How to Avoid Fake Smiles in Your People Photography

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A genuine smile is one of the most attractive expressions of the human face, and as photographers, we love them because they brighten up our pictures with warmth, and create connection.

When you look at it on a body language level, you discover that a genuine smile informs others that we are:

  • A friend, not a foe
  • Happy
  • In a good place mentally.

It’s a universal safety and happiness cue that we recognize on an instinctive level. It draws people in, and creates a sense of positive connection with the person in your image.

I’ve been talking so far about a genuine smile, because a smile can also be deceiving. We humans have developed the ability to fake smile when we want to pretend that we’re happy or friendly, even when we’re not… and this happens a lot in front of the camera.

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Let’s face it, standing in front of a lens is not the most happiness inducing moment in most of our lives. To many people, this is actually really uncomfortable, but yet you are asking them to smile, which often ends up looking tense and fake.

What a fake or tense smile says about the person in the image, is that they are not being honest, that they are uncomfortable, or even submissive.

People will fake a smile to appease others, when:

  • They are nervous or uncomfortable
  • Showing submission
  • Being polite (when someone cracks a really bad joke for example)

No matter the reason, a fake smile will give off a low-power impression of the person in the image.

So what’s the difference between genuine and a fake smile?

  • A genuine smile is visible mainly in the eyes. Smiling eyes are relaxed, with raised cheeks, and a nice tension appearing on the side of the eyes. The mouth can be anywhere from slightly raised or wide open, but it’s the eye action (not the mouth) that communicates the honesty of a smile.
  • A fake smile on the other hand, will have no, or very little, eye engagement. The mouth smile can still be very wide, but you will not see any action in the upper cheek and eye areas. It looks more like a grin, than a smile.
  • The expression of contempt is often mistaken for a smile. The most obvious sign of disdain is a one sided smile, with the lip slightly pulled up.

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How to get a real smile? Don’t say cheese!

As a portrait photographer, your job is not only to make a beautiful image, but also to be the director of the shoot, helping your subject relax into the right emotion. If your subject is uncomfortable, you’ll most certainly end up with a fake smile or worse, an expression of contempt, and lose the warmth and honesty that comes from a genuine smile.

It has become a habit for many photographers to shout out, “Say cheese!!!” to get someone to smile in front of the camera. But this method usually ends up with embarrassed grins, or fake smiles, instead of genuine ones.

So what should you do instead?

It’s impossible to fake a feeling (unless you’re a sociopath) and the only way you can get your subject to genuinely smile is to help them connect with a real feeling of happiness. Asking them to think of something, or someone, they love allows them to connect with a genuine feeling of happiness, and you’ll see their cheeks raise and create a beautiful honest smile within seconds. As soon as you see it, let them know so they can feel it for themselves, and reproduce it. I ask my clients to give me a keyword for what they just felt and I use that for the rest of the shoot.

If they can’t think of anything, you can tell them a funny story, or a joke, and that can work really well, but can be a two edged sword if the joke falls flat and makes the situation very awkward instead.

Smiles are also a very useful barometer of your clients comfort level. If they can’t seem to relax and connect with a happy thought, it’s a good time to check your own body language and see if you are sending off stress, or discomfort, cues that they are mirroring back to you.

Differences between men and women

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Smiling is recognized universally as a sign of happiness and safety, by both women and men, but there are a few differences:

  • For women, smiling is a way of creating rapport and a sign of appeasement, but to men a smile can come across as submissive.
  • Men smile less often, and less widely than women.
  • Women are attracted more to photos of men smiling, but men prefer more serious photos of other men.

When coaching your client on the image selection, it’s important to know the usage they are going to make of their photos. A man needing a photo for a dating website would probably have more success with a smiling photo than a serious one. But if he’s looking for a job in a male dominated workplace, then he’d probably be better off choosing a more serious one for his LinkedIn profile.

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I hope you have found these tips useful and I look forward to hearing about your own experiences with genuine and fake smiles. Please leave your comments below.

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Dee Libine is a professional portrait photographer and a certified body language trainer. By harnessing the power of body language, she creates a unique experience for her clients, and gets them the results they want from their portraiture. In her book, A Photographer’s Guide to Body Language, she shares her secrets for developing rapport and pleasing even difficult clients, all while making them look not just their best, but even better.

  • Candace McGee

    I’m not a professional photographer but I do take a lot of photos. This is a great breakdown, I was just thinking about this subject earlier this week after going through some photos. Thanks for sharing great content as usual!

    http://thequirklife.com/

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  • Tom Durkin

    Excellent article. Very useful information!

  • Topsy Kretts

    I take portrait pictures naked, that is a good tip to get people into a natural smile.

  • Topsy Kretts

    I take portrait pictures naked, that is a good tip to get people to smile naturally.

  • mtnredhed

    I think you’re confusing smile and grimice.

  • Topsy Kretts

    Maybe… 🙂

  • Danielle Libine-Collins

    It’s a really good question this one. With naked photography, the body language is even more important as every single possible tension in the body will be visible and remove from the strength or sensuality of the picture.

  • Topsy Kretts

    You should definitely give it a go!

  • Dawn Friend

    I understand what you are saying but is there a way to get a “natural smile” without the eyes squinting? I much prefer the photos with the “fake smiles” in the first two sets because you can see their eyes and have smoother skin.

  • Danielle Libine-Collins

    You can get a friendly expression with more relaxed open eyes that are still engaging the eye muscles slightly to create that sense of honest positive feelings and avoid too big wrinkles on the sides of the eyes. However, a real honest smile that connects with feelings of happiness creates wrinkles. I guess you will have to find the right balance for you. if you’re shooting other people it’s important to understand the impact of the first impression you are creating for them in their pictures. If it’s for their professional or dating profiles, their first impression can determine the future of their relationships, and it’s better for them to be giving off an honest first impression (even with a few eyelines) than to appear fake with flawless skin. If you’re creating images for yourself with an artistic vision, then you get to decide what’s most important for your art.

  • Danielle Libine-Collins

    Thank you Tom! Glad to hear this was useful for you.

  • Danielle Libine-Collins

    Thank you Candace! Happy you found it useful 🙂

  • Great article!!! Well done!!! No “cheese” again!!! 😉

  • Danielle Libine-Collins

    Thank you Vasillis! Happy you liked it 🙂

  • Danielle Libine-Collins

    Thank you Vasillis! Happy you liked it 🙂

  • You are welcome Danielle!!! Keep doing your fine work!!!

  • Angel

    Hmm. Maybe it’s because I’m on the autism spectrum, but I prefer the fake smile portraits here…

  • Angel

    I’m with you, Dawn!

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