If you’re a portrait photographer, knowing how to make your models smile naturally is helpful. And when you are the person in front of the lens, you’ll see how difficult it is to make your smile look unforced. Whether you show your teeth or try to get that Mona Lisa smile, it’s hard not to look awkward unless you’re a professional model.
In this video, Mathieu Stern shares seven tips to help models smile naturally, and we’ll expand on them a bit. So, no matter if you’re doing a photoshoot, taking a self-portrait, or just snapping a selfie (yes, there’s a difference), these tips will help you get those genuine smiles.
1. Close your eyes
If you’re feeling nervous, take a few seconds to relax. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. You can also try some of the breathing exercises to help soothe you. Count your breaths, or just think of something pleasant. When you’re ready, open your eyes. You’ll feel calmer and smile more naturally.
And even with your eyes closed, that natural-looking smile can give some fantastic candid photos. I like the facial expression in this photo, so I close it as an illustration.
2. Don’t say “cheese”
Saying “cheese” is a thing of the past. I believe it should only be used to capture snapshots at kids’ birthday parties, if even then. I think it makes a weird grimace and makes the smile look awkward and unnatural.
But if you believe you should use a “keyword” to make your subject smile, Mathieu suggests a Hollywood trick: make them say “money” when posing for a shot. No, it isn’t the thought of money that makes the whole face light up. The trick is that this movement of the lips makes the smile look more natural. Although, well, sometimes the thought of money can also bring a smile to your face.
3. Relax your face and jaw muscles
When you’re nervous, it’s evident on your face more than you may know. Our jaw clenches and our eyebrows furrow. It’s essential to become aware of this and then try to make yourself more relaxed.
Besides deep breaths and closing your eyes, you can also focus on your face and jaw muscles. Take a few seconds to relax them consciously. As you’ll often hear dentists say, “Unlock your jaw.” Focus on relaxing your forehead, cheek muscles, your lips, jawline, and facial muscles. Stop pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This will release the tension, and the natural smile will come on its own.
4. Think about something that makes you happy
This is one of the oldest tricks to smile naturally. While posing for the shot, think about people or things that make you happy. Mathieu’s model thinks about ice cream and dogs; I’d totally go with that, too. Or this “toilet moon” trend that makes me literally laugh out loud every time I go back to the photos my friends and I took.
I have an example for you to illustrate this. In this self-portrait, I was smiling naturally because I had recently read a text that made me crack up. When I thought of it, I started smiling again. I was actually containing full-blown laughter, and I think it turned out great. Even my eyes look happy.
5. Get goofy
Another great technique to get relaxed is to get a little chaotic. If you’re the one in front of the lens, Mathieu suggests making “motorboat sounds” with your lips or shaking your head. You can also do your favorite silly dance, sing something… Whatever makes you feel happy. This way, you’ll relax and stop focusing on the camera.
Now, I’d add some tips for photographers here. There are people who don’t feel relaxed enough to do goofy things in front of others. This may especially be tricky when you take photos of someone you don’t know well. In cases like this, I suggest you become the goofy one. This will make your subjects laugh, make them relaxed, and you’ll get some wide smiles that won’t look fake – because they won’t be.
6. Imagine someone you like behind the lens
Like thinking about something that makes you happy, you can also imagine someone who does it. When posing, imagine someone you like taking a photo of you. It can be your parent, partner, your best friend, or even your favorite actor, musician, or cartoon character. In Mathieu’s model’s case, this imaginary “person” is Sponge Bob Squarepants. If you ask me, I’d definitely smile if I imagined my favorite cartoon character taking a photo of me.
7. Ask the photographer to tell a joke
If you need a “smile boost” (let’s call it that way), you can ask a photographer to tell a joke. Or, what I think could be even better – you can take a short break to tell a joke yourself. This will loosen you up and encourage the photographer to tell a joke, too. This will make both of you feel better and put a smile on both of your faces.
The same goes for photographers. If you notice your model is too nervous, take five. Tell them a joke first, or ask them to tell you their favorite one. A bit of comic relief will break the tension and you can go back to the shoot smiling genuinely and feeling more relaxed.
When I’m taking self-portraits, they’re usually moody, so there’s no need to make myself smile. But, sometimes, I need the smile for the shot. In such rare cases, I noticed that music can help. In my case, two songs never fail to make me laugh: The Laughing Policeman and Busy Bee. As a photographer, you can ask your model if they have a song like that and play it for them. And if you’re the one posing, play your happy song and let it make you smile.
Playing music (when possible) is excellent to set the general mood, and I’d definitely recommend it during a photoshoot.
Body and mind
Other than your face, your nervousness also shows in your posture and body language. Tense shoulders, crossed arms, or mildly hunched back – they can all show nervousness or self-consciousness. If you become aware of this while posing, take a few seconds to relax your body. Stretch and shake your arms and legs, straighten up, find your angle, and start again.
Before the shoot, practice smiling
If you need to pose, practicing in front of a mirror is a good idea before you stand in front of the camera lens. This will help you explore your face better and find your most beautiful smile. It will also help you prepare and alleviate anxiety on the shoot day.
I suggest that you get goofy. Remember what it was like to make funny faces when you were a kid and just let yourself be a kid again. You’re in your safe space; go nuts! You can try different types of smiles: the cringy wide one, the modest smile without showing teeth, or the pageant smile (add the little wave there)… Get creative and have fun.
Instead of a mirror, you can also practice different types of smile and take self-portraits at home before the photo session. Of course, we’re not talking about professional photography here. You can just snap them with your phone, check the photos later, and see which kind of smile you like best. Explore not only different smiles but also try all of the techniques I mentioned above.
When going through photos, try to remember what triggered your favorite smile. This way you can apply the same technique on the day of the shoot.
There are many ways to make your model smile as a photographer. If you take portraits, it’s your job to relax your models, make them trust you, guide them through the shoot, and make them smile. And if you are in front of the lens, it’s essential to be aware of your feelings but also of the things and techniques that can help you overcome anxiety or awkwardness. I hope that these tips will help both sides feel good and relaxed during the shoot – and smile not only for the shot, but because they enjoyed the entire process.
Are there any tricks you use to smile naturally in photos? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Smile with your eyes: engage all of your facial muscles, not just your mouth.
Show your teeth: a toothy smile is generally considered to be more attractive than a closed-mouth smile. However, you don’t want to overdo it, which leads us to the next point.
Practice your smile in the mirror: Find your best smile at home before standing in front of the lens.
Relax your face: Unclench your jaw and facial muscles to make your smile look more genuine.
Think happy thoughts: Think about something that makes you happy. This will give you a genuine and joyful smile.
A Duchenne Smile is what many people would recognize as a genuine smile. It turns the corners of the mouth upwards, causing wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, and truly lights up the entire face.
There are facial exercises that can make your smile become stronger. You can find some of them that strengthen the key facial muscles, consequently changing how a smile appears on your face.
[7 TIPS that Will Make You SMILE Naturally on every PHOTOS | Mathieu Stern]