HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH YOUR KIDS: NO CHEESE, PLEASE!
You’re out in the park with your child.
He’s playing happily, you’re enjoying quality time as a family, everyone is beaming and laughing and you are struck with the dazzling beauty of your child’s smile. So you reach for your camera (or your phone) you call him sweetly to get his attention, and…
…that brilliant, beautiful smile turns into a horrible grimace of “Cheeeeeessssse” as your child is suddenly, inexplicably unable to smile like a normal person.
It should do, we’ve pretty much all been there. When my son was about 5-6 I was just learning my craft as a photographer, and I used him and his big sister as models constantly.
While she was gripped by a morbid fear of showing the enormous gaps in her gums where her “big teeth” refused to come through, he was only too willing to “smile” for me. Unfortunately, his smile was the Cheese Grimace. And it wasn’t because he didn’t want to please me; the very opposite.
The harder he tried, the more unnatural that grimace became.
I did what I see and hear parents do ALL the time in my studio. I told him, “Smile normally! Why are you looking like that? Give me your proper smile! No, not that one! Don’t do that with your mouth! Here, like this. Do this with your lips! Smile like this!”
It didn’t work for me, and it won’t work for you now.
The more you ask for a “normal” smile, the more they have to think about it, and you’ve lost them completely – you won’t get anything other than increasingly awful versions of the Cheese Grimace.
So what on earth do you do about it?
Well, here’s two ways I coped.
It’s not going to be an overnight success, but if you can gradually get rid of the Cheese Grimace when you’re out and about, you’ll have a much nicer photo album and it’ll make life a whole lot easier for you (and me!) on your next photo shoot.
1. Show Me Grumpy
This is one of my favourite games to play when the Cheese Grimace starts making its appearance.
Children are very aware that they need to “Smile!” in their photographs, and they freeze up. So we distract them by doing the complete opposite of what they expect. Ask them to show you their grumpiest expression. (They’re usually very good at this one).
Sometimes, this cracks them up giggling and you can catch a proper smile if you’re quick enough.
But you can then continue it with other expressions. “Show me… shocked face! Cute face! Confused face! Cheeky face!” I usually call out all of these, and I photograph each expression (I won’t use any of them in your final gallery, but they don’t need to know that).
Then once they’re into the game and their facial muscles have relaxed, I’ll return to the “Smile” face but in a very specific order. I say, “show me a tiny smile!”, then ”bit bigger”, then “OK show me a HUGE cheesy grin!”
This helps them to realise the difference between the difference smiles.
Once they have given me the biggest, tightest, ugliest CHEEEEESSE face they can, I laugh hysterically (which usually starts them laughing too) and say “OK, maybe just a bit less cheese now!” And nine times out of ten, that Cheese Grimace settles back down into their actual, natural smile.
2. Don’t Smile!
There’s two ways in which this can work.
First of all, sometimes you can capture a really beautiful natural expression just by taking away the pressure to smile. This works well with your casual photographs.
Photograph them mid play, but don’t call them or ask them to smile.
Just capture the moment.
Some of my all-time favourite images of my son at this age are where he is not smiling. I ask him to show me what he’s playing with, and so he looks my way but as far as he’s concerned, I’m not focused on him or expecting him to smile – I’m photographing what he’s showing me.
The other way this one can work is that, as you well know, children like to do the opposite of what you say.
So if you can say, very seriously, “Don’t smile. You absolutely mustn’t smile. I need super serious. No! No smiling! Oh noooo! I can see a smile! Stop!”
This works really well if your child is normally a bit of a giggler, or if you’ve got more than one child, as one usually sets the other one off.
Sometimes they’ll respond to me doing it, but usually it’s better if it comes from a parent – they know when you’re being serious and when you’re joking. With me, sometimes they don’t know I’m kidding and they just stay looking serious!
The good news is that the Cheese Grimace doesn’t usually last forever (although it does often get replaced by the “I don’t want my photo taken” teenage scowl).
You can fight it off by being silly, playing games, and generally taking the pressure off them for that natural smile.
The harder they try, the worse it will look – so we don’t want them to try! Photograph them in play, in laughter, while they are absorbed in other things.
And when they give you their real smile, tell them what a beautiful smile they have. It’s hard not to smile when we’re told we are beautiful, right?