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.
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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 animal, for teens and adults perhaps a celebrity, especially if said celebrity has recently done something embarrassing.
- Compliment them. Focus on something that’s part of them, like their eyes instead of their outfit.
- For people who feel really uncomfortable around the camera, try using a tripod and a remote, and standing away from the camera. You may feel less intimidating to them that way.
- Tell them about something funny that happened at a previous session.
- Randomly start singing. And then sing the lyrics wrong. Even better if you’re tone deaf.
- Ask for a laugh, since fake laughs usually turn into real giggles. Keep clicking once the fake laugh starts to get real.
- If you can’t get the genuine smile, saying words that end in the “a” sound mimic a smile better than something like cheese.
- When all else fails, ask them to smile with their eyes — that means pinching the corner of their eyes a bit.
When you’re photographing a group instead of an individual, there’s a few more tricks to try to get the whole bunch smiling:
- Ask them to tell each other a secret.
- Ask half the group (or one individual) to sneak up on the other half and surprise them while you’re taking photos.
- Ask them to try to keep a straight face. It’s hard not to smile when you’re being told not to. Try it—it really does work sometimes, especially in groups.
- For small groups with little ones, tell the kids to squish in as close as possible. Again, it’s all about your tone of voice here. Make it fun!
- Turn it into a game—whoever can keep the straightest face the longest wins. There will be some laughing at the end, I promise, and it’s the kind that’s contagious.
- Once the group is arranged, say “Okay, now don’t anyone fart…”
If you are photographing a couple, such as for an engagement or wedding, you can use some of the group tricks, or add on a few more tricks like these:
- Ask them to tell you the moment they first knew they were in love.
- Ask them to kiss—depending on the couple, make it a kiss on the cheek, or perhaps the nose. Of course, for weddings and engagements, a full on kiss works too (but that’s not really a smile).
- In your most corny voice ever, ask them to stare lovingly into each other’s eyes…your voice and the situation will likely turn it into a smile or laugh instead.
- Ask them to dance together.
- Ask one to sweep the other one of their feet — literally!
And what about the toughest subjects—kids? Younger kids are more likely to find simpler things funny that adults won’t blink an eye at. Here’s a few tricks that are best to use for getting smiles from the youngest subjects:
- In a photo with an older sibling or mom and dad, get a tickle fest going.
- Use props like balloons or bubbles to get little ones smiling. This one works particularly well with toddlers.
- Ask the parents ahead of time what their child is interested in—bringing along a particular toy can help, or talking about a specific topic.
- Get a game of tag or a race started, and just capture the action.
- When they’re expecting you to “Say Cheese,” come up with a goofy but still cheese-filled gross alternative, like cheese-covered strawberries, or cheesy pickles. Then see if they can come up with their own cheesy alternative.
- Revise a candy PEZ dispenser so it sits in your hot shoe flash, so younger kids are more apt to smile at the camera.
- When doing family photos, ask mom or dad to toss the child into the air or spin them around.
- Schedule your shoot at the park. Things like swings and merry-go-rounds make for some good props, and the kids are more likely to have fun and smile too.
- Ask a parent or sibling to stand behind you and make funny faces or tell jokes.
- For kids at the “cooties” stage, tell them to give a sibling a kiss, or ask if they have a boyfriend/girlfriend.
Whether you catch a grin from doing a silly dance behind the camera or by telling a joke doesn’t really matter — what matters is that you’re catching a genuine smile, not a lips-only, smile-because-I-have-to expression, but a genuine smile. Find what works for both your own personality and for the individual subject you’re working with at the time.
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