The Science of Facial Expressions And How It Can Improve Your Photography

Upload from March 12, 2012

Ever since we were all just wee babies, we’ve been learning to recognize facial expressions. It’s a critical part of social living. You’d think that all that practice would mean that we’re now experts in the field. False.

What we know is skewed by both our personal experience and specific cultural norms. It may have not have been a full and accurate representation of universal aspects of expression. Bummer.

Since the majority of people have never taken the time to learn about this involuntary display of emotion, and how to recognize the small subtleties that respresent the difference between one expression and the other, we’re all pretty much newbies. Most people still manage to live happy, productive lives, despite this handicap. Photographers, on the other hand, are at a serious disadvantage if they don’t start to study facial expressions. It is arguably one of the most important things to understand if you do any sort of people photography.

What Are Facial Expressions?

So what exactly is a facial expression? Well, when a person experiences an emotion, it can trigger an involuntary reaction, which is expressed by changes in the facial muscles. These slight adjustments in proportion and relative position of the facial features are what make up an expression. The human face can make over 10,000 expressions, which is kind of overwhelming!

Luckily, there are just six fundamental, universal facial expressions. And by universal, I mean that they are recognized even in remote tribes who have never watched the mesmerizing antics of Jim Carrey’s face. These six big expressions are happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and disgust. Contempt often gets thrown in the universal category too, but can be difficult for some cultures to distinguish.

Upload from March 12, 2012

At this point you might be wondering about body language, and whether it has something to do with emotions as well. Why do facial expressions get all the fame? Well, emotions are actually shown primarily on the face, not the body. What body language can convey is how that emotion is being dealt with. Still important information, but the face is really where the critical action is happening.

When it comes to faces, there are three types of signals they can send. There are static signals, like skin colour, which are permanent aspects of the face. There are slow signals, like permanent wrinkles, that develop over time. Then there are rapid signals, and that’s where emotions happen. These are the quickest type of signal, and generally only last a few seconds! You really have to be paying attention to catch them, and that’s the reason why studying facial expressions is so important. You can train yourself to detect a genuine expression quickly, so you can take your shot in time to capture that fleeting moment of true joy. Or you can ignore facial expressions, and just get the forced, fake smiles that people can plaster on their faces for minutes at a time. Your call.

The Importance of Understanding Facial Expression as a Photographer

Facial expressions are incredibly important for a photographer to study, for a bunch of totally valid reasons.


First, and most obviously, is when you’re taking photos. You are carefully observing your subjects, camera up to your eye, and you have to decide when to press that shutter and capture the moment in front of you. Being able to determine when the subject is faking the smile, and when they are actually experiencing real happiness, will make all the difference in the quality of the expression you come away with!

When you understand the facts about facial expressions, and know that they generally only last for a few seconds, that can really change the way you approach a shoot. At first you may just ask your clients to smile, take a couple shots of a setup, and then move on, believing that you got a happy expression. But the fleeting nature of real emotions necessitates a different technique. You have to hunt for those expressions, be patient, and wait for them to emerge. Then you shoot, knowing that emotion could last just a couple seconds.

That sounds tough, but it’s actually not too challenging. You can put your subjects in a flattering position, and then engage them in some interaction designed to get them actually feeling happy (like talking with each other about the first time they met). Then you watch carefully and attentively. Once you anticipate a genuine emotion happening, shoot! And not just one frame. Expressions change so rapidly that just one frame often misses the best moment of the expression. Taking a few will give you a much greater chance of capturing that fantastic instant.

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This sequence of expressions took place over the course of 11 seconds.

When shooting more than one person, make sure you attend to all subjects, and try to anticipate the moment when they all have a great expression. The more subjects in the frame, the more challenging it is to capture an instant when everyone has a genuine expression, so you’ll need to shoot even more.

This technique is certainly more time and image intensive than a couple snaps of fake smiles. But it rewards you with photographs that show something real. That is very valuable indeed!


Now, if you’ve spent time sorting images of people, you probably already know just how quickly an expression can go from totally genuine, to dull and lifeless, and then back again. One frame to the next can look completely different! The face changes constantly, and when you’re sitting at the computer, trying to pick out the best image to present to your client, you have a serious challenge. Which expression is the one you should go with? It’s often the most difficult part of the editing process, and takes a lot of time and careful consideration. Expressions, after all, are subtle. The difference between a true smile, and a fake one, is more slight than you might have ever imagined (more on that soon!).

