Smiles, everyone

When my son was in kindergarten I volunteered in the classroom. The teacher found out I was a photographer and she put me to work taking headshots of her 20 students. With most of the kids it was pretty easy to get them to smile but there was this one boy who was a challenge. When I asked him to smile he would stiffen up, drop his chin and bear his teeth in a painful looking grimace. The corners of his mouth actually dropped slightly. I asked for a happy smile, then a funny smile and got the same results. I thought for a while and wondered what our faces did when we smiled. Then I asked him to smile with his eyes. What usually happens when we a smile is that the corners of the mouth turn up, forcing our cheeks upwards as well, thus making our eyes squint just a bit. The squinted his eyes a little and the rest of his face relaxed and a more natural smile appeared.

This month’s Readers Photo Challenge assignment is: Smiles.

It may sound like an easy thing but eliciting a natural smile from a subject can sometimes be a challenging task. People can often stiffen up at the sight of a camera and their grins can become forced or awkward. A photographer can be so concerned with composition, lighting, and making sure the background is uncluttered and that you’re close enough that one can forget to make the subject feel at ease.

There are two main paths you can take to photograph a smile: posed or candid.

With a candid photo, it could be an event like a family gathering or party, you’ll have to wait for the right moment to get a smile. These moments can produce smiles that are genuine and heartfelt, but unless you’ve got the camera constantly focused on your subject (an option but usually not very practical), then you’ll have to be Johnny-on-the-spot and ready to quickly bring the camera up to your eye at the last second to catch a smile. But you’ll have to be fast because just the right the moment can be fleeting.

Anticipation is the key in getting a good smile in a candid picture. Waiting for a punch line of a joke or when someone finishes blowing out the candles on a birthday cake

A posed portrait can be just as daunting as the candid one to get a good smile.

One way to get a smile is wait for a natural happy reaction to something. Children usually smile easily and although you can get the occasional kid where photographing them can be like pulling teeth, its that unpredictability that makes them a challenge. Adults tend to be more guarded. It’s tougher to get them to smile unabashedly. Making your subjects feel comfortable is the key to getting a believable smile from them. Talking and engaging with them is the best way to make them feel at ease. Having sit or stand in a relaxed pose also helps. If they’re standing stiffly, as if they’re in front a firing squad, they’re less likely to smile naturally. Have them sit or perhaps lean against something. Make sure you have your camera settings prepared well before you take the picture. Nothing spoils the mood faster than if you’re fiddling with your camera while your subjects wait for you to get ready.

If you’re the humorous type then try telling a quick joke or two to bring out a smile (nothing too long- brevity is the source of wit, as they say). If you’re still having problems here’s an old photographer’s trick: Have your subjects make a goofy face for one shot. That tends to break the ice and gets their smiles to come out.

What we’re looking for is an honest natural smile (but don’t forget the sound photographic principles of getting close and having a clean, uncluttered background). It can be a broad grin or a slight smirk but it should not only show a happy moment but some of the personality of your subject as well. As Mr. Roarke from the ‘70s-‘80s TV show “Fantasy Island” used to say: “Smiles, everyone…smiles!”


Here are the rules:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Smiles” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between May 12 and May 25. They can be posed or candid.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used (eg: “John Doe, Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 18-55mm lens”)

4. Please identify person in the photo (name, age, hometown) and where it was taken (eg: “Jane Doe, 12, at her home in Lodi).

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Sunday, May 25. The top examples will be published on Monday, June 2 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.


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