You could just ask them to smile. “Say cheese!” Photographers seem to do it all the time.
And (assuming they aren’t toddlers or teenagers) your subjects will probably comply.
But there’s a big difference between the fake smile they’ll plaster on their face for you, and a real, genuine, spontaneous smile – one that came about because they actually were happy, not because they were told to pretend.
I have a feeling that you’re the type of photographer who wants to go for that real smile. You’re awesome like that.
Now getting people to that place where they’re naturally smiling is an art, and one that takes a lot of energy, practice, and persistence.
After photographing hundreds (if not billions) of people, and making a general fool of myself, I’ve compiled 51 ways that I’ve personally used to successfully achieve the genuine smile.
And today I give them to you, in hopes of more happy photos in world! Hooray!
Wait! There’s A Caveat
Now before you jump into those 51 exciting ideas, hold up. Yes, there’s a really big caveat to all this. It’s so big and important I’m going to put it on it’s own line in bold.
It’s not what you say or do that will get someone to smile.
It’s how you say it, and how you do it.
Delivered the wrong way, all of these ideas could fall completely flat. Ouch.
But with the right approach, you can make people smile by saying, well, just about anything! (And I highly encourage you to try.)
The key? You have to make it a performance. And you have to put your whole heart into it.
It’s not what you say or do that will get someone to smile. It’s how you say it, and how you do it.
So before we begin, here are three big tips for using these powerful techniques:
Do it yourself
A photo shoot should be an exchange between photographer and subject. If you stand there and demand your clients to perform trick after trick for you, without giving anything back, it’s going to get awkward. Fast.
They’re not ponies, after all.
The more you do these things yourself, the more smiles you’ll get, the more you’ll help break down the barriers, and the more trusting your subjects will be when you ask them to do something.
Say it big
Telling someone to walk towards you isn’t likely to get a smile. But telling them to walk towards you “like it’s the most fun they’ve ever had in their entire life” is funny.
Slowly, sedately telling them all to look at each other probably won’t get you much more than confused expressions. But turning it into a game, and quickly yelling “Look at each other! Look at Dad! Look at Mom!” makes it fun.
Telling someone to squeeze their partner might get a little squish. Encourage it. “Tighter! Tighter!”
When you get people to go further than they normally would with an action, it makes it funny. Especially if you say everything with a ton of upbeat energy and enthusiasm.
When you get people to go further than they normally would with an action, it makes it funny.
This isn’t easy, and takes a lot of effort. When we first started shooting I’d be completely exhausted after a short session from all the work it took. It’s truly a performance. And I’m a very shy person, so it was extra hard for me to put myself out there like this. So if I can do it, you can too.
And I promise you, with time, and practice, it gets easier, you remember more techniques, you perfect your delivery and before long you can have even huge groups of people laughing and smiling with ease.
Wait it Out
As you read this list, you’ll probably get a bit confused. Many of these techniques will result in some rather strange images. Silly faces. Goofy poses. That kind of deal. They’re funny photos, but not always flattering.
You gotta wait it out.
A lot of these activities are designed to get people doing something (usually something silly). The great smiles aren’t necessarily going to come out during the activity. They show up afterwards, when everyone is giggling over the crazy antics they just got up to.
The key to turning these techniques into great photos is patience.
Don’t bring your camera down after they finish with their silly dance. Wait. Give them some time to relax and laugh after they’re done.
That’s when those smiles will appear. Snap snap snap!
Now you’re ready to turn these ideas into amazing smiles, so let’s go to the techniques!
These are the techniques to use in every session.
They are tested, proven ways to get anyone relaxed and smiling, quickly and easily. And they’re easy enough to do every time, with every group. So memorize these guys!
1. Tell them they look awesome:
It should be one of the first things you say while shooting, and something you repeatedly say. It gives people more confidence during what can be a very nerve-wracking experience, and confident people are much more likely to smile.
2. Smile yourself:
By the end of a wedding day our cheeks would hurt from smiling the whole entire time. Not exaggerating. If you’re smiling, the people around you are more likely to smile! Get on it!
Proof! It’s cold and I’m lying on the ground with a stone stair in my back, but I’m STILL SMILING!
3. Ask them a happy question:
“How did you two meet?” “What is your favourite food in the whole entire world?” A question designed to get them thinking about positive memories will put a lovely little smile on that face.
4. Fake laugh:
The golden ticket. “Everyone give me your biggest, most ridiculous fake laugh on the count of three: 1, 2, 3, Go!” How you deliver the directions is important, so make it big and fun and snappy. Remember: You’re not looking to get a good shot from the fake laugh. It’s the real laughs and smiles that come after everyone hears those hilarious fake laughs. Patience, grasshopper!
