"I was sure there wouldn't be any useable pictures of my kids."

I cannot tell you how many times I've heard some variation of this comment after a photoshoot. And I totally get it! Family photos can be a tricky/stressful/exhausting experience when young children are involved. Anyone with a toddler knows they can go from the happiest they've ever been in their life to the angriest they've ever been in their life in the blink of an eye. And yet, I love photographing families with small children.

In a perfect world, most parents want to show up to a photoshoot with everyone well rested and happy and wearing those cute matching outfits that they spent hours planning. That combination almost never happens, though, so I thought I'd help you parents of young children out by giving you 5 steps to getting beautiful pictures of your family/children regardless of mood or circumstances.

STEP 1: Keep it simple

Your kid is cute, and your chances of capturing evidence of that cuteness rely on two things: luck and speed. While I can't promise luck, I can help you with the speed. The idea here is to get as many cute photos of your kid as you can before they hit their limit. By keeping the location, outfit, props, etc. simple you will minimize the amount of your child's patience that will be expended on the set up, and maximize the amount of energy they'll have in front of the camera.

Toddler holding parents hands and standing in grass

Don't worry about finding the perfect background. In fact, aim for simplicity as in this backyard photo taken in a shady spot. Any area that has minimal distractions will lead to an image that allows the eye to focus on the important stuff, like beautiful interactions and faces. Backyard photo sessions are a great idea with little ones: you don't have to deal with the hassle of a car ride, or even putting shoes on! Additionally, you'll have all of their toys on hand to help keep them entertained both during and between photos.

Step 2: Have fun ways of getting their attention

Does your kid have a favorite song? A favorite book? A toy? Think about objects you can bring to the photoshoot that will grab their attention... then either the photographer, or a friend or family member that is not in the picture can hold the object near the camera to get the little one's eyes looking to lens.

And if you find yourself without any of your kid's favorite things, playing YouTube videos of children's songs on a smart phone is a great on-the-go trick, or if you're even without a phone, simply have someone play peek-a-boo, or sing, or make funny faces near the camera.

Family portrait of young parents and toddler

In both of these sweet images I was holding a smart phone playing a wheels on the bus video above my head with my left hand, while I clicked the camera with my right hand.

Toddler standing and smiling between parents' legs

This turned out to be a great way to get a fussy toddler to keep her eyes toward the camera!

Step 3: Make it a game

If you're setting up a family photo, have all of the family members who are old enough to remain still sit or stand in the pose or position you'd like to photograph, then have the little ones play a game. See the photos below for a few examples of fun games and their resulting images.

Little girl running around in front of parents

For this photo sequence, I set up mom and dad in the background, and told the little one to run around in circles as fast as she could until I yelled freeze.

Little girl striking a pose in front of seated parents

This is the moment I yelled freeze. Then I told her to freeze for as long as she could while I counted out loud.

Little girl smiling with parents out of focus in background

After a few seconds of the freeze, she relaxed into this lovely natural smile and I was able to get the winning shot!

Little girl hugging sculpture in Lincoln Park

Right before this image was taken, I told her to climb up as high as she could using just her arms and no feet.

Portrait of little girl in structure in Lincoln Park Chicago

Believe it or not, she was not holding still for this beautiful portrait. I took this in the transitional moment as she was readying herself to climb down. Beautiful images often result from these transitional moments.

Step 4: Keep them in motion

Boredom is the nemesis of a good photoshoot with children. They might sit still for a minute or two while you have them sit-and-say-cheese, but not much longer. Plus, in my experience these photos always come out looking stilted and unnatural. I much prefer to keep the children moving for two reasons: you keep them entertained, and they'll give you genuine smiles and reactions. Keeping the child in motion also gives you opportunities for beautiful candid shots of the child playing and interacting with family members.

Little girl laying down laughing in field of clover
Father bouncing baby daughter in air
Little girl running on a grassy lawn

Step 5: Embrace the meltdowns & bloopers

Sure, a toddler tantrum ten minutes into the photoshoot can be frustrating, but chances are it will pass, particularly if you follow the steps laid out above and keep the photoshoot fast paced and fun so they don't have time to stay locked into their meltdown. And while you might not think it's cute now, in ten or twenty years when you're looking back at your family photos, you might just like having a memory of what life with your little one was really like.

Humorous picture of little girl falling down during family photos

Disclaimer: No children were harmed in the making of this photograph :D

Little girl pouting during family portrait

This was one of the very first photos of the session. This sweet little 4-year-old was not happy to be taking pictures, but once we started playing games she perked right up and we got tons of beautiful images of her. If you can stay calm and ignore the tantrum, you can almost always turn things around with a positive attitude and some fun activities!


Just remember these five steps and you'll be sure to get some sweet photos with/of your little one!

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Have fun ways of getting their attention
  3. Make it a game
  4. Keep them in motion
  5. Embrace the meltdowns & bloopers
Mother snuggling up to daughter
Small child holding out a rock
Small children kissing their mother's cheeks