How to Capture Natural Smiles in your Photos

By Jennifer Tonetti-Spellman /

I think out of all the questions I receive from the photography community, the ‘Jenn, how do you get those natural smiles from children’ one pops up the most.

My philosophy when filming children is quite simple:

1. To capture natural smiles you have to genuinely make children laugh and show them the way to fun.
2. Children are just smaller versions of ‘us.’ So treat them with the respect they deserve, don’t patronize or talk down to them and they will reward you by letting you in.
3. Keep it moving to capture natural smiles. Attention spans will wane quickly.

Let’s dig a bit deeper…


I am a big time believer that to get someone to laugh naturally, it’s up to you to provide the way there. I act very silly on shoots. I ask silly questions. I pretend I cannot hear what is being said sometimes and repeat back the exact opposite of what their answer is to me. I’m not afraid to look like I may be missing a few tools in the toolshed when it comes to children- so long as it gets me my desired results! {Translation: leave your ego at the door.}

Silly noises, made up silly songs, and games is how I start to engage a child and show them I’m there for fun. My mentality is this: ‘Sure Mom and Dad hired me to take some pictures of you, but we are going to have FUN.’ My goal is always make it feel like an awesome play date for them. Not something they ‘have’ to do. My number one job as a children’s photographer is to connect with a child as much as I can in a short amount of time so they are comfortable enough to relax, laugh and just ‘be.’

And I in turn can capture who they are as a person at that very moment in time.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014


I never treat a child like a ‘child.’ My love for the spirit of children and their raw, beautiful quality is why I only film children and haven’t gone whole hog into the other routes of photography for my business.

Children are people. They may be small in size, but they too get up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes, feel blue when they don’t know why and in my opinion, can sniff out a fake from a mile away. So I never patronize or make them feel like they are not as important as Mommy/Daddy.

My mission is to give every child a voice. To make them feel important and taken seriously, as they should be treated in or outside of a shoot.

My business is in-home documentary shoots. So I always love giving children a ‘role’ when I walk in a home. And that role is usually ‘tour guide.’ If they are a bit shy, you have to modify this a bit, but usually they will at least grab Mom’s hand and do the tour with her. It’s a great way to break the ice and build the bond quicker, AND it shows them you think they are an important and functional part of the family.

When they get to their room?  Have them show you their favorite lovey, book or toy. Kids LOVE show + tell and at home it’s no different then in school. If they are older, remember their room is truly where natural smiles are sure to be abundant.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014


Life is motion. Motion is life. I’m big on getting kids to move to capture natural smiles.

Let’s face it, children aren’t meant to be still. From peek-a-boo to ‘I’m gonna’ get you to races with the older set, running, jumping, climbing etc. all of it begs to be filmed.  And smiles from a good chase or after a jump off a bed or bench? Priceless.

© Jennifer Tonetti Spellman 2014

So remember the next time you are struggling to capture natural smiles, be yourself, back when you were little. Show them some fun. And you will be rewarded. Promise.

About the Author

Jennifer Tonetti Spellman is a New York–based children’s photographer, blogger, and mommy of two girls. She’s a contributor at and teaches photography courses at Illuminate Classes, “a photography education community focused on bringing meaningful insight to your art and your business.”

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