life . Portrait . street

Madison, WI


Fontana Giusti

How to photograph children
part 1 - Smiles

Before I begin, let me preface this article by stating two things:

– I haven’t practiced a lot of what I’ll describe in a long time – life got busy, and I’ve been guilty of dropping documenting daily life while I developed other things. Now that I think about it, I should take the holiday season as a pretext to hop back on that train, when I look back, those pictures documenting my kids daily life are the ones I cherish the most

– I have nothing against smiles, and I do believe there are very good reasons for which we so actively chase smiles in children portraiture. Childhood is a time of insouciance, love, lightness of being, a generally joyful season of life, or at least that’s the ideal, so we want to see that reflected in our kids’ photographs.

However, because kids are so pure and unfiltered, they’re also very raw in their emotions, they feel everything. Early childhood is intensely emotional years, and in my opinion children photography should reflect that as well, there is beauty in all of it. 

So while there is a drive to chase smiles, and that’s especially true in school and preschool photography, which is an important part of what I do as a photographer, I’m here to make the case for a less common opinion about portraying children: smiles aren’t everything.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m using photographs of my kids, especially Emilio, to illustrate this article.

Children go through so many raw and unfiltered emotions and there's nothing wrong or shameful about remembering that


I know grabbing a camera when your child is in tears is not everyone’s reflex, but hear me out, if your kid is fine (not hurt, not in danger, not in distress), but they’re just upset, what’s wrong with just taking one shot? It takes one second, and then you can console them all you need…

And it’s just so real, I honestly don’t care if people will think I’m a bad parent, that image of Emilio being sad is a family treasure. It will last so much longer than whatever feeling he was going through. 

I firmly believe that limiting children portraiture to happy smiles is a missed opportunity for memory-making. They’re real, they’re the salt of family life: does it make it spicy? Yes, but also interesting and worth remembering…  


Let’s also bear in mind that emotions can be bad, but also good. In my house we happen to have very high highs, and low lows, the lows aren’t great, but they’re there, and they’re the counterpart to our flying high feelings. 

Children are happy beings, but they also bore so easily, all the time

Alright, this is a view I didn’t express on my own, I got some help from my friend Amy, but it’s very much my view as well. Children are so bored, so much of their time, and they show it, and that’s the most wonderful thing to watch.

Think about it, when’s the last time you got bored? We’re so used to being busy all the time, or entertained by our various devices, that most of us forgot how often we were bored when we were kids, but we were, all the time. As I wrote not too long ago in my street photography blog: bored people with no digital devices to entertain them is photographic gold. That’s when connections happen, that’s when they start to play, come up with creative ways of being. 

That time my kids thought taking a dive in the frigid waters of a mountain fountain was the best idea they could have

But even when kids are simply bored, it’s beautiful to just watch, see it on Emilio for yourself:

Bored at the window
Bored with a fidget
Bored at the museum
Plain bored

So next time you catch your kid in a state of pensiveness, boredom or daydreaming, grab your camera and take a shot, you won’t regret it!

I find myself chasing stories more often than smiles

The real gold in children photography is the stories, not just the expressions. 

Expressions participate in telling those stories, but I believe that one of the best way to improve one’s approach to children photography, whether it’s your kids your photographing, or you’re interested in children as subjects, or you’re tasked with an editorial for a kids brand, is to focus on stories. 

Let the kids be themselves, play around, and find ways to interact with their surroundings or with you that feel natural and make them forget you’re holding a camera…

Let me show you a few examples:

This was a few summers ago, Emilio was two, we were in Paris, and it was hot like hell. So I got a water-gun to cool Emilio down when needed (I couldn’t find a single spray to purchase, they were all sold out). He learned to use it the funniest way possible, by shooting himself in the face, but then when he got it he went straight to the older kids and he believed firmly he was part of their game, with his pacifier and all… These two images tell a story, he’s smiling in neither of them, he’s not even paying any attention to me, they feel like a moment captured, and they’re sitting high on my memory shelves.

Here’s a few more, that I think tell their stories by themselves:

When the story isn't the point, how to capture a good smile

Alright, now, I know, I’m also a school and preschool photographer, and in that industry, smiles are supposedly what we’re after , so I’d be remiss if I didn’t define what makes a good smile and how to get it when photographing kids in a more posed setting… So here we go!

There’s one rule to Avoid cheesy smiles: don’t make them say “cheese”

Seriously. Don’t.

Instead, ask them questions, what’s they’re favorite color? Do they have a pet? What does the chicken say? Do they like dinosaurs? Get them to drop their guard, get them used to you, get them to forget about the camera, shoot a few shots if you’re using flash to get them accustomed to the pop. Ask them if they did that, if they’re magic… Anything really, to make them feel like this is normal and ordinary.

Some kids are natural at this, and others take more work. Some are silly jokesters, and that’s part of the fun, taking them where they’re at and working with it. My household is inhabited by a prankster and a shy little mouse, so besides the schools I serve, I’ve got experience at home 😉

But if you ask me, unless they’re utterly terrified, kids are easier to work with than adults, because they’ll let their guard down at some point.

What’s a good smile?

A good smile is a smile that’s genuine, that you see in the eyes, a smile that’s connected to the photographer. Here’s a few examples with Adriano, who’s not a poser, not a smiler, and will only sit when it’s his idea.

What if there is no smile? Is picture day ruined?

As long as there’s a connection, it is not. And I feel like the connection doesn’t even need to manifest in eye contact. There’s a softness in pensive poses that are really lovely, potentially a little sad, but still very very lovely… I think that if there is a connection, if there is a story, it shows.

And let me tell you, the times when Emilio was a natural in front of the camera are gone, the awkwardness has kicked in, so I welcome those softer portraits, as opposed to the photographs where he looks very self-conscious.

Are you a school looking for a lifestyle family photographer in the Madison area, or a children photographer in Madison, WI, or are you a parent who likes my approach to school and preschool photography and would be interested in putting me in touch with their school?

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