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  • Writer's picturekimberlynturner

How To Capture the Perfect Smile

You may have heard this saying:

People have 3 voices: The one they hear when they speak, the one everyone else hears when they speak, and the one they hear in their head.

(Sometimes I include a fourth - the one they hear when they listen to a recording of their voice.)

The same thing goes for smiles; no one has just one smile.

Maybe you know a teenager who is self-conscious about her smile because she just got braces, and now she refuses to smile with her teeth showing.

Or maybe you know a man who is afraid to smile too big because because he thinks it accentuates his smile lines and makes him look older.

Whatever the reason, people tend to pose their smiles for photos. Now you may be thinking, “but aren’t all photos posed and staged?” And, the answer is: sometimes.

Candid photos are some of my absolute favorites because they capture the true essence of the subject. Semi-candid photos are my (not-so) secret way to bring out the genuine smiles of my portrait subjects.

Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

Here’s an example from a recent portrait session. Author Lisa Lawmaster Hess was looking to get some updated headshots for her website and book jackets. She was hesitant to smile too big, so getting the above photo took some coaxing.

Lisa and I were neighbors when I was growing up, so my family and hers were close; her daughter and I were (and still are!) friends. During this shoot, I told her to tell me a “funny daughter story.”

Lisa gave me a funny look, but then proceeded to share a joke that her daughter had told her recently. And then she laughed.


When Lisa received the final photos, she was hesitant at first because most of the photos showed her with the same smile as the one above. I had told Lisa that, having grown up around her, I always think of her smiling and laughing. Capturing anything other than the genuine smile that found its way to her eyes wouldn’t be a good representation of her.

Even still, I shared a few (what she called) “tamer smile” photos with her, but eventually she agreed that the bigger smile does truly encapsulate her personality and essence (especially this photo—lovingly called the “Power Pose”).

No Teeth, No Problem!

All of that said, you can still capture genuine smiles without having your subjects show their teeth.

Non-toothy smiles don’t automatically mean non-genuine. Like I mentioned about Lisa’s smile, it’s reflected in the eyes.

The same goes for this portrait of Kayla Brown. Kayla is another example of someone who needed a little coaxing in order to share a genuine smile. This particular photo was taken later in the session, after we both had time to relax and enjoy the shoot.

I had used my laughing trick throughout the shoot; but by the end, she was comfortable enough to stop posing her smile. This resulted in the above photo, and this photo remains one of my favorite portraits that I have taken.

Seriously Intense

Maybe smiles aren’t your thing. Or maybe a client wants a more serious-looking photo. If that’s the case, it’s fine to ditch the smile altogether!

In both of these examples, the ladies opted for a more pensive look. However, “pensive” is kind of a subjective adjective.

As you can see, “pensive” for Angela (left) translated into more of a soft, hopeful, closed-mouth smile.

For Gabrielle (below), “pensive” meant a more serious, determined look (with a just a hint of a smile creeping into the corners of her mouth).

Both emotions (hopeful and determined) are reflected in their eyes, indicating that the emotions are genuine.

Encouraging and coaxing a smile is a great way to capture special moments with your clients. When they look back on their photos, you want them to be happy and proud to have been in that moment.

Our job as photographers is to make our clients look and feel their best, and helping them embrace their genuine smiles can do just that!


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