As a family & child photographer, I can say from experience that taking amazing photos of wiggly toddlers is no small task.
First of all, you need to actually be kid-friendly. Meaning, you should have a good idea on HOW to interact with little kids in order to get the best expressions from them.
Secondly, you should have a few ideas going into a photo session with toddlers on how to get them to stay put or do what you (or their parents) want them to do.
Most of the time this merely requires energy on your part to run around and chase them, patience on the parents part to trust in your skills, and the right camera gear, settings, and lighting to get the perfect shot.
Toddlers have A LOT of energy, and some more than others.
Let’s not fail to mention that toddlers haven’t quite mastered the skills of critical thinking and obedience.
As a Mom of 4, I can say lightheartedly that toddlers are a lot like puppies who haven’t been trained. They are happy, crazy, full of energy, and don’t always follow simple commands. But, they sure are cute and fun to be around!
Which brings us to the entire point of this post. How the heck do you take amazing photos of toddlers who just run from the camera?
Because they won’t always stay still and sometimes trying to “force” them to do something results in tears & tantrums.
This is where candid photography & playing games during photo sessions comes into play.
I always have a good snicker with my clients who just wrapped up a 1 year session with me. Until this point, their sessions (maternity, newborn, and 1 year baby milestones) have relatively been easy-going.
They leave that 1 year session saying something along the lines of “that was easier than I thought it would be” with me chuckling inside thinking “just wait 6 months, you’ll be in for an adventure for the next 3 years.”
At around 18 months (sometimes even sooner), babies become harder to photograph for a multitude of reasons that I mentioned above.
So, it’s worth being prepared BEFORE taking photos of toddlers so that you know what to expect and create a game plan of sorts.
Photographing toddlers doesn’t need to be difficult, so let’s make it laid-back and fun!
For this extra wiggly toddler that was running from the camera, I prompted him to jump. It kept his focus for just enough time to take a few shots before he was up and running again.
Choose the best camera settings for photographing toddlers
Before you start thinking about getting great expressions of toddlers in photos, you need to keep your camera settings in mind.
Toddlers are wiggly & fast, so you need to be equipped to know how to adjust your camera settings on the fly.
First things first, you should choose a high shutter speed.
Generally speaking, I like to make sure that my shutter speed is high enough to begin with. When you are chasing fast kids, you need to be able to stop motion and that comes with a high shutter speed.
Anything higher than 1/150 sec will usually be suitable, but the higher the better. If you have some light to play with, then make sure you increase your shutter speed so that you can capture their motion.
Being quick with your focusing is also a big must.
Now this is going to sound strange if you have any understanding of the differences between focus modes in cameras, but I always shoot in AF-S. Meaning, single shot mode.
However, I DO NOT recommend this focus setting if you are new to photographing toddlers. Because they move a lot and you will have to keep re-focusing if you are setup for single shot mode.
I highly recommend setting your camera to continuous mode (AF-C for Nikon, Al servo for Canon). All that you need to do is focus once on the subject and your lens will follow that focus point. No re-focusing required as long as you want the same focus point.
Aperture matters too.
Depending on how much you want in focus and how close or far away you are from your subject, being mindful of your aperture comes next.
Do you want creamy, blurred backgrounds that make your subject stand out? Then opt for a smaller aperture within your lens limitations that will give you this look.
Take this photo for example. The aperture was small, f1.8, so it allowed the toddler to be blurred (on purpose) with the main focus on the flowers. If a larger aperture was selected, more of the toddler would be in focus and it wouldn’t have the same finished effect.
Tips to get toddlers to stay still for photos.
Now that your camera settings are ready to go, it’s time to start talking strategy on how to get those wiggly little ones to stay still.
Let me just warn you now, it’s much easier said than actually done.
But, it CAN be done! You just need to create a fun & relaxed atmosphere for them to feel comfortable in order to cooperate with you.
Give them a place to sit.
If there’s one thing to know about toddlers, it’s that they love having their own special little place to sit down. I chair that is THEIR size that adults cannot fit on? Even better!
If you want a toddler to stay still and stationary, then bringing along some props that promote a sitting position will make this a lot easier.
