You Don’t Have to Smile

I often tell that to my portrait subjects–no need to smile. I’d prefer they were being themselves rather than putting on the smile mask that we all learned to wear as a kid via “Say Cheese”.

There’s nothing wrong with a genuine smile, but asking for it, or having them turn it on, I find it feels fake. And if you look at classic portraits from the last 100 years, they are rarely smiling and often not even making eye contact to the camera. There’s something about capturing someone as they are, not smiling, but just being.

This is my friend, Howard, who is a writer. He brought his work out to a recent brewpub visit we had. The light was nice and the Rolleiflex was loaded, so this portrait I made of him at work.

After that one, he did look up and pose for one. I said just be, however you feel and want to be.

This is the result.

He certainly has a bit of a grin, but it’s his real self, not a “Say Cheese” moment. It’s really what he looks like. He is often critical of his own image and even he said I photographed him well.

Another example. This woman was painting on a sidewalk in Denver. Same pitch–be yourself after she asked what she should do. (Portrait subjects want direction!) I said, You don’t have to smile or do anything, just be you. I like the strength of her expression as opposed to the typical canned smile.

The same is true for the gentleman’s photograph. He saw my Rolleiflex and commented, and I asked to photography him. His expression is what he chose.

People, when they see a camera, often go into “on” mode. There have been many photographers working with famous people who’ve pretended they are setting lights and testing exposure who are actually shooting, working hard to get an expression that’s real before their subject turns on the act–the grin, the look, the smile, the way they are used to posing and have come to believe they look their best.

Even at a wonderful photo exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. which featured over 200 portraits of politicians, authors, musicians and movie actors, few were looking at the camera, and only two were smiling–Jimi Hendrix and Dizzy Gillespie.

Go for the real. There is a genuine person inside everyone we photograph. It’s our job to find a way to draw that out, to photograph them by depicting their real self.

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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