How to Photograph Your Kids

This famous mom photographer shares her secrets.

Last year, Elena Shumilova took photos of her sons as they played by the Russian countryside. She uploaded the photos online, then they started getting shared, and shared again… until they became a viral sensation, with over 60 million views.

These photos hit something magical all across the Internet — a sense of nostalgia for a childhood past. She even started getting letters from people in their nineties, saying the photos moved them to tears.

As parents, we instinctively want to take photos of our kids. We’re trying to preserve this brief slice of time before they grow up. But when we take our kids to professional photo studios, the results can end up looking stilted and unnatural.

We want to remember our kids as they actually are — not with the forced smile a stranger coaxed out of them at the studio, but with the real smiles and giggles they share with us every day.

How can we capture natural photos of our kids, the kind Elena seemingly has a magic touch for?

Photo by Ivan Makarov

Elena has mostly been quiet since her photos have gone viral, undistracted by all the media attention. Instead, she focuses on raising her kids and continues to photograph them every day.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

Given how quiet Elena has been, we’re excited to share a behind-the-scenes look at her in action. She invited us onto her farm in Russia, where we asked her to share how she captures these beautifully nostalgic photos.

This is what she had to say.

5 Tips to Get Better Photographs of Your Kids

by Elena Shumilova

Watch a video of Elena demonstrating these tips.

1. How to get your kids to look natural, not “posed.”

So you catch your kids in the perfect moment — they’re outside playing and laughing, the lighting is just right, and you see this perfect picture you want to capture. You rush to get out your camera, but then…

They see the camera. They stiffen up. They start posing. The moment is lost.

What do you do?

When photographing children, the single most important thing is to photograph them often — every day.

You can’t just do it sporadically, or they’ll freeze up as soon as the camera comes out. Consistency is key. That way they’ll be comfortable around the camera.

It’s these everyday scenes that you want to capture — the ones you’ll remember best when they grow up.


To get the most genuine photos, I try to catch them in the moment — when they’re playing with each other and have completely forgotten about the camera.

Here they’re playing “airplanes,” a game we also play together at lunchtime when they’re feeling picky about their food.

Watch Elena explain how she captures her nostalgic photos:

2. The types of clothes that work the best.

I follow a pretty simple rule: clothes shouldn’t be distracting. They shouldn’t take attention away from what’s happening in the photo.


For such a simple rule, it’s harder to follow than you might think. Kids’ clothes today are designed to grab your attention—with bright colors, cartoon characters, and writing all over them. In photographs, all this takes attention away from your kids.

When I started pursuing photography seriously, I actually replaced all their outfits. This took quite a while to do, but now I know that anything I pull from their closet won’t interfere with the photo.

3. How to best capture kids of different ages.

A lot of parents have asked me about this photo — how did you get your one-month-old to look so calm? Infants are notoriously difficult to photograph because they’re often crying or fidgeting.

Here you’ll have an advantage as a parent. I’m his mom. I’m around him 24 hours a day, and I know when he cries and when he doesn’t. Let your parenting instinct help you choose the right moment.

The Golden Age: Ages 2–4
Something I noticed while photographing many children, including my own, is that there seems to be a universal age when kids are the most photogenic.

That seems to happen between ages two and four.

Kids around this age behave very naturally. They don’t care that someone is looking at them, they don’t care what others think, and they don’t care that a camera is pointed at them.

They aren’t yet self aware. And so, they’re free.

Ages 5 and Older
It gets a bit more difficult when they’re older. As early as age five, they start to become more self-conscious when the camera comes out. They start to pose.

The key here is to be very patient. Let them play while you disappear into the background. My best photos always happen at the end of a photo shoot, when my kids have forgotten all about the camera.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

4. How to get good photos of your kids with pets.

Just like people, every animal is different. Some pets like to be photographed, and others don’t.

Because every pet is different, there isn’t a magic formula for this. I spend hours observing our farm animals, figuring out how they move and what angles work best for them — just like I would for people.

I’ve also tried bribing pets with food, but it doesn’t work. It’s almost impossible to get a good picture when they’re chewing or licking their paws. So I’ve learned the hard way not to feed our pets during photo shoots.

With animals, you have to rely on a bit of luck — and constant patience.

