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

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4 responses to “Natural Smile Techniques for Directing Portrait Subjects”

  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!

  4. Bruce says:

    The selfie smile. Bane to ALL portraitists. I also go through face stretching, accentuated vowels, fake reactions, stuff like that, all delivered comically. “OK, do what I do” and start making a bunch of funny faces. Use a remote shutter release and maintain dialogue with your subject. Most important is to create an easy atmosphere. Part of your job is entertainment – patter, fun, distractions. IF you are having fun, they will.

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