Capture Authentic Smiles in Your Photos

It’s a photographer’s toughest job: getting authentic smiles from your subjects, or in mom’s case, your kids!

Photographer Kate Pease has the formula for getting genuine joy out of any age group.

What is an authentic smile? A genuine smile is in the eyes. When someone genuinely smiles or laughs, their eyes light up. A “say cheese” smile, is forced, shows the teeth, and the eyes aren’t as vibrant. Anyone who knows you well will be able to see the difference between the genuine smile and a forced smile.

Can you tell which smile is authentic and which is cheese in the pictures below?


– Distract them from the fact there is a camera right in front of their face.

– Tell them an inside joke! My sister can be a little camera shy, so we have this joke about a whale. Every time I want to make her laugh, I bring up the whale joke, and she can’t help but laugh. Or if they’re being photographed with someone, have them share a joke with each other!

-Burst the personal space bubble If they are being photographed with someone (their spouse, child, parent, sibling, friend), have them get close and hug. They can’t help but to be distracted and smile.

– Compliment them! It gets them to relax and smile, usually they’ll laugh

– And then tease them about how you’re going to submit their photos to a modeling agency.


Most teens are concerned with how good they look in a photo. Here are tips to get them to relax.

-Teen girls: compliment! They want to know that they look good. Tell them you love their eyes, they have great skin tone, they have a great smile. Always you can find something beautiful in your subject to compliment.

-Teen boys: Teen boys aren’t as keen on being in front of the camera as teen girls. To get them to smile genuinely and laugh, tease them about their girlfriend. Even if they don’t have a girlfriend! This always makes them laugh.

-If they won’t cooperate tease them about being too cool. I had a teen girl in a family shoot one time who was not happy whatsoever to wake up early for family photos. She wouldn’t really warm up until I teased her about being too cool about having her photo taken. She laughed and warmed right up.


-Use reverse psychology Tell them the opposite of what you want them to do. Tell them not to laugh. “Don’t even think about laughing!” Or play “Be serious”. Have them make a serious face..hold it…hold it! They can’t help but to burst out laughing.

-Have them make silly faces. You will usually get a great smile between those silly faces.

-Play “I bet you can’t”. Children love to prove you wrong. If they aren’t cooperating, say “I bet you can’t stand right here. I bet you can’t hold your hands like this. I bet you can’t laugh.” They will always want to prove you wrong, and you will get them in the pose/smile that you want them to be in.

-Let them play! So often I will kids engrossed in an activity like building a lego tower, or a sand castle, or making sugar cookies and the mom will tell them “look here! Look here! Smile!”. Almost always in this instance, the kid will give the fake smile. Instead of having them look at the camera, just take the photo of them playing. It tells the story of what your child is interested in at that time in their life. Plus, no one likes to be interrupted when they’re concentrating.

Parent tip! Hold off on the bribes till the very last second. If you’re taking your child to have their photos taken, don’t tell them on the drive there “Now you’re going to get your photos taken, and you’re going to smile real big. And if you smile real big, you’ll get an ice cream cone at the end.” This sets them up mentally that they are going to have to perform, or do something miserable so they can earn a treat. Instead tell them “We are going to go meet Kate at the park, we are going to play and have so much fun and she’s going to take our pictures while we play!” This is a lot more exciting for them.


– Place them somewhere precarious (with a helping hand nearby). If they are crawlers or new walkers, they are not going to want to sit still in the spot you want them to sit in. By perching them on something (safely) precarious, they won’t be able to move and you’ll get the shots you want. Have another adult just out of the sight of the camera to catch them if they topple.

– If they can’t quite sit up on their own, have mom/dad or sibling help. You can focus in on the baby to get their photo without them having to lay down.

– Give them something to hold. They’ll usually give you a “look how cool this is mom” look in their face that is just precious.


– Doggie toys! Squeaky silly doggie toys will always get their attention looking in the direction you want them to look. You will get a genuine expression of wonderment.

– Act super silly. Just dance and sing. They can’t help themselves but to smile.

Kate Pease is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Northern Utah

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