Getting genuine expressions instead of “cheesy smiles” is the most challenging part of nursery photography, but those smiles get the parents to fall in love with the photographs and place orders.
It’s very rare that a child would look in the camera and smile happily straight away. In most cases it’s the photographer’s job and skill to get the child truly excited and engaged.
I tried lots of different techniques over the years, and these are the proven and trusted ways of getting lovely cheeky expressions and the most beautiful smiles.
For every shoot I prepare a bag of “tools” with me. I use one thing at the time, and if it does not work, I simply move on to something else until I find something that works for the child in front of me. Remember, you’ll have very little time, so you need to be able to work very quickly and stay positive and enthusiastic at all times.
No matter how young the children are, you need to talk to them to break the ice. Call them by their name and be kind and enthusiastic. Kids from two years and older could potentially engage in a conversation, so ask them questions like “ How old are you?”, “Who is picking you up today, mummy or daddy?”, “What’s your favourite pudding?”, etc.
With slightly older kids you can have a good laugh together by saying silly things like “smelly socks” or “smelly jelly”, anything to do with bottoms or underpants usually works too.
Tickling is one of my favourite tricks of all times and a tickle feather is an amazing tool, which works for kids of all ages including babies. It’s perfect for nursery photography. For my tickle feather I use a colourful duster from the Pound Shop, but I am sure there are many similar things that can be used. I always start by asking the child “are you ticklish?”… and then play with them, trying to tickle their noses or toes.
With young babies, a little gentle touch on the cheeks usually does the trick and causes a lovely smile.
When I photograph siblings, I always ask them to tickle each other on a count of 3. We count to 3 together and then they start the tickling and I get the best shots.
Another similar “tool”, which I bought on a street market many years ago is a so called “wiggly tail”. It can touch and tickle the kids, but can also be used for a “try to catch me” game. It works brilliantly with slightly older children.
Balls & Balloons
Catching balls or balloons (or any object that is safe to be thrown) is always a brilliant way to engage the children. Soft balls are probably the best option, as there is a risk of popping the balloons and scaring children… I usually have more than one ball with me, so children get to choose which colour one they want to catch. I throw it to the children and then ask them to throw it back to me… I always comment and laugh with them, if one of us did not manage to throw or catch it very well. Exactly the same thing works with teddies, the added advantage is that children can hug their teddies which could get you some very cute shots.
I always have a musical toy in my bag, it works brilliantly in a situation where the child is a bit upset or scared, or not engaging with other things… I simply take it out of the bag, turn it on and bring just above my camera level, so the child’s eyes look towards the camera… even if it does not result in a smile, you can get other nice expressions as the toy grabs the child’s attention.
If you are able to use a hand puppet with one hand and take photographs with the other hand, this is an excellent opportunity to put a little puppet show for this kids and catch their excited faces. I used a little racoon for a few of my nursery shoots and it worked quite well. I know that some photographers use finger puppets and they work just as well.
My favourite hand puppet of all times is a very colorful parrot that makes squeaky noises. I do various things with it, from hiding it behind my head to having it give kisses to everyone.
Rattles are very useful for babies, as it helps attract their attention and get them to look into the camera. Have at least a couple of those in your tool kit, as some nurseries have very young babies from 3 months old.
Making funny noises
It might sound silly, but making farting and animal noises usually produces the most genuine smiles. Don’t be afraid to be a bit of a kid while doing it. Nobody will ever find out how you got those gorgeous smiles!
Stickers are great for a little reward. You can ask a child to do or say something and promise a sticker in return. Another fantastic use of stickers is for indicating the location of where a child needs to be. I always put a sticker on the floor and ask children to sit on top of it in order to hide it. If they move away from their spot, I ask them to get back and hide the sticker.
You will need an assistant for that, so if you don’t have one, ask the child’s key worker or any other staff member to help you out. It always works great. Peekaboos from behind the photographer are the best… we need to be sure the child is looking towards the camera! I used to have a monkey that loved hiding behind my head. We would ask the children to let us know if they see a monkey in the room somewhere… they usually get very excited when the monkey pops out and start laughing.
Bubbles is usually my last resort, if none of the above tricks works, I get my bubble tube out. Usually even the most shy children love bubbles and will start smiling when they get to pop a few of them. Don’t start blowing bubbles right away, count to three together with the child first, and get that smile just before they start catching bubbles.
When working with the youngest children in the nursery, they can be scared to be in front of the stranger, so I get them to sit on a lap of the nursery worker (with a bit of a gap between them), and we all engage in some sort of a game, which could be ticking, clapping or singing nursery rimes (or any other tricks from the list above).
Remember that though we are aiming to get a smile, you can shoot all the other expressions too – the more variety you get the better. Good luck!