As we approach the holiday season, if you’re even remotely handy with a camera, you’re probably already preparing for the inevitable moment when you wind up behind one, trying to get all seven of your aunts and uncles to smile like they mean it. Family photos, portraits of the kids in their new clothes, or candids of everyone bustling around — during this time of year, your subjects are probably less likely to be professional models, and more likely to be related to you. Which can be a real challenge, since a lot of people still just aren’t comfortable having their photo taken.
Master portrait photographer Sue Bryce has lots of experience working with professional models who have the kind of incredible facial control we all wish we could develop, but she really makes her living taking gorgeous photos of everyday people. And, she says, one of the most common pitfalls she sees is that “your average person…puts all their tension in their mouth.” As a result, their smiles look unnatural, forced — and, they’ll probably think when looking at the photos later, not very attractive. To take more flattering photos of your subjects, you really need just two goals.
“All you want is a relaxed mouth with smiling eyes,” says Sue. It’s that simple. “Regardless of the shape, the lips, the size of the mouth, whether they look good smiling or not, the second you see it relax, you can tell.”
As the photographer, it’s your job to assess what shape of mouth looks best on your subject, but as long as the mouth isn’t tense and the eyes look alive, you’re off to a great start.
To make this happen, says Sue, start with the mouth and then move up. Direct your subject to relax their mouth. If it looks sad or unnatural, tell them give you a little smile. Then, tell them to think about what their eyes are doing. If they’re tense, consider taking a note from Peter Hurley and asking them to try a “squinch”. Or, you can go full-on Tyra Banks and call for a “smize,” which is just another way of asking the subject to add some expression into their eyes.
Whatever instruction you find works best for you, the result is likely to be the same no matter what: A more flattering, natural look that isn’t tense or artificial-looking.
“When you say ‘a little smile with the eyes,’ the natural instinct is to move the mouth, too” Sue says “and that’s exactly right.”
Reminding subjects of their eyes can also be a great way to help someone whose smile is very, very tense, says Sue, because “the mouth sort of resets” when they stop focusing so much on it. This is especially important if you’re taking photos around the holidays, when people probably want to be remembered for having a great time.
“You’ve got make sure you’re bringing the expression through their eyes, because their mouth is going to already look like it’s grinning.”