How to Make Your Subject Smile (and Still Look Natural)

At one point in my photography career, I was almost against smiles in my photos.  I thought it was cheesy and unauthentic, but now my lifestyle brand is youth and fun.  Smiling is a definitely a necessity when I shoot!  The challenge is making those smiles look genuine.

As a parenthesis, I definitely still appreciate the serious face and get that sometimes it’s good not to smile in photos.  Take Kellie for example:

We found during her shoot that her seriousness shone much more than her smile.  (She had a beautiful smile, but her eyes dominated the lens.)

Every now and then you’ll get a model like Summer:

Summer’s smile was staged, but she did it so well that it looked like a genuine laugh.  She had the advantage of being in the modeling world for a while.  Some commercial models flourish at this skill.

So what happens if you’re not working with a model or your model is inexperienced?  I’ve found the following three tips have worked very well for me. 

1. Let your models/subjects have a regular conversation while in front of your lens. This mostly works for group shots but you can also make it work for a single person if you carry on the conversation while clicking away.

This works especially well if your group or couple has great chemistry.  However, this method can backfire and cause strange expressions on your model’s face as well.  Think about the faces you make when speaking.  If you find this happening too often, you may want to switch methods.

2.  Have your model(s) say their vowels slowly while looking out of frame.  I can’t take credit for this method.  I actually took this advice from photographer Ben Sasso.  (He’s amazing.  You should check him out.)  If it sounds silly, it is.  That’s why it works.  This is what was happening in the shot below. 

What happens is saying “A – E – I” will open your model’s mouth in a flattering way and they’ll probably end up feeling so ridiculous that the laughter will come naturally.  Try to avoid “O” and “U” as these vowels can cause strange looking faces but makes for great outtakes. 🙂

3. Just have fun! I’m not saying this to boast, but I’ve never had a shoot where the model didn’t say “That was a fun shoot.”  When the ice is broken, you can get your model(s) to move around to add some action to the shot.  As soon as they start running or jumping, the smile  will automatically appear.

I understand that these won’t always work due to some models being easier to work with than others.  Are there any methods you’ve tried to get the people in front of your lens to smile?  What are some that work for you?  Comment below!

*Bonus tip: set your camera to burst mode to capture the in between candid moments. 

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