Ah, the dreaded “Say cheese.” Starting off a photo session with an overused phrase that’s likely to make at least one person cringe isn’t the best way to capture a great expression. Besides, it’s easy to tell when a smile isn’t genuine. A fake smile uses only the mouth, but a real one will involve the eyes too.
But getting a genuine smile can often be tough—especially when your subject is shy, or perhaps you’re even shy and just prefer to quietly hide behind the camera. There’s not a whole lot of scenarios that are more awkward then someone quietly standing behind the camera and snapping photos of you. And if your subject feels awkward, they’ll look awkward in the photos as well.
So, how do you get genuine smiles when taking portraits? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are a zillion and one ways to get someone to smile. Those same ideas can often be applied to photography, so we’re sharing 38 of those ways to help you snap genuine smiles.
But first, there are a few things you should know that will help any portrait you take.
Relax, and they will too:
If you’re feeling uptight (perhaps you haven’t done many sessions before, or are always nervous around new people), they will be uptight too. Find something that helps you relax ahead of time.
Get the bad photos out of the way first:
If something doesn’t look right—the smile too fake or the pose not flattering, take the picture anyway. If you don’t take it, they may start to feel self-conscious. Unless of course you shoot with film, then smile as you redirect them to a better pose or expression.
If possible, bring someone else along:
An assistant can help, perhaps by making funny faces behind you, all the while you pretend not to notice. This is especially helpful for photographing babies and toddlers, since they can’t see your face from behind the camera.
Keep the conversation going:
Talk to them about their likes and dislikes — anything but standing behind the camera without so much as a word. Take the pressure off just by chatting.
It’s OK to embarrass yourself:
Your job is to take good pictures — that’s more important than looking like a little silly. If you like, you can forewarn them that dorkiness will be present. Hey, maybe even that warning will get a smile.
Got it? Good. Now that you know to relax and keep your subject relaxed, lets add a few tricks to your tool bag when general conversation isn’t eliciting any grins. These tricks will work for nearly any age or portrait scenario.
- Tell a joke. Sometimes, the cornier the better. Go ahead, even knock-knock jokes are okay.
- Keep a smiling, happy demeanor yourself. Smiles are sometimes contagious.
- Do something unexpected. Stick out your tongue. Pretend to fight with your reflector (or simply try to fold the darn thing for real. Anyone else have a hard time folding up a reflector?)
- Call them out on their fake smiles — with the right (teasing) tone of voice, this can bring out the real smiles.
- Pick a strange word or sound and insert it randomly into your sentences — words like pickle, yahoo, or wigwam. “Okay, now I’m going to wigwam go over here…”
- Look up a few tongue twisters before your shoot, and ask them to say them ten times fast. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers…” See, you’re smiling reading this, aren’t you?
- Ask a trick question, like asking them to say silk five times, then ask them what cows drink. Most people will say milk, even though cows drink water…
- Action often makes for more genuine expressions. Ask kids to skip, a teenager to play their guitar, whatever works for that particular session.
- Ask them all to jump at the count of three. Photograph the jump, and the laughs after the landing.
- “Okay, now everyone make their best impression of a ____.” Fill in the blank depending on who you’re photographing — for kids, try an anim