Every beginner struggles to make people smile for a portrait. Sure, you can always ask your subjects to say “Cheese!” but the resulting smiles rarely look natural. Encouraging natural smiles is hard. It often seems impossible.
Fortunately, capturing smiling pictures is not as hard as it sounds. As a professional event photographer, getting complete strangers to smile is a big part of my job, and I’ve picked up plenty of proven techniques that I’ll share with you today, from specific approaches to subtle body-language cues to all-around silliness.
So if you’re ready to learn how to get natural smiles in photos, then pay careful attention. And remember: Always consider your subject and adjust your technique accordingly!
Note that I’ve split up this article into four sections:
If you’re looking to get a specific type of client to smile, then feel free to skip ahead – or start from the beginning and enjoy the whole piece!
Let’s get started.
In this section, I explain how to get that sought-after natural smiling pose when photographing individuals.
A smile and a friendly demeanor are contagious. Before you encourage someone else to smile, make sure that you’re smiling yourself and that you approach with a friendly tone.
In other words: 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? Boost their confidence. Try offering a compliment based on a feature or quality you observe about them. Are they wearing a nice outfit or an unusual piece of jewelry? Do they have a friendly smile or laugh? Tell them so!
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. And if the eyes aren’t squinting, many viewers 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 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 by 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 photograph the real laughs and smiles that you’ll get after the fake laughs are done. It’s also important to note that your own enthusiasm for the activity and your upbeat tone of voice is what makes this technique work.
Most photo subjects respond best if you give them specific instructions. Help them loosen up and feel less self-conscious by encouraging them 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, too.
Most people expect to hear “Say cheese” before taking a photo. So play off this expectation. Surprise the listener 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. 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!)
Anyway, here goes:
Q: “What’s the quickest way to make money as a photographer?”
A: “Sell your camera!”
For group photos, you can use any of the single techniques I shared above, but you can also add quite a few extra tricks to get creative, engaging shots.
The idea is to get 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. What makes it special? Well, the instructions are vague. No one is really sure who to look at, and the resulting expressions tend to turn into smiles and laughs. It’s great for capturing candid shots. Use it to loosen people up, then move on to the next few tips to work your subjects 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. Seeing how that person reacts is often funny to the group.
Follow this up after Tip 8 or Tip 9. At this point, the group has likely engaged with each other and loosened up, so you can move forward with natural-looking poses. 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 group will want to take a silly picture (or two) after the serious photo. The problem is that most groups don’t know what to do for a silly photo. Help them out with some suggestions. Here are my favorites for adults:
You can use many of the above group techniques for couples, but you’ll also need a few more tricks up your sleeve.
Talking about intimate, happy moments is a great way to get partners in tune with each other and elicit romantic smiles. These smiles might not be as strong as fake, over-the-top faces, but they’ll be about as genuine as you’ll ever find.
Most happy couples will definitely smile when asked to be intimate with each other for the camera. So don’t hold back. You can ask for hugs, kisses, handholding, and the like.
If the couple is having a hard time relaxing, get them moving and focus their attention away from the camera. In my experience, most couples dancing together are in great spirits! This also gives you a chance to grab some candid, action shots.
In this section, I share my favorite tips to capture smiling children:
This tip for smiling photography only applies to groups of children. The idea is to ask them to act serious – because 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 play a game with your subject(s), take advantage of it! Have them play Simon Says, Duck Duck Goose, tag, or any other age-appropriate game that will get them engaged and having fun. They’ll soon start smiling – so make sure you have your camera at the ready!
Jump shots are always fun for kids and even some adults. Make the images more fun and engaging by turning them into a contest to see who can jump the highest.
Admittedly, photos of kids sticking out their tongues 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.
Bunny ears are a popular photo prank that even adults play on each other. Pretty much everyone finds it funny – so encourage the adults to prank the children, or the children to prank the other children. The laughter will start, and you’ll capture some beautiful images.
There you have it:
20 ideas to help get natural smiles in your pictures. Head out there, try some of these techniques, and see how they go! But always gauge how your photo subjects react to your suggestions. You might have to adjust your tone of voice and photo directions for different types of people.
Now over to you:
Which of these techniques is your favorite? Do you have any additional methods for making people smile naturally? Share your thoughts in the comments below!