5. Don’t give up.

This is the most famous photo I’ve taken. It’s been viewed over 10 million times — but I almost didn’t bring my camera that day.

Before I took this photo, my confidence was at a pretty low point. I had tried for a photo of my son and dog 14 other times — not 14 other photos, but 14 full photo shoots, all failures.

I was convinced that my hands were too clumsy, or my dog was not the right dog for it, or my kid was not the right kid for it. I was just feeling desperate that day and didn’t even want to bring my camera.

But something told me to bring it. And on that fifteenth day, it all just came together.

This dog of ours is now famous — but he’s not all that photogenic from most angles. He’s actually a pretty difficult dog to work with. From the previous 14 photo shoots, I’d learned what angles and body compositions work for him and my son.

It‘s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to think, “Oh, why bother, it won’t work anyway.” And it may not for the first 14 times. Those 14 photo shoots weren’t failures though, because I learned from them. And they’re what made the fifteenth one possible.

Don’t give up.

For when you get frustrated.

Photo by Ivan Makarov

When I was first starting out, I got frustrated easily. I used to create these elaborate setups — I’d bring my kids to a special place, in special clothes, at a special time with the lighting just right. I’d arrange it all. And naturally, I started to feel like they owed me a good photo.

But I started getting better photos when I realized: no one owes me anything.

If you get frustrated, your kids will sense it and won’t want to participate anymore. Which just creates a vicious cycle of more frustration. When I stopped feeling entitled to a good photo, I was more relaxed. It was more fun for me and for them.

Rather than creating high-pressure elaborate setups, observe your kids in everyday simple situations. Do it every day. Bring your camera along.

And then — when the right moment comes along — you’ll be ready.

See more of Elena’s photos on her SmugMug print site.

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Watch Elena demonstrate these tips.

New Feature: Client Area

If you’ve ever wanted a special place on your SmugMug site to highlight your clients’ photos, you now have that place: the Client Area.

The Client Area takes our Private Sharing feature to the next level by consolidating the photos you’ve shared with a client in one easy-to-find location on your SmugMug website. No longer do they need to keep track of any links you email them.

Client Area

Portfolio and Business account holders can see this new client area at Just replace “nickname” with your SmugMug nickname. You can also add a link to the client area in your navigation menu.

Just like the 404, browse, popular, etc. pages, the Client Area is fully customizable.

To get started, invite your clients to view their gallery by privately sharing it with them. Once they accept the invitation, they can view their photos in your Client Area. This feature is commonly called “Client Login,” but the Client Area is more than just a login—it’s a home for your clients’ photos.

Questions about this new feature? Our Support Heroes are always here to help!

Your SmugMug Site Passes the Mobile-Friendly Test

If you’ve heard the recent rumblings about Google’s plan to make their search results better for mobile users, you might be wondering if your site meets Google’s new criteria. If you’re using SmugMug, you don’t have to worry about a thing.

Every aspect of your SmugMug site has been put through its paces to make sure it passes the Google Mobile-Friendly Test.

You don’t need to change anything or scramble to meet their deadline. We’ve got your back!

Wait, What’s the “Google Mobile-Friendly Test?” Why Does It Matter?
Think how often you pull out your phones and other mobile devices to perform a quick Google search for something you’re dying to show someone. Ever run into results where pages scroll left or right beyond your screen? Or had to pinch-zoom a ridiculous amount just to see what’s on the page? It’s frustrating. And Google doesn’t want anyone being frustrated with their results.

So Google’s decided to reward sites that display well on mobile devices. They’ll be using a set of criteria to measure the mobile-friendliness of websites. Starting April 21, 2015, sites that meet those criteria may rank higher in mobile search results. You can test your website using the Google Mobile-Friendly Test.

Passing this test means your site could be shown higher in Google’s search results whenever someone searches using a mobile device.

We know how important it is for your website to be found, so we made sure that all SmugMug sites pass the test. You don’t need to lift a finger! (Of course, if you want to keep your site out of search results, you can do that, too.)

What’s SmugMug Done to Pass the Mobile-Friendly Test?
We built flexible site design into every corner of SmugMug. (If you’re a long-time SmugMug user but haven’t upgraded your site, this mobile-friendly feature is worth it.)

