Portrait photography – To smile or not?.

To smile or not to smile? That is the question when it comes to portrait photography. Everyone knows the gut churning sensation when it’s your appointment time with the company portrait photographer or your session with the local portrait studio. But does it have to be difficult?

Well the answer to that one is a resounding No! It certainly doesn’t have to be difficult having Portrrait photography done but for some people it often is. A good portrait should be your visual passport to the world, it should give others an idea of not just what you look like but also your personality. This can be shown in so many ways in an image that often people don’t realise how much information or misinformation they are giving in a portrait. Not only is there your smile and general facial expression but also your cloths, your location even your stance in the image. Lets look at some of these different aspects in detail.

Lets start with that smile. A smile is a natural thing, most people are skilled at reading faces to the extent that they can tell the difference between a real smile and a fake one, it’s not just the shape of the mouth it’s something in the eyes too. A good example of a bad fake smile is past British PM Tony Blair, often described as having the smile of a shark I think history has proved that smile was generally never particularly real. At the other end of the spectrum Gordon Brown, his successor, had no ability to produce a fake smile.  His attempts hung a grimace on his face that made him look like he was in pain! Which he probably was from embarrassment at having been so badly advised.

So do you need to smile for your company portrait? Well if the answer to that is a Tony Blair or Gordon Brown don’t bother, the only message you’ll be giving the word is you can’t trust me! But don’t forget in a portrait session it isn’t all down to you. If your portrait photographer is worth his salt he or she will have the ability to relax you, entertain you and basically get the best interaction possible with the lens.

Obviously peoples personalities have a lot to do with the results, introverted people tend to be harder to get a good image of than extraverts and it’s interesting to note that in my experience when I did staff portraits for the likes of Ernst Young and PWC the sort of people that were attracted to the number crunching work tended to be the introverts and proved a higher percentage of difficult sitters than the sales types.


A good portrait will attract people
A good portrait will attract people, here an easy smile with interaction.

This isn’t really rocket science though is it, it’s logical that an extrovert is more likely to interact in the unusual position of a photographers studio set up. But what can you do as an average to introverted type to try and improve your chances of a good portrait photography result?

First off if the photographer is doing their job properly they should be either explaining what’s happening and/or asking you about yourself. The best thing to do here is take an interest in the proceedings, if the photographer is explaining what he wants to do ask further questions, it doesn’t matter how daft they are, it’s all about getting that two way interaction going. If they ask about your job or hobbies tell the photographer in detail what you like about either.

Always keep your discussions on positive subjects, what you like about your job, office or hobby not the negative aspects. That positive enthusiasm will show in the resulting images.

I have had many, many very pretty young ladies in front of my lens and at first it amazed me at how many of them hated themselves. It’s sad but true that even the prettiest young lady will often be filled with doubt or self loathing of their look. If you consider yourself plain, then take heart from this fact even the pretty girls can be suffering the same doubts you might be.


Staff Portrait
The Mona Lisa smile


Most of this stems from too long in front of a mirror worrying that one’s teeth aren’t quite white enough or straight enough or that the nose is too big or too small or the laugh is too loud or the gums too big.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the average lady looks in the mirror and only sees how faults, never the beauty we men see. It is so sad because if everyone was just happy with what they had and were able to give an honest smile of contentment they would all be producing the best possible portrait.

A quick tip here, if you are one of those people who for some reason don’t like their smile, teeth or gums it is not a substitute to try and smile with the lips tight together. It doesn’t work, it becomes the Tony Blair shark face! Best bet if the photographer isn’t able to get a real two way communication smile out of you is to try and relax and think about something or somewhere pretty. This with luck will produce the Mona Lisa smile.

Alternatively try to get the photographer to take some images of you looking off camera rather than at the lens. Portrait photography doesn’t always have to be straight down the lens shots. This can sometimes be very effective if  you then have a conversation to an imaginary third person off camera, especially if you can get animated and start talking using hand gestures.  I often try this method asking to talk to me but via a mirror or reflection. And to get natural hand actions I often ask a sitter to describe a Rugby ball! It always gets the hands moving.


FSA manager
An off camera or interview style image with Rugby Ball hands!


Another anomaly many photographers will recognise is the sitter who has started to worry about the double chin. It’s amazing how many people hate this in themselves when hardly anyone else notices. It becomes very obvious to the photographer within the first 30 seconds if this is the sitters problem as they tend to sit straight backed with their chin pointing at the camera looking down their noses at you! It just looks really weird.

If this is your problem, one of your hang ups here’s the answer, stand up, lean forward putting your hands on the back of a chair or a table in front of you. The shoulders drop and therefore the head lifts straightening the neck. If it’s done at a 45 degree angle to the photographer with the head turned to the lens it can be a very involving image.


CEO Portrait
The forward pose leaning on a chair but with the Tony Blair smile, power rather than approachable?


The positioning of the body and hands says even more in an image than often people realise. The pose above is engaging because the sitter is physically coming at the camera. Portraying involvement and interaction. The opposite would be to lean back in your chair and cross your arms, the most negative of body language going as often described in sales technique books. And really, that’s what we are trying to achieve in a good portrait, to sell that face as someone to like and trust. So keep the body language positive.

What about the selfie pout? What does that actually say to the world? I’m self absorbed? I like me more than I like others? Not a good message to the world surely.

Your portrait should say I’m friendly, fun or happy and approachable. It should say even if you are trying to portray powerful that you are also approachable and sociable. You can say all these things whether you are beautiful, plain or downright ugly. So forget the hang-ups you have in the bathroom come out and interact for the best portrait possible.

I always tell people  who have a partner or family member that love them very much to try and look through their eyes and see the positive aspects of your physicality that they see. Most people have someone close like this and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to remember the shine in their eyes when they look at you.

Lastly how long should a portrait session last? In truth for an average person rather than a photoshoot of a model to illustrate cloths or products the portrait session shouldn’t really take much more than  5-10 minutes. The reason being if the photographer hasn’t been able to bond with you and get you to relax within that time frame then it isn’t going to happen. Either the photographer hasn’t done his job properly or you are a real introvert that it would be kinder to realise back to your own environment where you feel more comfortable. No better images will be produced in prolonging the agony! If you are one of these people take pride in the fact that you are about one in a thousand – oh look I got  that smile after all! Thanks!

Next time, location and clothing for as portrait session and saying more with less.


Brian Russell

Copyright 2014.