Picking up chairs at flea markets and garage sales makes a great prop for toddlers on a budget. This wiggly toddler wouldn’t have lasted 2 seconds if it wasn’t for this little yellow chair.
Need Mom and Dad or siblings to join in the photo too?
Find your toddler approved spot first, then add in everyone. Once you have everyone else situated in the scene, then you can prompt the toddler to join in.
Sometimes this is no big deal and they will sit there for a few minutes happily. Other times, well you better be quick with your camera settings!
During this family session, there was a rock wall in the garden, perfect for a wiggly toddler to find exciting to sit on. Adding Grandpa to the frame helped her keep interested (and the golfball didn’t hurt either).
Shot details: Nikon D750, Sigma ART 50mm, f2.5, 1/800, edited with Life in Color presets for Lightroom.
Tips on photographing toddlers when they won’t sit still.
Now it’s time to put your creative hat on and get to work.
Toddlers won’t always want to sit down and stay still, so you should be prepared to have a little bit of fun taking their photos.
Toddlers like to be active, so having a few activities planned ahead of time will make your job easier. However, you can’t always predict how toddlers will react to your ideas, so it’s also important to be able to think on the fly and come up with spontaneous ideas tailored to them specifically.
I like to first start off the session by gauging the child’s temperament.
Are they shy? Silly? Wild? A blend of everything?
Taking a few minutes before you start snapping the shutter will be helpful to get a feel for their personality and how you can tailor the session to them.
If they are reserved and quiet, give them space
This really helps them warm up to you easier. Instead of you leading the cues, have Mom & Dad help loosen them up to show their true personality.
For quiet types, I especially LOVE using photo prompts to get them to become actively involved in the photo taking process. Prompts can be a fun & easy way to lighten the pressure and have kids feel more at ease, especially if this is the first time meeting you!
If they are wild and crazy, put that energy to good use!
Let them run around and be crazy. Involve Mom & Dad to play catch & release – a fun chasing game that involves the parents chasing, then grabbing to tickle and give kisses, then letting them go again.
The energetic types LOVE this game.
The important part is the release. Many toddlers with high energy levels don’t want to be confined, so letting them go to play all over again keeps them HAPPY and it gives me more opportunities to capture their personality on the move.
During this session, this little girl wanted nothing to do with sitting still. So, I prompted Dad to play the catch and release release game from multiple angles. I made sure to prompt him on what to do when he caught her (keep her on the ground and kiss, pickup in arms and smile, etc.)
Toddlers with high energy respond the best (and you get better photos) when you keep the session on their terms – which typically involves high levels of play.
Need more toddler prompt ideas? Download our digital prompts for kids & families to use at your next session.
Be considerate of your expectations
If there’s ANYTHING that I have learned from photographing wiggly toddlers is that the results can be disappointing if your expectations were higher than their compliance.
For my own personal photos of my kids, I don’t expect anything. This makes me extremely happy & grateful when I actually get a good photo of them – and even better if I get more!
For my clients, I feel a little bit more pressure to do a good job. But, at the end of the day, you cannot control kids and trying to do so will only backfire.
Instead of forcing kids to cooperate, I let the parents know ahead of time what a session with me will be like. I assure them that I will do my best to capture their kids in a fun in relaxed way, but also that I am not a magician. They go into the session with this understanding and it makes everything so much more relaxed.
And a relaxed session WILL produce better photos.
At the end of it all, photographing toddlers should be fun! They have such a zest for life and they experience things in a way that nobody else does.
Use these ideas to your advantage the next time you photograph toddlers and come back to tell me the results. Did they work? Were they a game changer???
Want even more kid photography tips?
Capturing Kids, our downloadable photography guide, covers everything that you need to know about how to take lifestyle photos of kids with more authenticity.
After capturing kids for 12 years, I have learned the best secrets on how to make the most of your photo sessions & ways to help your own reluctant kids get better photos.
“Just the inspiration that I needed”
The beautiful pictures, the pro tips, the ideas for getting genuine smiles out of kids, and the stories in the guide gave me some great ideas to get some authentic, storytelling images of my own children and my clients. The comparison of lenses was also very interesting. Highly recommend Capturing Kids! – Beth Pack
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