Pro Tips for Taking Creative Birthday Photos

May is such a great month, Spring is in full bloom, Summer is right around the corner and its my birthday month! This year it’s an extra special birthday for me because I’m turning 40! So I though I would do a post all about birthday photos. Birthday photos can be simple or extravagant. It all depends on what and who you are trying to capture. Let’s dive in!


Over the years I have documented my own and my childrens’ birthdays in many different ways. It’s something special we do and something they always look forward to. It’s also just a great way to mark the passage of time and see how much they have grown. And I know they will cherish these memories when they are older.


And yes I have also started taking my own birthday photo. Self portraits can be a challenge. It can be hard to make eye contact with the camera, face your own flaws, and it’s easy to be overly critical of yourself (really taking self portraits is a whole other blog post). But it is a beautiful process to celebrate your own growth and the changes in life. Because we all know change is inevitable and we need to embrace it! 


When planning my birthday photos I first take into account the personality of the subject I am photographing. One of my younger children always wants a photo with a cake, but my oldest daughter on the other hand, is entering the teen years and wanted something a little more grown up for her last birthday. So we did a simple self portrait of just her. She enjoyed the special time together and has a beautiful memory of when she turned 12.

I try to consider their wants and the things about each child that makes them unique when taking their birthday photos. Your birthday photos can be as minimal or as over the top as you can imagine. There are no rules when it comes to birthday photos. One year my daughter was really into mermaids so we did a photoshoot of her dressed up as a mermaid.


The first birthday cake smash is a super popular way to celebrate baby’s first birthday. It’s a fun way to capture your baby’s first experience with their very own cake. But as they get older the cake smash looses its’ appeal. So what next? 

I personally love blowing out the candles as a way to capture a birthday photo. But when my children were younger this presented me with a real challenge. They could never sit still with that delicious birthday cake sitting right infront of them. They wanted to get the photo over and done with so that they could dive face first into that cake (which is something you could always choose to capture!). 

So I finally decided to buy a fake cake. Yes you heard me right! A fake cake! You can check out the one I bought on Etsy here. There are a myriad of beautiful fake cakes available on Etsy. It ended up saving me so much money buying fancy photo worthy cakes for each birthday. Just be aware that if you are going to use candles, you need something soft on the top of the cake to stick your candles in because the cake is hard. In the photo above I put some donuts on the top of the cake to stick the candles in. It worked perfectly because my daughter was really into doughnuts at the time.

As my children have gotten older and can now resist the urge to stick their fingers in the cake before the photo is done (for the most part) I have sometimes purchased plain white mini cakes from the grocery store (Wegmans has some great options). Think about the person you are photographing and what kind of cake suits their personality. What’s their favorite color? What kind of cake best represents their beautiful unique qualities. Would a fun cake topper be a better fit than candles?

I took this photo when my son turned 6 months old. It’s not exactly a birthday but I wanted to capture this phase in his first year. I included his favorite baby toy and blanket at the time to further enhance the meaning behind the photo.


I already mentioned that I love to photograph my kids blowing out the candles. There are so many cool candles available. Candles that sparkle, gold candles, curly candles, number candles….the options go on and on. I personally love gold candles. I love the way the light shines as it reflects on them. When I am shooting birthday photos with candles I always try to capture the smoke that curls up right when the candle is blown out. Make sure your shutter speed is bumped up as high as the lighting will allow so that you can capture the smoke quickly!

For this birthday my daughter said she really wanted pie instead of cake so we went for it! She is also a huge fan of whipped cream (I really can’t keep it in the house unless its a special occasion because she will literally sneak and eat it all) so I thought it was fitting that we added the can of Reddi Wip.

But sometimes that doesn’t always happen. So the next best thing is to use smoke overlays! What are smoke overlays? They are images of smoke that you can put over your photo to give the effect of real smoke. These are the ones I use and they are available on Etsy here. The smoke in the photo below is made with overlays. Blowing out the candles is a great way to keep your subject engaged, but if you aren’t happy with the results, smoke overlays are the best! My kids get such a kick out of blowing out the candles and relighting them. Sometimes I can’t get the photoshoot to end because they just want to keep going.


Birthday props can be so much fun. From balloons, to banners, cake toppers and presents, there are so many fun ways to accessorize your birthday shoot. My youngest daughter’s birthday is right after Thanksgiving and that is the time we usually put our Christmas tree up (although last year I may have to admit it was up a little earlier than usual haha). So for this birthday photo she wanted to add some little Christmas trees to mark the season. It was a great great way to add an extra layer of storytelling to mark the time of year of her birthday. 

With all these in mind I think the most important take away is to create birthday photos that really represent your subject’s personality. So if it includes cake and balloons that’s great, but if it’s just a simple portrait to mark the occasion that is a wonderful option as well. Your birthday photos don’t have to scream birthday. I like to think they serve as a timestamp, a moment in time that you’re documenting with a special photo of the person you are celebrating that truly reflects their uniqueness in this world.

So let’s do a quick recap!

  • Why take birthday photos in the first place?  – It’s a great way to time stamp a person’s growth
  • Take your own birthday photo – Don’t forget to get in the frame and celebrate yourself 
  • Capture their personality – Try to create a birthday photo that brings out your subject’s unique qualities
  • Fake cake vs real – Fake cakes are great for little kids and can be a real money saver
  • Using candles and overlays – Explore all the different kinds of candles available and select ones that are really going to enhance your photo. Don’t worry if you can’t capture the perfect smoke because there are always overlays!
  • Fun birthday photo props – Balloons, cake toppers, banners, presents…there are so many fun props you can include in your birthday photos.

So there you have it…some of my favorite tips for taking creative birthday photos. I hope this helps to inspire you the next time you try to capture someone’s special day!



P.S. This month I am participating in a super fun blog circle with some of my photographer friends. Check out my girl Robyn who is a Premiere San Diego Senior Photographer and her post all about Senior Photoshoots.

Ruth Young is a professional, portrait photographer and photography educator located in Culpeper, Virginia. She photographs her daily life with her 5 small children and has a passion for teaching photography. For more about Ruth follow her on Instagram where she posts daily.


  1. These are so lovely and I love your creative idea of smoke and candles overlays! Brilliant!

  2. robyn says:

    love this! I love the fake cake idea.

  3. I love that donut cake! Great tips for creative birthday photos.

  4. Jillian says:

    I am IN LOVE with that donut cake!! You are so talented!

  5. Ute says:

    Every single picture of yours is a true master piece! I love the timeless feel of your work.

  6. Rosa Clark says:

    These images are stunning!

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Hi! I'm Ruth!

Welcome to my blog where I share all things photography related. I am a fine art photographer and photography instructor and mentor. I am also the mother to five wild little children who I homeschool. We love to explore nature while I take photographs along the way!

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