It doesn’t matter if you’re viewing your site on an iPod or a 4K cinema display, your design and photos will automagically fill the screen perfectly without any annoying side-scroll or zoom action.

Menu and navigation items adjust to fit the screen and are spaced out to help users avoid any mis-taps when trying to view different pages or photos on your site. Galleries automatically optimize their layout to fit mobile devices. Carousel swipes smoothly for your mobile admirers.

And we long ago overhauled our slideshows to use HTML5 instead of Flash.

New SmugMug sites have always looked stunning on mobile devices, and we tweaked a few things after Google’s announcement to ensure any New SmugMug site will pass the test with flying colors.

Tip: Be cautious when using negative margin values on SmugMug content blocks, or adding custom CSS that moves the margins off the page. This might cause your site to fail the mobile-friendly test.

In short, we did everything possible to make sure your photos always display beautifully at any size on any screen.

How Can I Improve My Search Ranking?
Now that you know you don’t have to worry about your site losing rank because of mobile-friendliness, you might be interested in learning how you can bump your rank a bit. We’ve got some great tips on making your SmugMug site more search engine–friendly and growing your organic traffic:

Keep Uploading and Sharing
We hope we’ve put your mind at ease regarding your SmugMug site and Google’s new mobile-friendly test. Keep photographing and sharing what you love and know that we always have your back.

And don’t forget our Support Heroes are always standing by to help!

Related Links

Release Notes: New Drop Zones, Lightbox Customization, Carousel Improvements, Private Sharing, and More.

Spring has sprung, and we’re celebrating with a slew of new features and improvements released during the past few weeks.

Auto-Scroll and More Photo Options for Carousel
You wanted more options for the new Carousel content block, and we heard you! Now you can enable auto-scroll, looping, randomization, and keyboard navigation. Plus you can choose from additional photo sources: Popular and Recent Photos.

Get the full lowdown on the new Carousel control options here.

Customize Your Lightbox
Showcase your photos the way you want them to be seen with a customizable Lightbox. Show your background, hide or show the photo tools, enlarge or minimize your Buy button, and more. Go minimal or extra informative. The choice is now yours.

Learn how to tweak your Lightbox to display your photos the way you want.

Drag-and-Drop Customization Got Even Better
New drop zones in the Customizer are now larger and highlight where you can drop new content blocks on a page, making it easier to see exactly where you can place your content.

Brush up on customizing your site with drag-and-drop content blocks.

Privately Share Photos
Now you can share your photos with only the people you choose. With our new Private Sharing feature, you can send unique invitation links to friends, family, and clients to give them special access to photos meant for their eyes only.

Read more about this new sharing option and tips for including it in your workflow. And check out this informational webinar for a walkthrough on how to share your photos privately.

Here’s a list of all the other fixes we’ve released:

  • Stats: Logged-in owner views are no longer counted.
  • Menu: Child menu items set to open in a new tab now do as they’re told: open in a new tab.
  • Profile/Cover Photo: Deleting your profile or cover photo no longer breaks your profile content block on the page.
  • Mobile: Images viewed in the Lightbox on mobile web now look even better.
  • Vimeo: Private Vimeo videos no longer display where they shouldn’t.
  • Email: Emails sent using the “Contact Link” on your website now clearly indicate they’re from your visitors and not from SmugMug.

Stay tuned as always for more great features and improvements coming through this space!

Related Links:

Transforming Our Support Heroes: Behind the Scenes with Hellgirl

Last week, our latest collaboration with photographer Benjamin Von Wong took our SmugMug employees to new heights—literally. I was lucky enough to be one of those employees, though I am the unlikeliest of models. How did I end up on that rooftop with my superhero colleagues? Read on!

“Kerry, it’s your turn. Step up!” the photographer called to me, excitement in his voice.

Step up where? This ledge:

Which was followed by this drop:

And this is the safety harness that was certified to keep me — all 300 pounds of me — from plummeting to my death.


All the other models on the photo shoot wore harnesses, too, and I saw with my own eyes how many safety precautions were taken to make us secure. Logically, I understood that nothing bad would happen to me.

But I just couldn’t shake the feeling: I’m 2 people in 1. I’m going to be too heavy to pull up.

All I could think was:

If I fall, I’m probably dead because I was too fat.

