Just about anyone can identify when a loved one is faking a smile — or faking any emotion for that matter. But did you know that 60 percent of the time the general population can distinguish between a fake and a real smile? And I would guess that this number is much higher for photographers. We can feel it when we’re not photographing real emotions, and worse, it shows in our photos. But when we’re able to capture genuine emotion, joy, real laughter — that’s what makes photo magic.

If you sometimes struggle with getting genuine smiles and expressions from your clients, read on to learn the science behind smiles and the method I use to elicit genuine emotions at every photo session.

How to get natural smiles in photos - A baby laughs.

The science of smiles: Why you can tell when they’re faking it.

In the age of digital photography, which allows just about anyone to have a camera at their fingertips at all times, prompting kids and adults to smile on-demand is the new normal. But not all smiles are created equal. Genuine smiles actually use different facial muscles than those on-demand fake smiles! Yep. That’s why they look different!

Let me explain. Your face uses two major muscles that work together to create a smile. The zygomatic major muscle turns up the corners of the lips, and the orbicularis oculi muscle contracts around the eyes to create those small wrinkles. A fake smile only uses the zygomatic major muscle (turning up the lips but not reaching the eyes). This fake smile typically results in people looking emotionless or zoned out in the eyes. A genuine smile, on the other hand, uses both muscle groups, resulting in an expression that looks much more emotive. This is because the orbicularis oculi muscle (near the eyes) is activated by the limbic system, or the emotional center of the brain.

It’s science: Real smiles look different than fake smiles. This makes it extra important to capture genuine emotions in our photos!

A family laughs on the sofa with their two dogs and newborn baby - How to get natural smiles in photos.

Here are 3 easy ways to get natural smiles in photos from every single client

As a photographer I cringe every time someone whips out a camera and says, “SMILE!” because I know that as soon as those words leave their mouth another mouth forms a totally fake smile with no real emotion. So in an effort to save the world from more “say cheese” smiles, I’m going to share my tips for getting people to smile — for real — in pictures.

1. Be a mirror and reflect natural emotions.

Humans have mirror neurons, which are described by BrainFacts.org as a “special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement.” Basically, when you see someone make an expression, you are more likely to make a similar expression. A simple example of this is when you smile at a baby and they smile back. The baby’s mirror neurons are at work.

When I photograph my expecting couples and families I’m constantly demonstrating emotions by using my body language and facial expressions. The easiest way to get a client to emote more is to tune into their natural disposition and expound on it. For example, if a client seems cheery you can laugh with them, if a client seems subdued you can show tenderness.

If you want to get natural smiles in photos, demonstrate natural smiles while you’re photographing.

How to get clients to smile for photos

2. Create ways for your clients to engage with each other, or with you. 

Engagement is key for eliciting genuine emotions and natural smiles in photos. If someone taps you on your shoulder, do you look back at them or do you ignore it? Chances are, you look. It’s hard to stay focused on another person for more than a few minutes with all the distractions around us. So, as the photographer, you need to provide prompts to encourage your clients to engage with each other. I do this by giving my clients a set of actions to do, such as kissing up a partner’s neck, playing in the water or simply looking at their partner.

These prompts are a way to jumpstart the engagement process be it playing a game, laughing together or creating the opportunity to have a a tender moment.

A family smiles naturally for photos on their bed.
How to get clients to smile for photos
How to get clients to smile for photos

3. Create an emotionally safe place for clients to express themselves.

People are very sensitive to a range of emotions and can easily pick up on others’ emotional states. Instead of demanding your client to smile, create an environment that encourages them to feel their own emotions. For example, parents can elicit expressions from their kids by playing, singing or loving on their child.

During a photo session, I create a safe emotional space by taking charge and keeping everyone involved. I do my best to encourage my clients to let go of perfectionism (such as nagging or being stressed about their children) and instead to simply allow themselves and their children to be themselves.

By creating an emotionally safe place, your clients will feel more secure in expressing themselves in front of the camera.

How to get clients to smile for photos
How to get clients to smile for photos
A baby smiles joyfully - How to get natural smiles in photos.

Allowing your clients to express genuine emotions when the camera is out will be so much more sentimental and rewarding than snapping a photo of them with an emotionless fake smile. Humans are complex and our emotions are not one-note. We’re pensive, shy, joyful, curious, timid, needy, adventurous, tender, nervous, upset – the list goes on. Capturing true personality is so much more meaningful, especially as time goes by.

Now, SMILE! But only if you mean it.

Do you have any questions about how to get your clients to emote and be authentic during a photo session? Drop me a question or leave a comment with your thoughts.

All photos by Tarah Beaven

Funny you should ask…

Yes! We do have even more info on how you can get natural emotions, humor and joy in your photos. Here are a few of our recent favorite posts that we think you’ll love:

8 Seriously creative ways to infuse your everyday images with humor

How to capture joyful photos of parents and kids together

Photographing spirit: How Me Ra Koh captures inner beauty

Let them be kids: 5 Tips for authentic portraits of children

5 No-fail games for a fun & natural family photo session