The secret to getting children’s natural smiles: bubbles!

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Mom and child arrived at the studio on time, all dressed in the “perfect outfit” for their portraits. As the coats come off, the bags are put aside and the hair is straightened, a nervous smile appears on mom’s face, hoping that we will get natural smiles from her child. “It’s pretty tough today,” she said. “I really hope you can get just one decent picture of him. All the kids in your pictures have such beautiful smiles on their faces…and I really hope we get one. What mom doesn’t know yet, is that I have a secret weapon in my back pocket that helps get natural smiles from children every time, which is more effective than dancing, singing or any other child portrait trick: bubbles Many, many bubbles.

All photos © Kelli Wilke

I smile reassuringly and nod at her, knowing exactly what it’s like to schedule a photo shoot for your kids only to wake up in a bad mood the day of the shoot. “Don’t worry, I have no doubt we’ll get at least a handful of good natural smiles from him today,” I reply. When you’re just starting out as a photographer, responding to mom with genuine confidence that you can and will get natural smiles from the kids can seem nerve-wracking. Can you really connect with every child that comes in front of your camera? What about those who are really, really in a bad mood?

[Read: Creative Portraits That Explore Kids Natural Beauty and Imagination]

Over the years, you’ve probably developed your own set of tips and tools to make kids smile, whatever their mood. Some photographers use toys that spin around camera lenses, others make fun noises or shake their favorite toys. But what child isn’t absolutely hypnotized by bubbles? They are simply magical. It doesn’t matter how old they are; little babies and 10 year olds love the bubbles.

I keep a bubble machine in my studio, right next to my background and within easy reach of where I’m shooting from so when the time comes I can just reach out and turn it on. Moms and dads instantly make an “oooooh” noise and get excited. As the bubbles begin to float towards them, toddlers and toddlers instinctively grab them, trying to see what they are. Their little faces light up with utter, unfiltered joy as streams of bubbles float around them. Older kids will start jumping around trying to catch them, waving their arms to move them around, or spinning around to have their own bubble-filled dance party.

[Read: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Off-Camera Flash for Portraits]

girl dancing with bubbles for a portrait shoot to get the child's natural smile

Bubbles are one of the few things that can be added to a photo without removing the main subject of the photo at all. Also, chasing and playing with bubbles allows all the kids in front of my camera to relax and be natural, while completely forgetting there’s a camera in their face.

[Read: Fine-Art School Portraits—The Beauty of Volume Photography]

I end up getting so many more natural, fun, carefree photos from the kids who come to my studio – exactly the kind of photos their parents hope to get “just one”. These always become mom and dad’s favorite photos because they show the pure, unfiltered joy of what it’s like to be a kid, something every parent hopes to capture with their kids’ camera. As far as my business goes, these are some of our most purchased images and they probably lead to a bigger sale as well.

After all, what parent can say no to a completely happy and natural smile from their child?

Kellie Wilke is a portrait photographer and co-founder of the Portrait Club, based in Wilmington, Delaware, and soon to open in Atlanta, Georgia.

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