We went out for a family vacation photo shoot in on our day trip from Dubrovnik to Cavtat, Croatia. As professionals, we’ve photographed plenty of children, and before we embarked on our travels, we’d gotten pretty good at it. The car keys, the waves, the funny sounds – keeping a kid interested for one 200th of a second was all we really needed. Who would have thought that photographing our own child would present challenges we’d never faced.

Other families’ children disappear after a shoot is over and never think about it again. But with Lisa, we learned quickly that day after day of photography gets kind of stressful. She does enjoy a little modeling, but our routines got old with her, and once she learned to run, posing her became almost impossible. Suddenly we found ourselves with dozens of photos of her hanging upside down in my arms, screaming!

But we’ve been practicing and adapting, and here are some of our tips for family vacation photos with toddlers when they no longer fall for the jingling keys:

On a family vacation photo shoot in Cavtat, Croatia.Exploring the docks in Cavtat, Croatia on a day trip from Dubrovnik.

Walking on the docks in Cavtat, Croatia.

Family Vacation Photography Tip 1 – Don’t Try to Force It

Vacation photos are meant to capture memories, but frustrated toddlers can create memories you’d rather forget! The key is to be calm and patient. I used to say things to Lisa like “just two more photos Honey, please!” or “we’ll buy you a treat afterward.” Not only didn’t she understand this, it was counter productive. She could hear the tension in my voice and she started to reflect it back at me. Toddlers don’t care about your photo shoot. They want to have fun. But you want to have fun too, so just have some fun together.

When I’m taking photos with Lisa now, I’m not trying to get her to pose, I’m trying to get her to play. We sing her favorite song, “six little ducks,” and she dances around smiling and clapping. We race each other, and we practice our jumping. Once Jake’s in position with the camera, I just let her keep going and strike a quick pose. If I have to pick her up for a second to get her in front of the right background, she doesn’t mind as long as I make sure she knows it’s part of the game.

Family Vacation Photography Tip 2 – Do Your Prep Work.

This probably goes without saying, but make sure everyone’s basic needs are met. Lisa won’t cooperate if she’s tired or hungry, so photo shoots are well before or well after her nap time. Midday light is worst anyway. We always have snacks and water with us too. And let’s not forget about the diapers.

Also, try not to do something really fun right before the photo shoot. If you’re pulling your toddler away from a playground to stand in front of a statue, she’s not going to be crazy about it!

Crying after a fall on the Cavtat, Croatia docks. crying so hard we thought it was all over … Up and running in the Cavtat harbor in Croatia. seconds later … she’s back to her cheerful self again

You should also consider scouting your location whenever it’s possible to do so. Knowing what to expect when you get there can make a big difference in how you prepare for the outing. Are there changing tables? Will it be safe for a surprisingly fast toddler to walk around? Will there be fun activities to keep the kids engaged?

Family Vacation Photography Tip 3 – Know When to Quit.

Sometimes it’s just not happening. Nothing’s working and everyone’s getting mad at each other. Take a break, let her do what she wants for a little while and try again in a few minutes. Toddlers have a short attention span, and she’ll quickly forget what she was so mad about. More importantly, let yourself calm down too.

Now, instead of pleading with Lisa to cooperate, I get down to eye level with her, and reassure her in a soothing voice. I tell her that we’ve had fun playing with her today and that we really appreciate how well she’s behaved all day. I tell her how much we love her and give her a big hug. She might still be upset, even pushing me away, but I try to give her a ladder to climb down. Then I smile and invite her to play around with me a little more. Sometimes we get a few more photos and sometimes we don’t.

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I guess the key is to acknowledge that your toddler’s needs are different from yours and that you are asking them to participate in an activity that they don’t fully understand. They don’t smile on command, you have to make them smile. And that means doing the things you always do for them – the same things that make you smile too!