It’s National Smile Month, so naturally, we’re taking the opportunity to discuss an issue that can make the difference between a good photograph and a great one – how to get your subject to smile. Cracking a great smile is an important part of portrait photography, albeit for the subject rather than the cameraman. If you’re the one behind the camera, it can help to have some tricks up your sleeve to pass on to the person being photographed, so you can really put them at ease. Here’s how you get around fake smiles, shy subjects and bad moods to take a portrait that’s lit up with a natural smile.

What you’re aiming for

In a recent article in the NYTimes, portrait photographer, Peter Hurley warns that most people “can’t smile with their teeth and look real”. Instead, look for “closed lips with just the hint of a smile.” You know, that split second when someone has stopped laughing or a full smile erupts right across their face.

Prep the face

When people know they’re having their photo taken they often become anxious or tense up. It’s your job to unravel those face muscles and prime them for smiling. Ask your subject to do a few facial exercises before you get started. They cam try tensing up then releasing the muscles in their face to loosen up. A shake of the head can also help to relax the face and release a smile. Getting your subject to close and then open their eyes can help to reset their face.

Let out a laugh

It’s hard not to smile when you’re laughing. Whether it’s a spluttered smile as you try and stifle a giggle or a little, wry smile. Being able to bring a smile to the face of the person in front of your camera is a real skill and one that you need to practice and adapt to the individual you’re snapping.

You can try telling a joke, saying a funny word, doing a little dance or some other silly movement. With kids you can be extra silly. Get down to their level, try singing a nonsense song, making fart noises or telling them a funny story! Bring your subject out of their shell and get them to laugh and you’ll be rewarded with the best smiles. If the usual tricks don’t work, keep them talking about something they’re interested in and hopefully they’ll start to smile as they chat.

Never say cheese!

Saying cheese forces the mouth into what is obviously a false smile. Unfortunately, it’s become so well known as the ‘flash’ word that many subjects do it automatically without prompting. As a photographer, it’s good to have a stack of alternative words that you can use to surprise people. Ideally, you want the mouth to down and then up, which means using words ending in ‘ee’, ‘ey’ and ‘a’. Think: cheeky, monkey, yoga, money, bunny! Make a quick mental list now, so you can draw on the most appropriate for the situation next time you’re shooting portraits.

Just one final tip before you start snapping away at those wonderful smiles: don’t forget to check for lipstick marks or spinach stuck in teeth before you get started, National Smile Month is all about dental hygiene, after all! For more tips on looking good in front of the camera, take a look at our post on the rise of the selfie.