Capturing a natural smile in your photographs can be difficult. All too often people grimace or give a forced smile when asked to smile for the camera. This is a natural reaction when asked to imitate what is normally a spontaneous emotional reaction. Each person's natural smile is slightly different but most have a few common features.
Relaxed Face - Most natural smiles are accompanied by a relaxed face everywhere but the mouth and the very corner of the eyes.
A face that has furrowed eyebrows or drawn in cheeks triggers instinctual programming that tells us this is not a happy smile.
Slight Eye Involvement - A natural smile almost always involves a very slight narrowing of the eyes and tiny crinkles at the outside corners of the eyes. This is due to the smile pushing the cheeks up and not due to tension in the eyes. Some people will naturally widen their eyes just a bit to compensate for the reduced visual range from the pushed up cheeks.
Head Movement - Many people will instinctively tilt their heads slightly (either front to back or to the side) when producing a genuine smile. While a slight head tilt can enhance the look of a smile in a photo, be aware of your timing so that you do not wind up with a blurred face due to motion just as you trip the shutter.
Now that you know what to look for in a smile, let's find out how to capture that smile.
Capturing A Natural Smile - The Forced Smile Dilemma
As you can see in this example photo, the smile is forced. As we discussed in step one, this smile has furrowed brows, too narrow eyes, and tension in the face. This type of smile, to some degree, is what you generally get when you first ask a subject to smile. This is rarely deliberate. Because a smile is an emotional event it can be difficult for your subject to imitate that emotion on cue. This is especially true of children.
As people age they generally become more aware of their face and are better able to approximate expressions without the backing emotion.
The dilemma is that if you ask them to smile you get this forced caricature of a smile but if you don't' ask them to smile you get a depressed looking photograph. To get past this you need to put your subject at ease. A nervous subject will rarely produce a genuine smile. How you get your subject to relax will vary from person to person but in general you should be aware of what is making the subject nervous. Are they constantly straightening a sleeve that they think isn't sitting right? Are they rubbing their tongue across their teeth as though they are worried about how white their teeth are? Are they worried at glare on their glasses? By paying attention to your subject's mannerisms as they enter the studio you can get vital clues as to what is making them nervous so you can help calm their nerves.
When photographing people, the natural instinct when faced with a forced smile is all too often to tell the subject, "no, smile right." This just confuses your subject. For adults it will annoy them greatly in most cases and with children they will be completely confused. This is because people do not realize they are giving a forced smile. The result when told to "smile right" or some version of that instruction, is to next give a confused mix of facial features.
Brows are furrowed as the subject concentrates on trying to be natural, the lips do not spread widely, and the overall look is one of confusion or concern.
As photographers we need to be very careful in our instructions to our subjects. Just as we often have to pose them in ways that seem unnatural to get a good portrait, we often have to trick them into smiling naturally in an unnatural situation. Instead of telling them they are doing something wrong, offer praise and say something funny before the next shot. As we discussed in step 2, relaxing the subject is very important.
Now that we understand the smile and the reasons for "bad" smiles in portraits, we can capture that "perfect" smile. Its time to put everything we've learned together.
1. Put Your Subject At Ease - A nervous subject will never give you the smile you need to capture. Pay attention to their mannerisms and find the best way to put each individual at ease.
2. Don't Confuse The Subject - Even the most cooperative subject will not produce a wonderful smile if they are confused.
Try to avoid telling them they are smiling "wrong" and instead work to make the subject happy. If you must tell them specifics try to ask them in a positive manner. For example, "Can you widen your eyes just a touch?" instead of "Don't squint like that."
3. Trick Them If You Need To - Sometimes the only way to get a beautiful natural smile is to trick the subject. Either snap the photo as they relax their face from a forced smile or get them to laugh. With children its easy to get them to laugh with silly props or by having them say crazy things instead of "smile." With adults a self-depreciating joke often works. Sometimes though, the best way to get a true smile from a subject is to smile yourself. Like yawns, smiles can be contagious.