Most milestones throughout childhood are ones to be celebrated – first steps, first words, first day of school… but then there are those that you would rather have stayed away – like the day your child forgets how to smile like a normal, happy human and instead dons a strained, clenched grimace whenever a camera appears in front of them! Luckily, there are ways around a camera roll filled with strange, pained expressions – ways in which you can photograph your child authentically, capturing their sweet “now” exactly the way you see it.

The main culprit in photos with those strange expressions is that dreaded phrase, “Say Cheese!”. Forget about cheese! In fact, forget about even making your child aware of the camera. Photograph them as they are. Do not interrupt them. Capture the moment they are in without their awareness. The images you will create this way will be a much more honest and true representation of this stage of life with your kids.

Here are 10 ways you can photograph your child authentically today with any camera that you have, whether it be a cell phone or DSLR.

DETAILS. What are your favorite details about your child at this stage of their life? Is it the dimples on their chubby legs? The rosy cheeks? The marker-stained fingers? The grubby knees? The gap-toothed grin? Photograph those details. They are fleeting.

THEIR SPACE. Back up and photograph your child in their bedroom. In their playroom. What I wouldn’t give for a photograph of the bedroom I slept in as a baby! I will never know what was on the walls, what the mobile looked like, what color my quilt was – there is no record of it. Photograph those elements.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD. We go on family walks almost every day. My kids love running across the neighbor’s lawns, picking up sticks along the way, marveling at the seasonal decor. Photograph your children in the neighborhood. Document the way the houses looked. What kind of cars people were driving. What the trendy decor of the season is. All these elements will be such treasures to look back on twenty, fifty years from now.

FAVORITE TOYS. Is there a lovey your child cannot be without? A toy car that travels everywhere with you? A book wrinkled and torn from being read a thousand times? Photograph those. Photograph your child with his or her favorites. At some point the favorites evolve, and then what was once so important will become a distant memory.

GET IN THE FRAME. Make sure your child has some photos with you in them, too! Every cell phone now has a timer or you can get a timer app – set that bad boy and then get in front of the camera. Make sure your children have evidence of your presence in their childhood, too.

ALL IN THE FRAME. See if you can get all the siblings in the frame at one time. Photograph the connection. Or photograph them all doing their own thing! Whatever the case, those images with all your children together will become treasures years from now when shared bedrooms and perhaps even living in the same town have long become things of the past.

STORY. This is a challenging one – but see if you can photograph a story unfolding in front of you. Is your child trying to master something for the first time? Is there some sort of negotiation or plan unfolding between siblings? Is your child baking cookies with their beloved grandmother? Photograph those stories!

EVERYDAY TRADITIONS. We have a few traditions around here that are completely ordinary, but have become routine. Walks around the block, ice cream cones after dinner, lunch at Panera Bread at least once a week, a story (or two or three!) before bedtime. Document those little everyday traditions that one day you will be wishing didn’t evolve and disappear so quickly.

ADVENTURES. My kids love to ask “are we going on an adventure today?!”. Adventures around here can be as grand as taking the train into the city, or as mundane as going to the library. Whatever the case, I love to document them. When on outings with your kids, be sure to back up and include the place you are visiting in your photographs. What do your kids think of the location? Are they amazed? Are they bored? Are they excited? All those stories are worth telling! The environment in your photographs can spark such visceral memories when you look back on them.

PORTRAITS. This is the one time when I think it is okay to make your child aware of the camera. Photojournalist Steve McCurry calls the portrait “the moment when the soul comes into view.” If you spot your child in a moment in which you would really love a portrait of them, get yourself situated with camera ready to fire, and then just say their name. When they look up, press the shutter button. Don’t worry about smiles. Just capture a real, authentic expression. Environmental portraits include the subject’s surroundings, which can tell us even more about the person being photographed.

I hope these tips help free you from the struggle of always trying to photograph the perfect smile, and instead give you some ideas for capturing authentic (and grimace-free!) moments of childhood.

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