We’ve all heard the classic advice before snapping a photo: “Say cheese!” But while this age-old tip might bring on a quick grin, it often leads to a smile that feels forced or looks unnatural.  Now, if that’s the look you are going for in your photograph, then by all means, keep using it. But, if you are trying to coax a natural looking smile out of your client, read the following guide on how to smile for photos. Whether you’re posing for a professional headshot or capturing memories with friends, these tips will help you ditch the “cheese” for something far more photogenic.

Watch The How to Smile for Photos Video

The following video is a few years old and ironically, a little “cheesy,” but I found the tips to be helpful. One of my goals as a wedding and portrait photographer is to get genuine facial expressions in photos, but of course, there are times when you have to pose your subjects and point that camera right in their face, which makes things a bit awkward for most people.

Tips for Smiling Naturally

The next time you find yourself struggling to get your subject to give you a natural smile, try a few of these tips. These strategies are not just for those behind the camera; they’re equally valuable if you’re preparing for your own or your family’s photoshoot. Here are simple yet effective ways to capture genuine smiles, ensuring your next photography session is filled with authentic joy and laughter.

Use Words that end with “Uh”

Don’t tell your client to say ‘Cheese.’ When we say “cheese,” our mouth forms an unnatural expression that doesn’t fully engage the eyes, resulting in a smile that can seem insincere. This distinction is why exploring more natural approaches to smiling is essential for capturing true moments of happiness.

Instead have them say words that end in the ‘uh’ sound. Words such as ‘yoga’ or ‘mocha’ will stretch the mouth into a more natural looking smile shape.

Laugh As The Photo Is Taken

Genuine smiles, often referred to as Duchenne smiles, engage the muscles around the eyes and mouth, lighting up the face in a way that’s difficult to fake. On the other hand, forced smiles, usually the result when people say “cheese,” involve fewer facial muscles and can make photos look stiff and awkward.

Normal smile on the left and a laughing smile on the right

Try having your client laugh while the photo is being taken. There have been times that I’ve run out of jokes or funny things to say and I ask them to fake laugh.  After the “fake” laugh,  many times, the subject will feel silly and actually laugh.

Lift the Tip of the Tongue Behind the Teeth

makeup photography headshots bridal prep

Ask your client to lift the tip of the tongue up behind their front teeth. It will lift the face into a natural smiling position. I also ask them to try to smile with their eyes as well, which adds a more genuine and warm look to the portrait.

Be Silly and Create a Relaxed Environment

Sometimes, the best way to elicit a natural smile is through laughter. Photographers might use humorous or unexpected words to catch subjects off guard, resulting in a genuinely joyful expression.  If you’re not naturally funny, try memorizing a few go-to posing cues that work for you and your personality.  Even if your jokes fall flat and don’t work, it’s worth a try!

Think Happy Thoughts

A genuine smile often comes from a genuine moment of joy. Before the camera clicks, think of a funny or happy memory. This mental shift can produce a real smile that naturally radiates from your face.

Practice Makes Perfect

When learning how to smile for photos, sometimes it’s as simple as practicing. If you have a photoshoot coming up, spend some time in front of a mirror, exploring what your natural smile feels like and looks like. This practice can help you become more comfortable and confident in front of the camera.

Relax The Face and Breathe

Tension, especially around the eyes and mouth, can lead to a forced smile. Before taking a photo, take a deep breath and relax your facial muscles. A relaxed face naturally leads to a more genuine smile.

From the photographer’s perspective, try to have the client relax their face and then smile. A trick I sometimes use is to have them close their eyes, then on the count of three, open them and smile like they just saw an old friend.

Smiling With Your Eyes

Coined by Tyra Banks, “smizing” — smiling with your eyes — adds warmth and sincerity to your expression. Even a slight smile becomes radiant when the eyes are involved.  Practice in front of a mirror to find the subtle difference between a neutral look and a genuine “eye smile.” Think about something that makes you genuinely happy to engage your eyes naturally.

Incorporate Body Language and Posture

reversed pose for regular couples engagement portraits

A natural smile isn’t just about the face; your body language and posture also play a significant role. A relaxed stance, with shoulders down and a slight tilt of the head, can make your smile appear more genuine. Experiment with different poses to find what feels most natural and flattering. Sometimes, a slight change in posture can transform the energy of a photo.

Conclusion

Exploring ways to smile naturally in photos can transform how you appear in front of the camera. By practicing these techniques and finding what works best for you, you’ll be able to capture moments of authentic happiness. Remember, the most beautiful photos are those that reflect genuine emotion. So, the next time you’re in front of the camera, forget saying “cheese” and let your real smile shine through.  For more of these tips, see our Headshot Photography 101 workshop in Premium.