childsmiles Children smile on average 400 times a day. I just learned this while watching a great short TED talk by Ron Gutman called The hidden power of smiling (and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the eight minutes it takes to watch when you have time)

I was researching the subject of smiling for this blog post, trying to find tips I can share with my corporate portrait clients, many of whom seem to have difficulty smiling easily for the camera. As a corporate portrait photographer, I encounter this challenge often. Almost everyone can produce a kind of smile on demand – the public kind of smile they brandish when giving presentations or meeting strangers, but rare is the individual who can smile with genuine ease, grinning widely and happily for the camera.


One of my other projects is an experiment in happiness, and I think the dis-ease most working people have with smiling today is symptomatic of a larger and deeper malaise. How did so many of us forget how to smile? You don’t need to see Ron Gutman’s TED talk to know that nearly all children everywhere can smile at the drop of a hat. It’s one of the reasons children are so much fun to be around. They smile a lot. And maybe even in spite of ourselves, because smiling is contagious, we smile more when we are around them too. And all this smiling just makes us feel good. While children may not always choose to smile for photographers (there are a few tricks for that), they really do spend much of their waking (and sleeping) time laughing, smiling and playing. For a child not to smile, there must be something serious going on. But when we become adults, our smile rates drop off dramatically. 14% of people smile fewer than 5 times a day. It seems many of us adults live in an upside down world where unsmiling is normal and almost seen as a kind of virtue. As if the ability to retain a stern, serious look is tantamount to actually being a supra-human invested with above average power and strength.

It is in fact, the opposite. People who smile are generally considered more competent. And better liked. And a few other things too as this graph shows (again thanks to Ron Gutman’s TED Talk video). Smiling creates a kind of virtuous cycle whereby the act of smiling makes you feel good, makes the people who see you smile feel good and smile too, which reinforces your smile and pretty soon everyone is smiling all over the place.

So why don’t we smile more often? And why is it so hard?

Some people greet each day with a smile. Literally. They wake up and smile. And this apparently helps set the tone for the day in a much more positive light. A smile truly lights up a face. It is the sign we look for in strangers when we want to evaluate their trustworthiness (there is a reason salespeople everywhere are skilled in the art of smiling). It makes people like us. A smile turns a grey day a little bluer. It gives us attractive wrinkling patterns on our faces as we age. And because smiles are contagious it is almost impossible not to smile back at someone who smiles at you. Imagine your next metro ride where everyone looks up from their handheld screens, unplugs their earphones and just smile at each other. What a difference that would make in anyone’s day. So to get you started and prepared for your next portrait session, here are a few tips I’ve collected on how to re-learn the art of smiling.


  1. Think of something funny: while I often do manage to elicit at least a faint chuckle from even the sternest of subjects, if you are posing for a self-portrait or for someone with whom you just aren’t feeling the humour vibe, make yourself laugh. Think of something -anything- you find really funny. While you don’t need to (or even want to) break out into a gale of laughter when you’re posing for your portrait, if you can use your powers of imagination (another lost art) to conjure up in your mind something you find genuinely funny, give in to your natural impulse and you will naturally start to smile
  2. Ignore the camera between shots: It’s okay, you won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t want to look at the camera all the time. In fact it’s better and easier to smile naturally if you take breaks between the shots so you can relax. Chat a bit with your photographer or a colleague or assistant who may be in the room with you. While most corporate portrait sessions are relatively quick, you don’t need to run through it so quickly your face gets tired from holding a smile.
  3. Wait to the last minute: as in so many things in life, you can get great results from the last minute (teachers don’t hate me please). Smiles get stale fast, particularly ones pasted onto your face. You don’t need to have a constant smile for your photo session, just one timed for the shutter which will be less than a second. Wait for it, then go! That first flash of a smile is usually the one that is most genuine.
  4. “Fake it to make it”: Of course, if you can’t make it real, then fake it. You don’t have to feel happy to smile. In fact, smiling can help make you feel happy. So fake it at first and if possible, do it a few times in front of a mirror before or during your shoot to practice and get used to how it feels. Pull a few silly looking faces first and you’ll end up laughing at yourself.
  5. Lean towards the lens: Try to tuck your chin down but don’t back away from the camera as people tend to do. Leaning into the camera has the same effect as it does on someone whom you are talking to and listening to. It encourages them to continue and makes you look like you are interested in them – which makes you more interesting.
  6. Smile as widely as you can: you may find some photography sites arguing against wide smiles for reasons like “it bunches up your eyes” but if your aim is to have a real, beautiful smile and feel good doing it, then don’t worry about it and let that grin rip!
  7. Aim your eyes on the rim of the lens, not dead on into it: This will take the pressure off you and the camera will still register you as looking right out of your photo.

If you have any other tips, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. Now take two minutes, go somewhere private and practice smiling like an insane person in front of a mirror. You’ll end up laughing, you’ll feel better and you’ll have begun your mastery of the art of the smile.


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Julian Haber Photographer
Julian Haber is an events, corporate portraits and conference photographer based in Montreal. He is the author of a book on freelancing and runs a busy boutique agency of creative professionals in the fields of photography, videography and design. |