Somehow I managed to step up on the ledge, and the photographer snapped a few photos.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video of the photo shoot.
(Warning: Do not attempt on your own. The photographer is a trained stunt person. All models wore safety equipment.)

When we were done, all the other models were excited to see how the pictures turned out. After all, we were on a skyscraper dressed as superheroes, getting our pictures taken by world-famous photographer Benjamin Von Wong.

But I wasn’t looking forward to seeing my photo at all. I had this nagging feeling: I’m going to look like crap. I may be on a fancy photo shoot, but I’m still a fat girl.

Here’s how my photo turned out:

Hey, that isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.

Actually … I kind of look badass.

How the heck did this happen? How did I get to be a model on an awesome photo shoot? Models aren’t fat girls like me. But here I was, on top of the world.

Just one year ago, I was at the lowest point of my life.

Self-portrait. Photo by Kerry Ellis.

My struggle with weight began right after college when a surgery on both feet left me unable to walk long distances for exercise. I ballooned up from a size 12 to a size 22.

I gained some experience after graduating and managed to get a great job writing for NASA. I had been there for 8 years when the phone call came from my boss:

“Kerry, I’ve got some bad news. I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. Actually, you were supposed to be laid off yesterday.”

Me working from home. Photo by Kerry Ellis.

This job was all I’d known for nearly a decade. What was I supposed to do now? How was I supposed to pay for my house?

I hung up the phone and burst into tears. Here I was, a 35-year-old grown woman, and I felt like a scared 14-year-old again. Completely lost.

Me with Britta. Photo by Kerry Ellis.

I’ve never liked asking people for things, but when you lose your job, that’s what you have to do — ask everyone for help. After sending out hundreds of emails and posting to Facebook and LinkedIn, I heard about an interesting opportunity. Not a full-time job or anything, just a short writing assignment for SmugMug.

As a photographer myself (and longtime customer), I loved SmugMug and had been trying to get a job there for ages. Actually, they’d already rejected me once when I interviewed there 5 years ago. But no matter. This was a chance to get my foot in the door at my dream company, and I took it.

I completed the writing assignment for them, and the article somehow got the attention of Chris MacAskill, President and Co-Founder of SmugMug. It turns out he was the one who had vetoed hiring me 5 years ago.

He told me he’d made a mistake. Oh, and would I like to join SmugMug full time?

The next day, I packed up everything and moved straight to California to start my new job.

Me in my new office at SmugMug. Photo by

Within my first few weeks on the job, Von Wong was in town and SmugMug asked him to do a fun photo shoot for the employees.

SmugMug employee — that’s me! That’s how I ended up as a model on this phenomenal photo shoot.

The SmugMug family on the skyscraper.

The whole thing feels like a fairy tale, like something that only happens in movies. I landed my dream job and moved across the country. I felt on top of the world. But looking in the mirror, my outside didn’t match how I felt inside.

That’s why this photo means so much to me. It makes my outside match my inside.

It’s a reminder that, even when I was at my heaviest, I can look amazing.

Since this photo was taken, I’ve dropped a dress size. I’m eating healthier and working out regularly. If I could look amazing then, then I can continue to look amazing.

I went from rock bottom to a superhero literally on top of the world. How is this even real? This is the stuff of movies.

But this is my life now, and it’s pretty freaking awesome.


As great as this photo makes me feel, I almost didn’t write about it. I wrote and deleted this article 3 times before hitting publish.

The Internet is cruel. I’m already bracing myself for the comments people will make:

“She’s still fat.”

Or my personal favorite that’s been popular lately — “Why is she promoting unhealthy habits?”

It’s not about celebrating being unhealthy. It’s about loving yourself so you can continue to work on yourself. If you start the journey from a point of hate, that’s where you’re going to end. You may lose the weight, but you’ll still hate yourself. The root problem is still there — that’s why so many diets fail.

Start from a place of accepting yourself, so you love yourself as you continue to make progress.

Photography by Benjamin Von Wong. Read how he pulled off this photo shoot on his blog.

Media Requests
You may quote or republish this article and its photos on your own publication—please credit and link back to the original.

Find more photos from the photo shoot on Benjamin Von Wong’s blog and the behind-the-scenes video.