How to Photograph (Moody) Teenagers :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph (Moody) Teenagers

by David Peterson 2 comments

One common thread I find in nearly all of my friends' photo albums is this: lots of pictures of babies, toddlers and school-aged children. Not so many pictures of teenagers. It’s a very sad fact that as children grow, they start to like mom or dad’s camera less and less. Now, the camera on their smartphone is another story - I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as a teenager who doesn’t take selfies. But family photos are a different problem altogether.

If your teenager ducks, hides, shields her face or otherwise retreats every time you lift the camera, you need some advice. Here are some ideas you can use to get great photos of your moody teenager.

Why teenagers hate (your) cameras

Well, that’s a tough question and I would certainly hate to generalize. Some teenagers are just shy, and that’s ample enough reason to avoid a camera. Others don’t like the way they look in photographs—you remember the teenaged years, of course, did you feel your best with your brand new not-so-perfect complexion and awkward, angly teenaged body? And some teenagers don’t want to be photographed just because, well, they don’t. Pausing for a photograph is, in a way, relinquishing control of a small part of your life, and one thing teenagers are constantly rebelling against is those adults who are still trying to exercise some control over their lives.

These same teenagers, of course, will happily pose for a selfie—because selfies are a much safer sort of portrait. When you shoot a selfie you don’t have to use it, show it to anyone or hang onto it at all unless you’re completely happy with it. You can open it up in your favorite photo editing app and clone out the imperfect skin, or give yourself a soft glow, or whatever it is you feel like you need to do to improve the portrait. That picture your mom shot of you on a family trip to the beach, on the other hand, you have no control over that one. For all you know, your mom is going to put it straight onto Facebook without ever consulting you. So you definitely don’t want to let her take pictures of you if you can avoid it.

Making your teenager feel more comfortable with your camera

One thing you can do right away to help make your teenager comfortable with the idea of having his photo taken is this: talk to him. Now, I know that talking to a teenager is sometimes easier said than done, but if you can catch him in a good mood just casually mention that you’d like to know what his ground rules are about family photos. Notice how you’re not going to be saying anything like, “William, you really need to let me get one or two photos of you at your cousin’s birthday party,” instead you’re going to put him in control of the situation: “What ground rules would you like to lay down for photos?” For example, you could promise to let him select the best images, and delete the worst ones. Or you could promise not to ambush him with your camera or lie in wait—instead, agree that he’ll let you get one shot of him with his cousin, or that you’ll give him a heads-up if you’re going to take a picture. You might find that when he’s in control of when the shutter opens, you’ll get a lot more nice photos of him and a lot fewer pictures of the back of his head or the backside of his hand.

If he’s still reluctant, make a schedule. Agree that you’ll get to have one photo shoot with him every six months. Tell him that family outings are fair game, but that you won’t take photos of him doing mundane things (like his homework) unless you first ask permission. The key to keeping your teen in your family album is to make him comfortable with the idea of photographs. That is, he shouldn’t feel like he might get assaulted at any moment by you and your DSLR. He should feel like those photographs are only going to happen on his terms.

If you’re planning to do a formal photo shoot with your teen, let her pick out her own outfit. You can give yourself veto power, but use it sparingly and only if you really think the outfit she settles on is inappropriate. Let her choose any props, accessories or other items she might want to wear or include in the photos. You may even find that she starts to have fun just getting ready for the shoot, and that’s going to make the event itself go a lot more smoothly.

Don’t tell him to “say cheese”

That’s just about the worst thing you can say to a teenager when you’ve got a camera pointed at him. Now, I often argue that it’s just about the worst thing you can say to any portrait subject, because it results in fake-looking smiles and awkward looking images. But no self-respecting teenager is ever going to say the word “cheese,” unless he’s ordering a cheeseburger.

Instead, ask him to talk about something he enjoys. If he plays football, ask him what happened at the last practice. If he plays an instrument, ask him about the material he’s learning. If he plays Minecraft, ask him about that, too. I know kids who will talk about Minecraft for more hours than they actually spend playing it. The bottom line is this: everyone has passions, so find out what your subject’s passions are (that will be easier if he or she is your own child, of course) and the smiles will naturally follow.

Go wild

Depending on the kid, of course, some teenagers can be convinced to loosen up if you make crazy suggestions. Have her jump or turn quickly towards the camera so that her hair flies around a little. Throw some confetti over her head (you might need a helper for that one). Tell a joke (hint: teenagers don’t always laugh at the same jokes that adults laugh at). Or you could even ask her to help you come up with completely crazy ideas for photo shoots—chances are you’re going to get as many great photos during the brainstorming process as you would if you actually did use any of her crazy suggestions.

Extremely reluctant subjects

The sad truth is that there are some kids who, no matter what you do, are never really going to warm up to the camera. Smiling just isn’t something they do in the presence of adults. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that you just can’t get any photos of them. You really must learn how not to accept defeat.

Try to be OK with photos that don’t include smiles. Remember that this too shall pass—very few non-smiling teenagers grow up to be non-smiling adults. So try to embrace this short and moody phase of their lives, and give them something to look at or to do with their hands while you’re shooting photos. If your subject plays the guitar, have her sit down with her guitar and play a song. If he’s a bookworm, photograph him with his favorite book. If he plays soccer, don’t just ask him to pose with the ball, get him to juggle it.

If you just can’t stand that moody frown, you can also zoom in and shoot the details. If she likes to journal, for example, you could get a shot of her hand holding a pen while she writes in her favorite notebook. If she’s an artist, you could take a picture over her shoulder of her latest work-in-progress. You could photograph her shoes, get a close shot of her eye, or capture a picture of her hands in her pockets. Just because her face isn’t in the shot doesn’t mean the shot isn’t meaningful—in fact there’s a very good argument to be made that detail shots have greater meaning that that deadpan stare that she adopts whenever she sees your camera. The details can give your viewer information about who your teenager really is—the things she loves, the clothes she wears, and the activities that occupy her spare time.

Think cool

I know, your teenager thinks you are the opposite of cool. So don’t try to be cool just for the photo shoot, because the best expression you’ll get out of that is an eye-roll. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t try to capture images that your teenager will think is cool. Look for unusual angles—shots from down low, backlit portraits, or silhouettes, for example. Kids wearing shades and hoodies can also make for cool photos—anything that looks a little offbeat or eccentric is probably going to be viewed favorably by your subject.


I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. It’s almost certainly not going to be easy, unless your teen has aspirations towards becoming a model. You need patience to get good photos of your teenager, but more than that you need compromise, erring on the side of letting child do what makes her more comfortable. Once you get her to accept the idea of the photograph, the promise of some camera-free homework time might be enough to encourage her to relax and pose for some non-selfie photos, on her own terms.

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  1. Evelyn Harrison says:

    I have 2 teenage granddaughters and I get what you're talking about, sometimes if it's the 2 of them together it's easier to get them to pose,and with funny faces and silly poses, teens are a lot of fun if you make it fun, they just relax and and go with it...usually in the beginning they are shy, but if you make things fun, they have fun...

  2. Pam Gebhard says:

    Re the sad picture:

    Adding to the sense of sadness is the alone-ness of the subject and the almost monotone shades of the photograph. I think the placing of the subject to the side of the frame is also telling - it gives the impression that there are things behind her which she does not wish to face and she looking out towards nothing in particular - a void, almost - of endless grey water. She is sitting on a rock so, metaphorically, she is in a hard, comfortless place/space.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.