Understanding more about facial expressions can make that sorting process far easier. You can quickly pick out the expression that is stronger than the other, because one has a deeper engagement of the naso-labial folds!! No problem! (Yep, you’ll learn about that very soon too! Read on!). You’ll also be able to understand more about what each facial expression is communicating, and decide whether it’s right for the message you’re trying to convey in your image. Extremely important stuff here.

So far we’ve talked primarily about the importance of facial expressions for your images, and it’s obviously very critical. I mean, photographs don’t generally contain any auditory or written communication. Facial expressions are the main method of communicating the emotion of the subject to the viewer.

But the value of understanding facial expressions goes much further. It will help you when you are interacting with your subjects and clients at every stage of your process!

In Person

Whenever you meet with clients, paying attention
to their facial expressions can help you understand their emotions and reactions to your presentation. Are they feeling confused? Uncomfortable? Fearful? (Oh no!) You need to be able to recognize negative emotions, and adjust your approach appropriately. Carrying on blindly while someone is feeling unhappy is going to put them in a very unenjoyable position, and give them a bad experience with you from the get-go. Recognizing positive emotions can also help you to determine when they are truly connecting with what you’re saying, and if they’re a good fit to work with you!

Finally, understanding facial expressions can help you understand more about the messages you are communicating to your subjects. Your facial expressions will have a big impact on them, both in meetings, and especially during the shoot. If you are unwittingly suggesting that you are upset or worried, they will quickly become uncomfortable or lose confidence in you. Not good!

So you can see that understanding facial expressions can help both the creation of your images, as well as the client experience you provide. It’s all very connected, and very critical to making great photographs!

Since it’s all so very essential, let’s take a second to actually learn a bit about one of the most important facial expressions!


Today we’re going to take a look at the facial expressions that convey happiness. If you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, this is the emotion that you’ll be looking for most often. You are hired to show your clients in a joyful state. They don’t usually want to be remembered as angry or sad, so learning to recognize the features of happiness is a perfect place to start. Luckily it’s one of the simplest expressions to recognize!

Happiness is shown in the lower face and the eyes. The brow and forehead are not involved in the emotion, so if you see some action going on in that region, there’s a good chance that some other emotions are at play!

The main feature of happiness is the movement in the mouth. The corners of the lips are drawn back and slightly up. The lips can remain together in a smile.

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The mouth can be opened, with the teeth together, in a grin.

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Or the mouth can be opened, with the teeth parted, to create a wide grin.

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This is the most known feature of happiness, but the other aspects of the expression are what are important for photographers to learn to recognize. They can help you determine intensity of the emotion and whether it’s genuine or fake!

First you have what are called the naso-labial folds. These are wrinkle lines running from the nose, out and down to the area beyond the corners of the mouth.

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Now, while the position of the lips is the primary way to determine the intensity of the smile, these folds can also help. In fact, you can have the same intensity of smile, with or without teeth showing. The way to tell is by checking the depth of the naso-labial folds. So it’s not actually necessary to “show those pretty teeth” to have a big smile!

With happiness there is a lot of action going on around the eyes as well. Crow’s feet wrinkling is formed at the outer corner of the eyes. There may be a glistening in the eyes—a sparkle if you will. The cheeks become raised, the skin below the lower eyelid is pushed up, and lines are formed below the eye.

Now, as any photographer knows, smiles can be faked. All it takes is a request of “Say cheese!” and you’ll have a perfect example of the fake smile. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually convey any real emotion, making the image less meaningful to the subject. You haven’t captured a feeling that they want to remember, but rather a hollow representation of an emotion. Not quite as awesome.

But, luckily, there is a way to determine a real smile from a fake one. It was first discovered by the French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne, and has been since been named a “Duchenne smile”. It involves both the zygomatic major muscle (which is the one that raises the corners of the mouth), and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which circles the eye). Very few people can voluntary contract the orbicularis oculi muscle, so it is seen as the indication of the genuine smile. Specifically we’re talking about the outer part of the muscle that runs all around the eye socket, and pulls down the eyebrows and the skin below the eyebrows, while pulling up the skin below the eye and raising the cheeks.

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Indicators of a fake smile can be that it is slightly asymmetrical, that it lasts longer than you’d suspect a true smile would last, and that there are contradictory expressions along with the smile (particularly in the brow/forehead area).

Wrapping It UP

Well, I really hope this look at facial expressions has been helpful to you. They are such a fundamental part of portrait photography that their study and appreciation can truly strengthen your images. From here on out, start looking more closely at your subjects’ expression as you photograph them, and work to figure out what it is telling you. The more you can learn to differentiate those very subtle differences, the more you’ll understand about these people, and the better you can communicate that with the photos you take of them!

