Natural Smile Techniques for Directing Portrait Subjects

Some enviable people are born with photogenic genes and movie-star smiles, but for the rest of us, here are a few tips on how portrait subjects can smile naturally for those dreaded family photo sessions (or any other time!). Some photographers still direct their subjects to say “cheese” which could be producing undesirable results, definitely something to consider:

1) Don’t say “cheese.” It stretches your face and mouth into an unnatural position that looks strained rather than relaxed.

2) Instead, say a word that ends in an “uh” sound. Yoga. Mocha. Grandpa. Really, it works.

3) Laugh while the photo is being taken. It can be just a little chuckle that helps relax your face, or try thinking of something funny for some genuine laughter and your own version of that famous open-mouthed Julia Roberts smile.

4) Lift the tip of your tongue up behind your front teeth. This helps position your lips into a relaxed pose.

5) Relax your face. With a genuine smile, the face is completely relaxed except at the mouth and the corner of the eyes (i.e. smiling eyes). Try to replicate that and not stiffen your cheeks while smiling.

a fake smile

An example of an unnatural smile

a natural smile

An example of a natural smile

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:


  1. ali says:

    Wonderful tips here no doubt……but where the heck were you during my childhood, i have got so many of those fake smile photos :(

  2. DonnaLouise says:

    Another nifty trick is to have the subject(s) look just at the top of the camera or forehead of the photographer — it kind of forces them to keep their eyes open without having that deer-in-the-headights look.

  3. Awesome tips. I’ll be keeping these in mind during my sessions. Thanks!

Leave a Comment

Personalize your comment with an avatar from!

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever