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May 6, 2024

Tips to Keep Kids Happy for Family Photos | Northern Virginia Photographer

kids happy for family photos

Tips to Keep Kids Happy for Family Photos

As a Northern Virginia family photographer, I know the idea of planning a family photo session can seem like a lot. You may be wondering – will the kids cooperate? How can we get natural smiles? What if there are meltdowns during the session?!

I’m here to tell you it’s going to be okay! There are a lot of things we can do before AND during the session to allow your family to have a fun experience. Here are a few tips to make it happen.


1. Make sure EVERYONE eats before the session – and bring snacks!

This is perhaps the biggest tip! Full bellies = happy kiddos. If anyone is hungry (including mom or dad), it can cause stress, tension and melt downs. Provide a meal or snack before you get in the car and bring a snack for a break during the session too. Bring water and clean snacks that won’t cause a mess on their face, hands or outfits.

Ideas: cheerios, marshmallows, gummies, fruit snacks. Pick small, easy-to-eat treats they can eat quickly in small bites. 

Avoid: chocolate, anything sticky, large treats that require sitting and eating for a while.


2. Talk about the photo session with your kids beforehand.

In the weeks leading up to the session, tell the kids how much fun you’re all going to have as a family! Set it up in a lighthearted way – for example, tell them we’re going to see a pretty garden with Emily today, and we’re going to play some games and go exploring. It will be so much fun, and we’ll get some pictures too! They’ll even get to wear a special outfit. By doing this, kids can approach the session with excitement. It’s not something they HAVE to do – it’s a fun activity!

On the other hand, if you emphasize how this is a big, important day for the family, how they better behave or else, how you want only their best smiles, etc., this can feel like a lot of pressure. It also sets the scene as a stressful experience before we even start.

Bribes AHEAD OF TIME can also have this effect. For example, if you promise ice cream after the session, it makes it sound like it will be a stressful experience they have to go through that deserves ice cream. And even if they do cooperate for the first 15 minutes, they may feel like they already did their part – so they want to be done with the whole thing!

Instead, bribes during the session can sometimes be helpful – especially for toddlers who don’t understand delayed gratification. Using snacks or a favorite candy for an instant reward or break during the session can work well. And you can still go get ice cream afterwards! But we can pull this card out towards the end of the session when we really need it.


3. Make sure everyone is well-rested.

Plan for a relaxed day if you can. Consider adjusting nap schedules if your session will be later in the evening during golden hour. Your little ones may be up later than usual, so it’s not the best day to skip the nap! Shifting things around, or talking with me about the best start time is the best way to avoid this. Some locations work better earlier in the evening, so if we’re still finalizing that detail, please let me know asap so we can chat.

We can also do a morning session if that’s when your little ones are happiest! While some locations are best right at sunrise, others can be more flexible with start times at 7 or 8 AM. I’m here to guide you in making this decision, so please let me know if you’re unsure what’s best!


4. Plan ahead to avoid any last-minute rushing.

Your mood will set the tone for the day. If you’re stressed and running around doing all the things right when you’re supposed to leave, kids can start thinking this is going to be a not-so-fun experience. Before you know it, everyone feels stressed. Planning ahead can make a big difference. A few tips:

  • Lay out all outfits (including shoes) the day before to make sure everything is cleaned / ironed, etc.
  • Cut off tags off new outfits
  • Pack a bag early in the day or the day before with any essentials you’ll need (diaper bag for the littlest ones, snacks, brush or comb, etc.)
  • Build in buffer time to your “getting ready” schedule. If everyone’s done early – amazing! If you need the extra time for last-minute things that come up, it will help you stay on schedule.
  • Double check your travel route to the location; if you’re unsure about traffic, build in extra time just in case.
  • Plan to arrive 10-15 minutes before our session start time so little ones can get used to the location before we start.

Another idea – have the kids try on their clothes before the big day so they know what they’ll be wearing and aren’t surprised by dressing up. This also gives you a chance to make sure everything fits properly and is comfortable.


5. Bring an activity to do together.

Think about activities your kids love. Ideas include reading (bring a favorite book and a blanket), snuggling a comfort toy for toddlers (bring a neutral toy you don’t mind being in a few photos), playing with favorites toys (again, aim for something neutral you don’t mind being in photos), playing with bubbles, etc.

Bring these items with you (but don’t tell them about it). If we need to pull them out during the session, it can be a great way to bring smiles back and have fun at the same time. Also, keep in mind that for some activities, once we start, taking it away may cause a melt down. This is why we don’t mention it ahead of time, and we wait to bring it out until needed. I like to make sure we got most of the “main” photos right at the beginning, so these can be fun, candid, and relaxed photos towards the end of the session!


6. Let your kids be kids.

Let them play and don’t forget to join the fun and love on them too! I always aim to get the classic “smile and look at the camera” shots early on in the session. If we knock those out right away, we have plenty of time for games and playtime – and this is usually when we get the most natural smiles! Sometimes we’ll hop back into another “look at the camera” shot if it naturally presents itself, but my goal is to keep things feeling fun and relaxed.


7. Try not to worry about making sure everything is “perfect” during our time together.

Once the session starts, keep things light and easy! I’ve been photographing families for years, and I promise I don’t judge or get stressed out if your kids “misbehave” during our time together.

If I ask the kids to play a game, but they don’t want to – don’t stress! We’ll switch to something else. If I ask them to run this way, but they run that way – don’t worry, I’ll go after them and see what photos I get that way! If someone needs a break – not a problem, let’s take photos with mama and sister instead. After a while, whoever needed a break often comes back all on their own because they want to be included.

I understand it can be frustrating when you feel they aren’t listening, but this is the one time it’s allowed. We only have a limited amount of time together, and keeping things laid-back and relaxed gives us the best chance of getting those smiles. Positive reinforcement goes a long way, as you know, a toddler can go from upset to smiles and giggles in a split second. Even if things feel stressful, keep smiling! You’ll be surprised by what we capture.


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More questions? I would love to hear! Send me an email an or inquire below about booking your own session.



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