Updated: Sep 18
Toddlers are often perceived as strong-willed, having clear preferences and preferring to make decisions on their own. For a child who is decidedly against the idea of having their picture taken, it can be challenging to capture their cuteness, quirkiness, and all of the everyday moments you want to remember or share with friends and family. This article offers tips and tricks for helping your little one cultivate a true appreciation for and acceptance of the camera so that you can capture those moments that are closest to your heart.
Here are tips and tricks I've found to be effective at converting a camera-adverse toddler into an enthusiast.
1. Help Them Cultivate an Appreciation For Photography
We can help our toddlers become more receptive to the camera by helping them to appreciate photography. We can show them that it is a fun and creative activity that is used for sharing or remembering things that we love.
Next time you're out and about with your little one, notice the things they get excited about and snap photos that you can look at together later in the day. Explain that pictures last for a long time. Show them pictures of themselves or of you and your partner from years ago. See their reaction when they see a picture of themselves when they were a little baby.
Ideally this foundation will make them feel more knowledgable and on the same page the next time someone brings a camera around.
2. Build a Positive Camera Association
Use the Camera to Share Your Toddler's Passions and Interests
We can use the camera to acknowledge the things our little ones are passionate about. When they get excited about a bug they find, or a drawing they make, we can get the camera out to document the thing they're proud of. Not them, just the thing. This takes the pressure off of the child who might feel vulnerable or threatened by the camera, and instead it makes them feel happy, seen and understood.
I use this technique all of the time with my daughter Verne. It's also handy when she creates a piece of art of structure that we need to disassemble. We can preserve her creation and show her that we're proud by documenting her creation with a photograph.
Use The Camera To Affirm Your Toddler's Feelings
When my daughter is experiencing strong emotions or is feeling misunderstood, sometimes the camera is a tool for making her feel heard. If she's crying, I might ask if she wants me to take a picture her tears. If she falls and hurts her knee, I'll offer to take a picture of her scrape. She responds surprisingly well to this, and she often will immediately relax as though the picture offers closure or helps her to feel validated. I'll show her the picture and will affirm her feelings by saying things like "I can see your tear in this photo, you really were sad weren't you?" or "Wow, that scratch is so big! You are a tough girl! We'll have to show this to dada".
It might feel intimidating or counterintuitive to offer something like this, especially in tense or emotionally heightened moments, but give it a shot! If they aren't into it, nothing is lost. But one day it might just work!
3. Let Them Direct the Creative Process
Most little ones feel honored when given big responsibilities and opportunities to offer input or direction. Creating a picture together can be a really fun experience for everyone, and it can boost our little kids' confidence and competence with photography and as creative individuals.
I use this technique when my daughter Verne is running away from the camera. As a way to get her involved in the photo, I'll ask for her input.
For the past few weeks she's been excited about me taking pictures of her feet (she's very into shoes). I go with it. It makes her happy and she loves seeing the pictures after I take them. In the photo below, she cooperated for a photograph mainly because I promised to take a photo of her shoes. After the shot below, a got a nice portrait of her with a satisfied smile on her face, in her favorite tree in the back yard.
Here are some creative decisions our little ones might love to make:
Where a picture should be taken
What kind of expressions they or others in the photo should make
Whether or not they should be in the picture
What sort of pose they should have
What we should take a picture of
When we should take a picture
4. Be Part Of The Moment
The moments I want to photograph usually occur when my daughter is engaged in an activity or just simply comfortable in her own skin. But I understand her resistance, because one minute she's engaged in an activity or simply daydreaming and the next minute she's being asked to look at the camera which seems to pull her away from what she's connected to. Being part of the moments helps to downplay the idea that the camera is intruding into their world or pulling them away from it.
To capture these really sweet, intimate, honest moments, to capture the joy on our kiddos' face, we need to let them stay engaged in the activity they're doing. This doesn't mean we have to take a candid necessarily; we can still try get them to cooperate and connect with the camera, but the interaction will be in their world, integrating fluidly into the activity they care about.
So, if your toddler is playing in the dirt or doing something physical, join them on the ground, in the mud, wherever they are. Join them in the activity. Do this before you get the camera out.
Once you take the camera out, be stealthy. Stay connected with them and never make it about the camera.
When you're ready to go for a picture, try something like "Wow show me your cool thing!" or "That's amazing, let's see!" rather than explicitly asking them to look at the camera. Snap a quick picture, and don't ask them to repeat. Remember, we want to let them stay present in the moment they're a part of and not make it about the camera. If the picture is blurry or didn't quite work out, try again in a few minutes.
What I've found is that, with this approach, over time children will naturally start to recognize the presence of the camera, and even connect with it, without being explicitly asked to and without feeling like it will pull them away from their activity. When we practice incorporating it into play and adventure as a minor detail, instead of the focus, this sort of acceptance of the camera and interaction with it naturally evolves. And if they don't connect with the camera, you'll still be able to get an intimate shot where they're in the moment and unaffected by the camera.
5. Strike Up A Conversation
To capture personality and to downplay the presence of the camera, strike up a conversation. Ask your little one questions that will get them excited, talking and engaged. Don't mention the camera, just make it about the conversation and snap a couple of photos on the side.
Snap a photo before, during and after your kiddo's response. Mid-sentence photographs are usually a little awkward. The special moments and expressions tend to happen before a question (when the little one is thinking about what they will say), or after the response (where they are less aware of themselves but still thinking about whatever topic you got them going on).
When my daughter was 2.5, I would have asked her about Mowgli. I'd ask her if she knows the song "The Bear Necessities". The goal is to ask them a question that they can easily, confidently and enthusiastically answer. The complexity of the question will vary by age.
Camera phones are perfect for these sort of interview portraits. With sufficient lighting, the auto-focus capabilities are so good that we can easily hold it to the side as we have our conversation, snapping a few photos along the way.
The photo below was taken outside at sunset as I asked Verne questions about her day.
6. Have Fun With It!
Taking a picture can be a fun and playful experience. If you want to capture a genuine smile, try telling a joke and snapping a picture after the punch line. Try being silly, making that face you know will crack them up. It's a common photographer trick, especially with smaller babies, to pop out from behind the camera and do something silly, followed by a click of the shutter.
My daughter likes to stick her foot in my camera or run really close up to it while I'm taking a picture. Instead of asking her to hold still, I'll go with it and play the game with her. It usually results in several crazy photos, but the occasional photo will be in focus, sharp and filled with a ton of genuine emotion.
7. Don't Give Up
Luckily, with our own children, we have plenty of time to help them become comfortable in front of the camera. Even so, I've seen kids do a complete 180 in the short span of a 2 hour session. Part of the reason for this may be that there's no other option, we're all there to take photos, it has to happen. Parents and photographers work together to create a positive camera association (or to help the kids forget about it completely) so that we can preserve their adorable kiddo joy, love and enthusiasm.
I think since we have more time with our own kids, the techniques above are sure to build a long-lasting positive relationship with the camera. But, for good measure, here are a few more tips I've learned from family photography that might just help as well.
Don't make it about the camera
Give time to reset before trying again
Use the camera to show interest in things they love
Use the camera to have fun and be playful
Involve them in the process
Don't give up
I hope these tips help! I'd love to hear from you. What techniques have worked for you? What things are still a challenge? I'd love to keep the conversation going on this.