Three tips for making your subjects smile

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Taking portraits can be a lot of fun but there’s one little snag that people can often run into. It’s hard to get your subject to smile in a way that looks natural. While a highly exaggerated smile can be hilarious, it might not be quite the natural look that you were going for.

Luckily I have three tips for making your subjects smile that I can share with you and they’ll give you much more natural results.

  1. Forget the “cheese”. It’s an epic cliche – people point a camera at someone and they tell them to “say cheese!” Yes, it does stretch the lips into a smiling position but “cheese” is appropriate since it can look a little, you know, cheesy. I learned a fantastic trick from a friend of mine who frequently gets fabulous smiles from her kids. Instead of getting your subject to holler out “cheese” get them to say “whiskey” instead. The softer end of the word creates a more authentic smile. Try it in the mirror, you might be surprised at how well it works! If your portrait subject happens to be a child or two, it can also be unintentionally hilarious to hear them saying “whiskey” but if that makes you uncomfortable you can also use similar words like “husky” or musky”.
  2. Photo credit: babasteve

  3. The tongue goes behind the upper teeth. This is one of those tips where you might initially think, “are you kidding?” but it works. I once read an article in a magazine that was offering up friendly tips on how to take a passport or driver’s license photo without looking like an idiot or a terrorist. Some people – myself included – prefer to smile for photos with their lips closed and this is when this tip works best. Get your subject to smile, then ask them to gently place the tip of their tongue up to the roof of their mouth, right against their upper teeth. Inexplicably, it relaxes the facial muscles and creates a natural smile instead of a tight-lipped grimace.
  4. Genuinely make them smile! The easiest way to make people smile is to put them at ease. If it’s someone you already know well, such as your family or close friends, then you’ll already know how to do this. Tell your kids silly knock-knock jokes or start chatting with your aunt about good memories the two of you have. It’s a bit tougher when it’s someone you’re just meeting for the first time, but if you spend a bit of time prior to starting by getting to know them it will make a big difference. Find out what their hobbies are, what they enjoy doing on the weekends, their favorite band, anything at all. Continue to talk about those things while you’re shooting. If you can make them feel that you care about them as a person it will help them relax and their smiles will be all natural.

I’ve used all three tips at various points and had great results. How do you make your subjects smile?

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  • Tiffany

    Huh! I never knew that tongue behind the teeth thing. Great tip, Sherry!

  • bb

    You can also do the finger trick they do with dogs to make them let go of their bite

  • aa

    I usually say: Now lets all say t e s t i c l e s Usually works out well.

  • Brett

    One fun trick with kids is to tell them to give their best frown. They're so surprised by this, and it's so silly, that they'll end up smiling instead. If they smile, tell them to stop it – you told them to frown… it makes the smile even bigger.

    As the trick wears on, they get used to frowning more and you can get some really fun shots; I've got one group shot of 5 little kids in a family all grimacing, the parents have it framed in their kitchen because it's such a funny shot.

  • sherryosborne

    That's a very cool tip Brett! I'm going to try that with my kids and see what I get!

  • sherryosborne

    I could see that working out very well at a party! :D

  • Lars Dahlin

    I've used the word Whisky for a long time.
    At first they wonder why I use that instead of cheese.
    My explanation is that when you say whisky you'll remember all the good tastes and get a authentic smile.

  • Stephen Elliot

    I use a reverse trick. I’ll tell them, “Give me a serious face. Think dead puppies.” It usually gets a laugh or two. You can get a great picture if you anticipate their reaction and capture it well. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it generally livens things up a bit.