Sometimes even the liveliest kids suddenly become shy when the camera comes out. But when the smiles go into hiding, bringing out the “Cheese!” isn’t usually the best idea. For one thing, fake smiles don’t reach the eyes. And what kid hasn’t heard, “Say cheese!” a thousand times? No; to get kids to engage in the camera, you need to get a bit creative. But hey, if you’re a photographer, you’ve already got some creativity; you just need to re-purpose it. Here are five ideas for when you’re photographing kids and those tiny smiles aren’t happening.

Candy toys, meet camera

photographing kids ItsAlwaysAutumn

Remember PEZ dispensers? Well, they’re still around—and something you might want to stash in your camera bag. When you slide the PEZ dispenser into the hot shoe slot of your DSLR, that big bad camera doesn’t look so intimidating to little ones anymore. Shell out a few pieces of candy after a big smile and you’re well on your way to a good kids’ photography session. Sure, it’s bribery, but only in the same way that the doctor’s office keeps a good supply of lollipops on hand. Just make sure to check with the parents before offering any sweets.

This idea is so cool, it’s no wonder it’s floating around the internet in so many places that it’s hard to determine, exactly, where the PEZ-dispenser-turned-photography-gear first came from. But, the blogger over at It’s Always Autumn has a pretty good guide showing exactly how this idea works. It’s simple to make, but the PEZ dispenser usually needs a good trimming to fit in the hot shoe slot. Check out the full instructions at It’s Always Autumn.

Of course, this hack means you can’t use your flash, but it can certainly work in some scenarios.

Scrunchies are back in style

photographing kids growingupgardner

Who remembers wearing scrunchies in your hair as kids? Well, you may just want to head to the store and pick up a few, not for your hair (whew!), but for the camera. Like the first tutorial, this one is outrageously simple. All you need is a scrunchie, a hot glue gun and materials to add a face to your little critter, like felt and buttons.

There are several ways to do this, but we particularly like the Elmo camera buddy crafted by Amanda Gardner over at Growing Up Gardner. It’s simple to do, but her tutorial shows step by step images for the DIY-challenged.

As with any lens buddy, make sure it’s not interfering with the function of your camera. This guy is small enough that you shouldn’t have an issue.

Check out this fancy shutter pal

Okay, if you’re someone who laughs in the face of simplicity (haha-ha-ha!) and the last two tutorials just weren’t challenging enough for your craftiness, this one is for you. Of course, it does involve ripping the guts out of a stuffed animal (suddenly that last laugh sounds more like an evil cackle), but it is a bit cuter than the simpler options.

This tutorial is from B is For Boy (parenting blogs are often good places to find ideas for taking pictures of little ones). Since this one is tricky, you’ll need to check out the full shutter pal tutorial.  While it is more difficult, it’s not super expensive. You’ll need a small stuffed animal (check garage sales and thrift stores), a sewing machine, elastic and a hot glue gun.

Be careful with this one, though: since the stuffed animal is a little bigger, make sure it’s not so tall that you can’t use your flash without funky shadows.

Get creative with props

photographing kids birthdaybyhillarygrigonisPhoto Credit: Hillary K. Grigonis

Some of my favorite kids photos that I’ve snapped weren’t from trying to get the little ones to look directly at the camera, but from using playful props within the image. Exactly what props will work depends on who you are taking the photos of—age and interest both factor in. This idea doesn’t get smiles directed towards the camera, but instead you’ll end up with those playful candid shots that just melt your heart.

For example, my nephew just loves to play with balls. So for his first birthday pictures, I picked up some balloons that matched my backdrops, dropped them in and just let him play. I snapped a lot of smiles. The trickiest part was making sure he stayed on the backdrop, but with some patience I got quite a few real smiles. Of course, I also had to make sure he didn’t bite the balloons (always make sure your creative ideas aren’t safety hazards).

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but a matter of finding a little about who you are taking pictures of (if you don’t know already). Ask the parents what he or she likes to play with. What makes him smile? Then it’s time to get creative and find a way to make that favorite toy look good in the image (my nephew called the balloons balls, and they worked better for the birthday pictures, not to mention they were much cheaper). Bubbles are also an excellent option. For artsy kids, get some sidewalk chalk and head to park or finger paint, an easel and a cute painter-looking hat. It’s all about knowing the kids and finding out not just what will make them smile, but what will look good in an image. These photos don’t just show a good smile, they’ll also show personality that’s fun to look back on years down the road.

Embrace the candid

photographing kids AnneWornerImage by Anne Worner, Flickr Creative Commons

Most of the time, fun candid shots are much more memorable than stiff posed shots, so why force kids into those scenarios anyway? Head to a park and take photos of little ones as they play. Indoors, bring in a bunch of fun props. If they end up looking off the side at mom or dad, those pictures are still memorable and help offer more different shots to choose from. If the only smiles you get are towards mom or dad, have them stand as close to you as possible if you’d like to get a smile directed towards the camera.

My number one advice for new photographers looking to photograph kids? Be both patient and quick. The smiles will come; you may just have to wait for them. The smaller the kids are, however, the shorter the attention span, so when that smile does come, snap it quickly and move on. Look for a balance between waiting for that smile and using one setup so long that boredom sets in.

Kids are often the most engaging subjects to work with, yet sometimes, engaging them the right way can be a challenge. You can try a few DIY tricks to get them the look at the camera, get creative with props or just embrace a candid style. Children are good at picking up the attitude of adults around them, so be patient, but relax and have fun!