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toddler photography tips from a photographer
Photo courtesy of Jess McDaniel
How To Take Awesome Toddler Pics, According To A Pro Photographer

Tips to get the perfect snapshots of your little one.

Photographing little kids can feel like trying to catch the wind. They wiggle and squirm and honestly never look at the camera when you want them to. Getting a good photo of my own kids when they were toddlers was super rare. Now, they know how to glare at my phone with a pasted-on grin for just long enough to document important moments. Maybe if I’d have known the best tips for photographing toddlers back when they were small, things wouldn’t feel so tense during family photo sessions.

Capturing childhood through amazing images (and without all the stress!) is a mission Jess McDaniel is especially passionate about. An award-winning lifestyle photographer, she’s photographed hundreds of babies and toddlers each year for more than 20 years with her company, Boston Baby Photos. Leaning on her firsthand experience with the age group, she recently launched Summer Iconic, the first course offering from Iconic Set by Boston Baby Photos, an online DIY photography workshop specifically for toddler parents.

In seven sub-10-minute videos, McDaniel shares the three iconic photos every parent can take of their toddler to capture the essence of one specific summer of their childhood — a close-up face photo, a full-body photo, and an artistic photo. The goal is to empower parents to check taking share-worthy photos off their to-do list, put their phones down, and just enjoy time spent together. But the best part is that throughout the course, McDaniel teaches parents step-by-step how to use a smartphone camera to capture amazing toddler photos.

If you want to take really great photos of your toddler, read on for some of her best tips for doing just that.


You don’t need a fancy camera.

When people ask her what camera they should by, McDaniel tells them that if they have a smartphone, not to buy a separate digital camera. She subscribes to an adage popularized by photographer Chase Jarvis, which is, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.”

Yep, it’s right in your pocket — or, more likely, your hand.


Stay flexible.

Photo courtesy of Jess McDaniel

Remember, this is your toddler you’re photographing. (You know, that wild-haired, spunky thing that won’t stop humming the Bluey theme song?) So, flexibility is key. “Whatever ends up happening, don’t let yourself feel like you’re failing at it,” McDaniel shares.

Perspective matters here, too. “No matter what, the fact that you’re there with your child and you’re trying to do this, that’s the win,” she says.


Be strategic with your photo-taking.

Put it on your calendar. Literally make photographing your toddler such a fun project that you pencil it in.

Here’s the thing: having great photos of your toddler already taken means you get permission to put the phone down. No judgement whatsoever if you’re the mom who takes a ton of photos every day, but as McDaniel shares, “there’s a freedom to feeling like you’ve checked a box, like you’ve done this month’s photo, you’ve got it.” (One amazing photo a month is the goal she sets for parents taking her course.)


Take photos when your toddler isn’t tired, hungry, or sick.

When it comes to timing, you can’t control things like the weather, but you absolutely can make sure your toddler is fed, dry, and happy. “Don’t try to do this when your child is tired. Don’t try to do this when your child hasn’t had a good snack,” McDaniel explains. “It’s so much about working with your child and setting yourself up for success.”

It’s perfectly acceptable to take photos another time if you decide today isn’t the day. “No, you know what, they have a stuffy nose, they’re in a terrible mood right now, it’s not going to go well, don’t bother.”


Don’t expect them to pose or sit still.

Toddlers are toddlers, after all — they want to move. So, build your photos around that. And if they want to sit, lay, whatever, just roll with it.


Give them something to do.

Photo courtesy of Jess McDaniel

In her Summer Iconic course for photographing 2-year-olds, McDaniel shows parents how to take photos that incorporate three summer playthings — sand, water, and bubbles. “It’s all these little tricks and you can get the coolest bubble photo, but it’s like, we’ve got to do it in a very particular way,” she explains. The key here is that during each shoot, your toddler has something to interact and engage with. They get to show off their personality and you get to capture it on camera.


Focus on the memory you’re making.

What are you actually doing when you take photos of your toddler? You’re making a memory. The balance between getting a wonderful photo of your tot and enjoying spending time with them lies in the experience of photographing them.