(Further Reading: 4 Tips for Photographing People Laughing)
This one is so easy. And SO effective. Once you have people in a pose, get them to “Squeeeeeeeeze.” Tiny smiles. “Tighter! Tighter!” Big, laughing smiles.
6. Look serious (No smiling allowed):
It’s all about the delivery here. Explain to them (very seriously) to look at you, and that they absolutely are not allowed to smile and if they do we will have to start all over again. So now I need you to dig deep and pull it together here and give me your very very best super serious face like you’ve never smiled in your whole entire life. Hey! Stop smiling!
7. Everyone look at each other:
This one is great for groups (it doesn’t work so well with just two people). It has to be done as a quick command and it helps if you add “Go!” to the end so that they try to do it fast. As in “Now everyone look at each other, go!”
The reason it works is because it’s kind of vague. They aren’t really sure just who they’re supposed to look at it. And they’re trying to decide quickly so everyone ends up looking very intently at everyone else and their expressions make each other laugh.
Trust me. It works really well.
8. Everyone look at (blank):
Then follow it up by making everyone look at Dad, Mom, baby, sister, brother, etc. (This is where it’s completely essential to know everyone’s names!)
All of a sudden they’re all in on the game, and it’s hilarious to both see what they do when they look, and what the person in the centre of the attention does. This entire game makes for some really fantastic photos of everyone looking happily at each other. Magic.
9. Everyone look at me:
By this point everyone is relaxed and laughing. So turn their attention right to the camera. You’ll get everyone looking at the camera at the same time (even the little kids who are now really into the game), and looking happy. You’re such a pro!
You can make it extra funny by saying “Aw, don’t look so sad about it!” or doing something silly, to ramp up the level of fun.
10. Kiss on the cheek:
This one is simple, sweet, and makes for soft little smiles. Use it often.
11. Kiss on the nose:
You can be straightforward with this, and it will be cute. Or you can make it silly. “Now I want you to give her a kiss on the nose, but I want you to go very, very, very slow and make it the softest kiss in the history of the world.” Remember, making it a bit ridiculous makes it funny as they try to follow your impossible instructions.
12. Angry face! Sad face! Silly face! Happy face!
I love this one for all ages. It helps people to start to loosen up, and realize they can act in ways outside of the norm. It also helps if you give them very specific instructions so they don’t have to think too hard.
So start with the clear ones (sad face, angry face, scared face), add in crazy face (now they’re into it, and more likely to be silly). Then finish up with happy face and you’ve got a great smile.
13. Now smile (No bigger, no bigger, no bigger! Too big!)
If you’re going to ask them to smile, make it a big, silly request and you’ll find those genuine results. Keep demanding a bigger smile until it’s impossible and they’re laughing at the effort.
14. Squish cheeks (Tighter, tighter!):
One of the keys of posing is to get heads close. It’s easy to compose for, and makes people look like a tight unit.
But, especially with kids, it’s not always easy to get them to comply. And some people just don’t get close enough. SO telling them to squish their cheeks together gets them close enough. Nice! But don’t stop there…
Tell them to keep squishing tighter. And tighter. And tighter!! Smiles are sure to follow. Make sure to wait for the moment right after they release the tight squish. Great smiles dwell there.
15. But look like you’re actually happy:
I use this one when I ask people to look at the camera. It’s not super engaging but it works well for shots where you don’t have a lot of time to get people doing different things (like super fast family portraits during a wedding).
Ask them to look at you, and then when they do say, loudly and mock-exasperated “But look like you’re actually happy about it!”. They’ll laugh, because you’ve just called them out on their fake smiles. Everyone knew they were fake, and the last thing they expected was the photographer to hassle them about it.
Your tone needs to be clearly joking here so they know you’re being silly. Otherwise you might just seem mean!
16. Bum wiggle:
This is another of my golden tickets to smile-land.
“Now I’d like you all to just wiggle your bums for me please. Gently. Now more!”.
I think the key to this one is simply that you say bum. It’s a hilarious word, no matter how old you are. Fact.
Is it ok to talk philosophy right after saying the word bum? Sure!
Now, I have a philosophy about photographing people. I believe, after photographing and observing many people, that deep down, we all enjoy returning to our childhood selves – the silliness, the lack of self-consciousness, and the pure pursuit of fun.
Deep down, we all enjoy returning to our childhood selves…
Adulthood can build up barriers to letting go and doing just that. A photography session is a great chance to give people permission and space be a kid again, if only for a couple hours.
And so all of these silly techniques are things I use for both kids and adults. Yes, I’ve asked grown men to wiggle their bums, and grandparents to stick out their tongues. And they did it. And they laughed and smiled.
