c9da7596371c595d969643e87cdd9c19.jpg

  • Mat

    Thanks for posting, Emily! I love the light and his gesture in this photo. Isn’t it so fun to just follow them around with a camera?

  • Thanks! Very fun!

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