If you photograph children, you know you are going to meet children a range of comfort levels and personalities. Most photographers (myself included) want to capture unbridled, authentic joy in our family photo sessions, especially when it comes to our littlest clients. That’s why when I first started out, I was terrified of photographing shy kids. I couldn’t seem to get them to smile, and their parents would get frustrated and bust out the dreaded, “say cheese!”

It was awful.

But, over time, and through lots of trial and error, I’ve developed some key strategies for getting real, joyful emotion out of shy children. I’m going to share my tips and advice for photographing shy kids with you because we all love authentic smiles.

1. Get to know the family.

I send out a pre-session questionnaire to every client when they book a session with me. In it, I ask about the personalities and interests of each family member and what the parents would freeze about each kid right now. Upon reading the answers, I can tell if the kids are just slow to warm up, or if they are truly shy.

For example, some moms tell me that their kids are more reserved and that they want to capture how sweetly the child snuggles up to them in new circumstances. That tells me that the big laughing picture I’m usually after may not happen, but that mom is OK with that.

Most of the time, though, the client wants me to capture that elusive smile. At least I know in advance that I’ll be photographing a shy kid, and I can go in prepared.

Mom snuggling daughter - Photographing shy kids

2. Get to know the child’s interests.

Again, this goes back to the questionnaire, which is golden (especially for shy kids) as far as I’m concerned. If mom says that her son is interested in Thomas the Tank Engine, learn the names of the characters. If she says that her toddler with stranger danger loves Little Baby Bum, brush up on your nursery rhymes!

This works especially well with kids that are extremely shy or who may have special needs. Most kids will completely forget about how nervous they are if you show interest in things they love.

Boy throwing colorful balls - Photographing shy kids

3. Give shy kids space and time to get used to you.

When I arrive to a session knowing I’ll be photographing shy kids, or if I sense it right away upon arrival, I give the children plenty of space. I don’t try to take them out of their parents’ arms. Instead, I give prompts that have their parents snuggling them and touching them from the get-go. This gives them time to get used to the idea that we are taking pictures and shows them that I’m a good person who is OK to trust.

Little girl holding big camera - Photographing shy kids
Portrait of young girl - Photographing shy kids
Two little boys laughing - Photographing shy kids

4. Give shy children one-on-one attention.

Once I earn the child’s trust a little, I pull them aside. This may sound counterintuitive but giving a shy child one-on-one attention can be just what they need. I show them my camera, let them push the shutter to see what it does, and play with them without my camera for a little while. By doing this, the child starts to see that this is fun, that I am fun, and that there is nothing to worry about.

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Little girl in green field - photographing shy kids

5. Work with the child’s mood.

If I have a shy child who is crying, I pull one parent aside and have an expectation setting conversation with them. I tell them all of the tactics I have and will continue to try, but I also tell them that ultimately my goal is to make that child feel safe and to make sure they are having a good experience.

If I’m pulling out all of the stops and that child is still crying when their parents put them on the ground, I have the parents pick the child back up. You’d be amazed at the adorable close-ups you can get of children when they are in their parents’ arms. Sure, they may not be exactly what the parents originally wanted, but the goal is to capture children at their happiest, and if that is with their parents, that is just fine with me.

3 Tips for working with introverted parents:

Sometimes shy children aren’t the only ones we need to worry about. Here are a few of my go-to tips when working with parents that are introverted, reluctant or slow to warm.

1. Mirror the client’s energy.

I am, by nature, a high-energy person. I can talk for hours to anyone about anything. When I walk into a home, I have high energy and am incredibly positive. When I notice that a parent is not comfortable at that level, I bring it down to match them. I slow my speech, ask fewer questions, and give them the space they need.

2. Direct attention to the children.

For introverted parents, it can feel very uncomfortable to be the center of attention. Luckily, you have their kids! A surefire way to get real, joyful expressions out of parents is to deflect the attention to their kids. Prompt the parent to talk to their child in a silly voice or lift their baby into the air. This will help you get more natural, relaxed photos.

3. Talk about yourself.

More introverted people may not want to share the details of their lives. They may find it difficult to have an hour-long conversation with a complete stranger in their home. If I sense that someone is reluctant to open up to me, I talk about myself! It helps them relate to me as a fellow parent, and it also gives them a break.
Mom holding daughter in field - Photographing shy kids

With clear expectations, a little pre-session information, and some strategy, shy kids have become some of my favorites to photograph. It’s so much more meaningful when you can get them to open up and show you their goofy, fun sides. Hopefully with these tips for photographing shy kids they will become some of your favorites, too!

Photos by Cristin More