Remember, it’s not what you say. It’s how you say it, the energy you bring, and the trust you create by doing a lot of things yourself.
Now let’s get silly.
17. Stick their tongues out:
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. They’re shelling out big bucks for a professional photographer, and the kids ruin the shots by sticking their tongues out.
Or maybe not! I love to turn this on it’s head, and encourage everyone to do it. They can stick them at you, and then stick them at each other. Somewhere in there you’ll get a smile, guaranteed. Plus the kids think you’re awesome.
18. Stick your own tongue out:
But don’t let them have all the fun. Demonstrate, or just stick out your tongue in the middle of conversation. That’ll show them!
19. Tell them a joke:
Memorize a few simple, guaranteed laugh-getters. My favourite is a knock-knock joke that tricks them into saying “poo”. I never said it had to be sophisticated. ;)
20. Have one of them tell a joke:
If one person seems to be the jokester, let them take a turn. Small children usually have a good joke on hand as well.
21. Have them make each other smile:
Feeling lazy? Then make them do the work!
Kidding, of course. This game is really great fun. Position one person in front of your camera, and the rest just behind your shoulder. Then have those behind you make the subject laugh. The hardest part is keeping your eyes forward, because things tend to get really really silly behind you.
22. Make a funny sound:
Making an unexpected silly sound is a great way to get surprised attention, and then laughs and smiles. Not just for when you’re shooting kids, by the way.
23. Have them make animal sounds:
Children love to make animal sounds. Encouraging the whole family to do so is sure to be fun, and have everyone laughing at Dad’s elephant impression.
24. Make animal sounds yourself:
It’s even better if you go first. Make sure you practice your monkey!
25. Fart noises:
26. Simon Says:
Pure gold, especially with little kids. It’s a fun game, and a great way to get them to sit or stand where you need them to!
27. Stare at each other (no laughing allowed):
This one is so simple and so effective. No explanation needed.
28. Bunny ears:
I’m too old to understand the humor of this anymore, but kids seem to love it. They can do bunny ears to Mom and Dad, or, if you shoot with another photographer, have them give you bunny ears while you’re getting everyone to look at you. It cracks the kids up (for some unknown reason).
29. Raspberry on the cheek:
I love this one. Blowing a raspberry on the cheek. So silly. So unexpected. Especially when you ask grown ups to do it.
30. Wait for a really, really, really (really) long time before shooting:
This certainly requires some performance but it’s so funny I can’t stop giggling right now at the thought of it.
You can pitch in a very very serious way. “Now hold very very still because I’m going to take a very important photo of you right now.” Then wait, wait, wait, wait until they can’t help but start to smile.
31. Touch noses together (ever so gently):
This one has a lot of potential. You can encourage them to touch noses (ever so very very gently). Cute shot. But then you can make it silly. “Now, please touch your nose to her cheek. Ear. Shoulder.” Super fun for little kids.
32. Whisper a silly secret:
This puts people on the spot, and often they end up with a giggly whispered “I don’t know what to say!” Laughter ensues.
33. Be the other’s arms:
Now we’re getting really silly, and I have laughed so hard I’ve cried during this one. One person stands behind the other and is their arms. Give them some time (they’re often tentative at first) but before long things get really goofy and the person in front is laughing like crazy.
34. Bum pinch:
“Now I’d like someone to pinch a bum”. Keep it vague. You’ll probably be surprised who is first to pinch!
One of the fastest ways to get people comfortable in a session is to get them moving. When you’re focused on not tripping as you skip down the path, you’re less focused on the stranger with the camera documenting your every move. These techniques work especially well at the start of a session, when folks are a bit more nervous, and for people who are having trouble relaxing in front of your lens.
35. Walking (Like it’s the most fun you’ve ever had):
Walking is an easy way to get people to loosen up, and can make for some great shots. But just asking someone to walk doesn’t usually get them excited.
Be ridiculous. Tell them to walk “Like it’s the most fun you’ve ever had in your entire life”. Just the direction alone makes people laugh. Then watching them try to comply is fantastic.
36. Running (Like it’s the most fun you’ve ever had):
Same as above, but now stepping it up a notch. Running is harder to shoot, but it is a lot more fun, so give it a go. (Bonus points if it’s down a hill)
Now that they’re moving, add in something silly. Skipping. Usually they’ll do a few together, and then break down laughing. Some people give it their all and skip the whole way, and look like they’ve honestly just had the most fun ever.
38. You jump:
Have you discovered yet that getting people to smile is all about being ridiculous yourself? Good. Then you’re ready to jump for them! Don’t worry about whether your vertical is any good. Seeing a photographer jump is hilarious enough.