If you want to really dig deeper, check out Unmasking The Face, by Paul Ekman. He is pretty much the pioneer and leader in the field of facial expressions, and this book will take you through identifying the six major expressions, as well as fascinating topics like facial deceit. His other book, Emotions Revealed, is also very interesting, though less focused on facial expressions, and more on the experience of emotions.

If you’re more of a watcher than a reader, you can check out The Human Face, a BBC series on the face with John Cleese.


Next time you’re sorting images from a session, pay attention to series of photos where facial expressions are changing. Take some time to study the different aspects of the face, and how quickly and dramatically they can change. Pay extra attention to the eyes, to see what an incredible amount of information they can convey!

Lauren Lim

Hey friend, I’m Lauren! I’m a photography ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I’m downright obsessed with photography, and love sharing it with super cool folks like yourself. When I’m not shooting, or writing, you can find me cooking (and eating!), traveling, and hanging out with wonderful people.

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19 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Wow, that was an utterly fascinating post! I remember learning some of this in my undergrad but thinking about it now, as a photographer, it's a whole new ballgame! I will certainly pay much closer attention to facial expressions as, I agree, it is an integral part of portrait photography. As a mom, I definitely value the photos of my children in which they have 'real' expressions. Thank you for taking the time to research this and write about it!

  2. Thank you for taking the time and sharing. This is a really interesting topic :-)

  3. I'm surprised that there's that much science behind smiles and expressions (you managed to capture my surprise on camera)! So cool. The fake smile is easy to spot after the fact when sorting through photos (though these tips can help). It's during the shoot process that it can be a little tougher since it can happen so fast.
    Maybe these scientists could come up with catchier names though – "She's got beautiful skin folds" "Work that zygomatic, you zygomaniac!"

  4. DUDE! You guys are stupid smart! I love it!

  5. There is nothing worse than a fake smile!! Great information here.

  6. Courtney Jones says

    A truly fantastic and fascinating post :) love it! Thanks for sharing. I absolutely adore your site. It's full of the most helpful, practical, useful information :)

  7. Thanks so much for all the kind words everyone! I'm really glad you all found this interesting. It was so fascinating to study, and I can't wait to learn more about it. I've already found myself paying much more attention to facial expressions than I ever did before!!

    And oh Evan, you never fail to cause me to engage my orbicularis oculi muscles (bet no one has said that to you before!)

  8. Very funny and useful topic! You guys can always think of some new topics to cover…never get tired of reading your new posts!! Thanks :)

  9. Awesome! Now I need to check my bio shot. Can't wait to learn more.

  10. Something new to think about! Thanks:)

  11. Very helpful and interesting post, reading it made me smile so often :) I always enjoy reading your posts! Thanks for sharing

  12. Rayleigh Leavitt says

    I've never seen a blog post on this topic for photographers. What a great field to study!

  13. Amazing post! Thank you for all the information here. I just found this website and have loved learning from it. I really enjoyed this post and the science behind it.

  14. Oriana Koren (OKRFOTO) says

    And this is why I love Photography Concentrate! Delving into the psychology of people to make great photographs. YOU GUYS ROCK!!!

  15. Lauren, your posts are awesome, thank you!

  16. Lost Angel says

    Thanks Lauren. Your post are truly amazing. I loved it.
    Reading people’s expression is truly an art in which you guys excel at by clicking these photographs, I wanna learn that. I love smiling but i love to click smiling faces even more .Now I know to differentiate between a fake one and a real one.

    Thanks a lot. :) (true smile)

  17. I’m sorry to be the negative one as this post was well researched and well written. But it is important to point out the glaring errors that I see. The example you give of a Duchenne smile is a completely fake expression, his eyes are cold and lifeless. The experts still disagree on most of science of expression as it’s so difficult to study. I have spent twenty years studying real expression and I’m still only scraping the surface. The act of posing your subject will guarantee a fake expression as your subject will be self aware for the whole time they are in that fake position. All of your images have a mix of real emotion and faked muscles, so they are not a true expression. Only a completely spontaneous expression is a true unique expression to that person. A unique expression is the only way to trigger an emotion reaction In a person who knows them well, that reaction is the single most powerful memory trigger of all. My point is that this article was written as a factual article when it is just your opinion based on your experiences, and confirmation bias has done the rest. The science of expression is only at its infancy, there is so much we don ‘t know. Hope I haven’t caused offence, that was so not my intention, just furthering the debate.

  18. Really Interesting!

  19. The site is amazing, congratulations. The images in this text are “broken” :(
    And this is being translated by google, sorry for anything weird :)

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