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One of the biggest challenges every photographer faces it getting people to smile naturally for a photo. Sure, you can ask someone to say “cheese!” and he or she will likely comply. But you’ll also probably end up with a cheesy smile that doesn’t look natural or attractive. After all, there’s a HUGE difference between a genuine smile and a fake one.
As a professional event photographer, spontaneously getting complete strangers to smile is a big part of my job, and I’ve picked up some proven techniques that I’ll share with you in this article. Note that I’ve broken up the sections into tips for photographing people by themselves, as couples, in groups, and children, but you can certainly mix and match. Also, be careful to always consider your audience and adjust your technique accordingly.
A smile and friendly demeanor are contagious. Before you ask someone else to smile, make sure that you’re smiling yourself and approach with a friendly tone. If you want to get a real smile out of someone, you need to set the tone by approaching them with a giant, genuine smile on your face.
One of the quickest and easiest ways to get someone to smile is to boost their confidence. This is something you can easily do by offering a compliment based on a feature or quality you observe about them. Are they wearing an attractive outfit or an unusual piece of jewelry? Do they have a friendly smile or laugh? Offer a compliment!
How do you know if a smile is genuine or fake? It’s all in the eyes. A fake smile tends to only have the lower half of the face engaged, with the lips curled into a smile. But if the eyes aren’t squinting as well, you can tell the smile is forced and not very genuine. If your photo subject’s smile is looking a bit off and you can’t tell why, ask them to smile with their eyes, or “smize” as Tyra Banks would say.
To illicit a genuine smile, your photo subject needs to feel comfortable and relaxed. The best way to break the ice is to get them to laugh. Ask for a fake laugh, saying something like this, “Let’s see who’s got the biggest, loudest fake laugh! On the count of three, 1, 2, 3, LAUGH!” The whole point here is not to capture the fake laugh, but to get the resulting real laughs and smiles that you’ll get after the fact. It’s also important to note that your own enthusiasm for the activity and tone of voice is what makes this technique work.
Most photo subjects respond the best if you give them specific instructions. Help them loosen up and feel less self-conscious by having them go through a series of facial poses. You might think this one only works with kids, but certain types of adults will totally get into this exercise.
Most people expect to hear “say cheese” before getting a photo. Surprise them by saying something else, such as, “money” or “whiskey” for adults, or “pickles” or “chocolate” for children. Use your discretion and pick a word that suits your audience.
One of the most obvious ways to get people to laugh or smile is to tell a joke. The trick is finding a joke that is appropriate for the audience. Personally, I use the joke below all the time for my corporate event photo shoots, and it almost always gets a laugh out of people. But I wouldn’t use this joke with children; I’d maybe use a knock knock joke instead. You can also flip the tables and ask your photo subject to tell you a joke.
Q: “What’s the quickest way to make money as a photographer?”
A: “Sell your camera!”
When photographing groups, you can use any of the above techniques for singles, but you can also add quite a few extra tricks to get creative, engaging shots.
The idea is to get the people in your group engaging with each other. This technique can also elicit grins and giggles as people tend to whisper nonsensical noises to each other.
This works best for groups of at least three or more people. The reason why it works is that the instructions are vague. No one is really sure who to look at, and the resulting expressions tend to be smiles and laughs. This is great for capturing candid shots. Use it to loosen people up, and then move onto to the next few tips to work them into a more serious, smiling pose.
It’s essential to know everyone’s names or titles for this one to work. By calling out someone specifically in a group, you’re making them the center of attention and it’s often funny to the rest of the group to see how that person reacts.
Follow this up after #8 or #9. After getting the group to engage with each other and laugh, they’ve loosened up. At this point, you can turn their full attention back to the camera and get everyone looking at you with a real smile on their faces. You can also take it a step further by saying something playful and silly like, “You guys don’t look happy enough! Make those smiles bigger!”
Almost every single group photo will result in the group wanting to take a silly picture after the serious one. The problem is, most groups don’t know what to do for a silly photo. Help them out by throwing out some suggestions. My favorites for adults are:
You can use many of the above group techniques for couples, but you’ll also want to have a few other tricks up your sleeve.
Talking about intimate, happy moments with couples is a great way to get them in-tune with each other and eliciting romantic smiles.
Most happy couples will definitely smile when asked to be intimate with each other for the camera.
Get the couple moving and focus their attention away from the camera, especially if they are having a hard time relaxing. Almost any couple dancing together will be in good spirits. This also gives you a chance to grab some candid, action shots.
The minute you tell kids to be serious without laughing, you’re more likely to get the opposite effect. This is a simple, yet highly effective way to get kids to smile.
If you have the time and the space to get kids to play a game, take advantage of it! Have them play Simon Says, Duck Duck Goose, tag, or any other age-appropriate games that will get them engaged and having fun.
Jump shots are always fun for kids and even certain types of adults. Make it more fun and engaging by turning it into a jumping contest to see who can jump the highest.
Admittedly, photos of kids sticking their tongues out often aren’t what you’re trying to achieve. But if you stick your tongue out at them or turn it into a game of who has the longest tongue, this can lead to laughs and smiles, which you definitely want to capture in photos.
You may not even have to ask kids to do this for you. Bunny ears seem to be a universal photo prank that even adults play on each other and seem to find funny.
There you have it, 20 ideas to help people smile for a photo. Get out there and try some of these techniques and see how they go! But always be sure to gauge how your photo subjects are reacting to your suggestions. You might have to adjust your tone of voice and photo directions for different types of people.
Have any ideas to add to the list? Mention them in the comments below!