Useful Photography Tip #132: How to Get a Genuine Smile in a Portrait

Chris Gampat Lauren Englebert portraits Early winter 2015 first batch (3 of 8)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

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“Smile.”

“Come on, smile.”

The problem with this is that your portrait subject can end up giving you some sort of really awkward expression that isn’t genuine and that clearly translates into that when you take their photo.

Meet Lauren: a fantastic woman I know here in NYC that wanted her portrait taken and that gave me the very same situation. So with this, I, as a photographer, faced the problem of not only making her deliver a genuine smile but also delivering an image that looked great in the end. So here’s how I did it and how you can, too:

– Pre-focus on an area of their face (in this case I chose her right eye that is camera left, closest to the light source and also closest to the camera.

– Politely ask for a slight sliver of a smile

– When the subject states that they hate their smile, try to figure out a way to make them genuinely elicit a feeling that will render a facial expression in the direction of what you’re going for.

– When Lauren gave me an awkward smile, I very seriously yet jokingly said, “A little less awkward and terrible please.” Because she knows me, it got a genuine giggle out of her. Because I had been pre-focused, I snapped the photo at that exact same time.

Yes, Lauren knows me, but even with other people that I’ve done this method with I’ve gotten it to work. The way that you get to this to work has to do with sitting down with the person first, getting comfortable with them, understanding where they’re coming from, having an actual conversation, and most importantly getting them comfortable with you.

So what’s the overall secret? Do something on the spot that makes them elicit a facial expression or body language that you want to capture. But first, have a personable conversation and relaxation time. Have a cup of coffee with the person first and chat a bit, it makes them realize that you’re a human and not just someone with a camera.