How to Always Get a Natural Smile

Female model photographed by award winning photographer Mark Laurie of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

For two hours, all actress Cloris Leachman did was turn away, then turn back saying, “Hello.” I was thought it odd at the time, as she alternated between “Hello” and “Hi”. About half way through, she gave me the lesson of the day. ” ‘Hello’ and ‘Hi’ will always shape the mouth in a sensuous or happy way,” she explained.

She was right. Years in front of cameras had taught her the formula. Every image had an incredibly natural smile. Plus, it’s way better than having them saying “cheese” or “stinky Socks”.

The other benefit of having your subject say “Hi” or “Hello” is it makes them feel good, perhaps even a little silly after doing it a bunch of times. When people feel good, their body language changes; their whole body relaxes and says Hello too. After a few, you will see a sparkle of amusement enter their eyes. The viewer of the photograph will always feel that sparkle is for them.

All from a simple Hello. 

The word shapes the mouth. Actually, it’s the vowel that does it. All the vowels shape the mouth in a likable way. You can even pick random or nonexistent words for them to say. This is magic with kids, with often the bonus of a quizzical face as they try to puzzle out the why of saying such a word or making this odd sound.

Try varying the speed they say Hi to you. You can watch the mouth slowly take shape into the smile. You can have them exaggerate the expressing of the word. Try different viewpoints. Shooting down as they look up, you will get huge eyes to go along with the smile.

The perfect smile is not just about the mouth. If you tell someone to “smile now” you will get a motor response as they manipulate the mouth into a mechanical smile. Nothing else in the face is supporting the smile, though, so it comes off as fake. You might also get the over the top response that kids like.

You can also be sneaky – ask them a question that you know the answer will end with a word holding the vowel you need. 

A smile works best when the whole body language backs it up, especially the eyes. That is why Hi works so well, it’s an engaging, feel good word. When the viewer looks at a photograph of some one who has just said Hello, their mind knows it. They have a record in their brains of millions of Hi and Hellos, along with that is the follow through, what the face looks like just after a Hello. Then there is the warm and fuzzy feeling they felt – that we all feel – after anyone has said Hello. That is all attached in our memory to the Hello/Hi.

Now there is lots of ways your subject can say Hello. There is slinky, sly, big happy, tentative, and even wistful. With a little guidance, you can have those smiles too. Be careful not to catch it at the full on peak, though, as usually you get way too much gums. Try just before or just as it starts to subside.

One last technical note: watch for how your subject is lit. Hello and Hi are best set in soft, broad light, or a butterfly type of light. The face fills up with contours, with the eyes often getting smaller the bigger the smile is. Shadowy lighting or harsh lighting will transform the face into something disturbing or even evil. The shadows exaggerate all the crevices that suddenly appear. Generally, this is not what your subject will like.

The perfect natural smile is easy to get with this approach. Try it. It will make you smile, too!

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