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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:
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.
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:
No matter the reason, a fake smile will give off a low-power impression of the person in the image.
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.
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.
Smiling is recognized universally as a sign of happiness and safety, by both women and men, but there are a few differences:
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.
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.