39. They jump:
Then it’s their turn. Get them to jump together. Count it down for them. Now, you can take the shot of the jump, and that can be fun. But really what you’re going for here, like with most of these directions, is the laughter and smiles after the jump. Stay sharp and keep shooting after they land!
40. Spin each other in circles:
Hold hands and spin in circles. So simple, and it makes for great shots. They’re looking at each other, working together, and doing something silly. The act itself makes for a cute shot, and then after, of course, they fall against each other and laugh.
41. Tickle fight:
This one is almost like cheating, but it works so well I don’t care (also I’m not ticklish so I don’t feel bad about it at all). Tickle fights usually devolve into a scrum on the floor, so know that your perfect posing will usually unravel. But that’s ok. The laughs will be worth it.
42. Silly dance:
This is another one that really benefits from you giving a demo. “Ok, silly dance break! Go!” Feel free to provide some music (bonus points if you’re very good at beatboxing). If they seem stumped, give suggestions (Do the robot! Disco! Waltz! Breakdancing!)
Can’t say I’ve tried this with adults, though if you do let me know how it goes! Peek-a-boo works great for coaxing shy kids out of their shell and getting those coveted smiles. Make sure you’ve practiced your focusing technique because you gotta be quick here!
44. Arm wave:
Stand in a line holding hands and do the wave! Again this is getting people to act as a team, doing something silly. It always leads to smiles and everyone having fun together (that’s what a family photo session should be all about!).
45. Model pose/Blue steel:
“Ok, now I want to see your very best model pose on the count of three. 1, 2, 3, go!” These ones benefit from giving them a bit of a countdown so they are forced to decide quickly and then just do it.
Just asking them “Ok, now give me a model pose” will make many people shy and uncertain. The countdown is so useful in forcing them to just do it, and stop worrying about it.
“Blue steel” from Zoolander is fun too, though you’ll look silly if they haven’t seen the movie (as I did the other day. Ah well!)
46. Photo Booth (1, 2, 3, Go!):
This is like the one before, though it requires a bit of explanation. “Ok, now we’re going to play photo booth. Pretend you’re in a photo booth, and I’ll count out the shots for you. Ready? 1, 2, 3, go! 1, 2, 3, go!”
For the first few they’ll be a bit hesitant, and unsure. Keep going. They’ll get into it, and before long they’ll start to really get creative and silly. Smiles for days.
47. Throwing the kids in the air:
Those little daredevils love to fly. The shot in the air is great, but the smiles when they’re safely caught by Dad are even better.
48. Superhero pose:
Remember to count it down, and then see their best super poses! This is especially popular with little boys. (Triple bonus points if they’re all wearing superhero costumes!!!)
49. Piggy back rides:
When you ask kids to go for a piggy back ride they get a big grin and then launch themselves on their parents.
When you ask adults to do it they look at you like “Are you serious?”
Oh, adults. I’m always serious!
So he’ll pick her up, and they’ll laugh. Get them to squeeze their heads in close, and you’ll get great shots. Then, once she get’s down say “Ok, now it’s his turn!”. They’ll laugh, and then, very often, they’ll actually switch it up and laugh themselves silly.
50. Pick each other up:
Same deal. He picks her up, gives her a little smooch, it’s all so cute and romantic. Then tell them to switch and it’s hilarious.
51. Hang upside down:
Kids love to hang upside down and you’ll get instant smiles. Let me know if adults are the same way, ok?
The Smiling Conclusion
Well, there you have it. All of my ideas, now yours.
I know you’re itching to go out there and try them ALL out on your next clients! Well hold your horses there, Sparky. You certainly wouldn’t do all of these in one session. It would take ages, and I think your subjects would be wind up in an exhausted heap on the floor (not so pretty).
So pick some that seem fun to you, and try them out on your next shoot. Make a point to try something new each session, see what works well for you, and what didn’t pan out. Don’t give up on if it isn’t a winner one time. You might need to work on your delivery, or it might just need the right subjects!
And finally, make sure to always be conscious of how your subjects are reacting to different suggestions. Some people love to get silly, while others will oblige but are still a bit uncomfortable. You don’t need to force it. Try to get them moving instead. Or just chat. A great portrait photographer gets to know their subject, and discovers how best to get them to open up. Start easy, and gradually ramp up the silly. You’ll find the sweet spot for each session, and your clients will love you for it.
Now get out there and get some smiles!
As big as this list is, I can guarantee there are countless more ways to get a great smile from your subjects.
So now it’s your turn. How else do you get smiles for your photos? Share your ideas in the comments now, and together let’s make this the biggest list of all time!