“It’s trying to be as attentive to what their needs are and letting it be fun and letting it be a special thing between you and your child,” McDaniel says. “That’s what I’m trying to do is create this sort of like, memory-making by like, getting all of the bubble stuff, preparing the bubbles that the you-guys-playing-with-bubbles photo is actually going to remind you of the time when you did that.”


Dress them in clothes you love.

When it comes to what your toddler is wearing, McDaniel says that while their comfort matters, you as the parent have to like what they’re wearing. “If you know you’re going to take this picture and you think you’re going to put it in a frame, you should love what they’re wearing,” she says.

Ideally, your toddler should also be able to play, get dirty, and be themselves in what they’re wearing. It’s a good idea to go for something you won’t feel stressed out about getting messed up. McDaniel also says she’s a huge fan of diaper photos because there really is nothing like capturing that perfectly round toddler belly.


Consider your lighting.

As a toddler parent taking photos, lighting comes down to knowing your skillset and how much work you want to do.

“Your phone does a little better when light is coming from behind the photographer. Your phone is sort of expecting you to take that photo,” McDaniel says. “That’s what your phone does well, whereas backlighting — I love backlighting — you just need to do a little bit more editing, adjusting your settings and raising your shadows a little bit.”

So, if you’re looking for the easy win, put the light behind you to highlight your child and make the colors standout.


Don’t bother with fancy apps.

Photo courtesy of Jess McDaniel

“Your phone is set up for success. You are holding something in your hand that is probably better than the camera I shot with 20 years ago,” McDaniel says. “So, I don’t think you need to bother shooting through any apps.”


Use a simple background.

“Simplify when you can,” McDaniel says. Whether you’re outdoors or inside, look at what’s behind them and around them. You want the subject — your child — to pop. So, if there’s anything distracting in the background, just pick them up and move them somewhere else.


Wipe off your camera lens.

“The first thing I always tell people is just to wipe the lens of your camera,” McDaniel says. How easy is that? Just start your toddler’s photo session every time by rubbing the lens on your phone camera clean, removing an oils from your fingers, sweat, etc. with a cotton cloth. (Your shirt works, too!)


Take special occasion photos before the event.

Is it important to memorialize your toddler’s first birthday outfit because you picked it out, especially for them, and paid your hard-earned money for it? Absolutely. But what about capturing interactions with family and friends at the event?

“You’re being pulled in so many directions at a big family event, and you have that phone with you, and that’s great, but is it about having the photo of the child in the fabulous outfit that you brought them in? If so, do that at home before you go,” McDaniel suggests. “Put them in it that morning when they’re in a good mood after a nap.”

Then, at the event, you can focus on snapping pics of your child with their loved ones and capturing special moments together. Those photos won’t be about the clothes, though, it’s about their relationship.


Select frame-worthy photos.

McDaniel shares that she typically spends an equal amount of time shooting a subject as she does narrowing down which photos to edit, and then that same amount of time editing. “If I’m with a family for an hour taking photos, then I’ll usually take an hour going through the photos, culling, before editing,” she says.

With your phone photos, it’s equally as important to pick the best pics, so McDaniel uses the acronym POW to help parents select their snaps.

P stands for point of focus. “You can’t fix the focus of a photo,” she says. “The very first question you should ask yourself is ‘is this photo in focus?’ You take so many [photos] that it’s worth picking out the ones where what you want is in focus.”

O stands for “Oh, yes!” Here, you go with your gut. “You see the photo and you’re like ‘Of course, that’s my child, it has to be that photo.’” They’re making a face you love, they’re so in-the-moment — those are the ones you want.

W stands for “wow” lighting or color. If you’re lucky enough to have a few final photos to choose from, then you look for a “wow” factor. McDaniel says you might feel like, “something about this is making me notice this more than the others.”

Getting fantastic photos of your toddler doesn’t have to be a struggle. In fact, with these tips, you can take expert-level photographs and document toddlerhood without feeling chained to your phone.

If you want even more help learning how to take the best pictures of your toddler, look out for the Iconic Photo Monthly, launching Fall 2024. Following her Summer Iconic workshop, you’ll already have the skills you need to capture great images, but with this course, McDaniel aims to “give you a 10,000-ft. view of childhood” by telling you exactly which photo you should take each month to photograph your child from ages 1 to 3.