How to Smile in Photos – Are You a Rictus or a Duchenne?

How to Smile in Photos – Are You a Rictus or a Duchenne?

When you smile in photos, are you a Cheshire Cat or a Mona Lisa? A successful portrait is all about expression: sure enough, you can create the most beautiful light, have the perfect props and outfits, and yet if the person’s expression is not right, all your time and effort will have been wasted.

“A smile is an inexpensive way to change your looks.” Charles Gordy

The genuineness of someone’s smile is actually centred around their eyes, although the mouth is involved too: but this is contrary to what many people seem to believe when they’re in front of a camera – the teeth are bared and the eyes are often blank in the classic rictus grin! So if you hate your smile in photos, it could simply be because you’re trying too hard. When someone smiles naturally and spontaneously, both their mouth muscles and the muscles around their eyes are engaged to varying degrees. Named after the 19th century French neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne, the Duchenne smile, which involves both the eyes and the mouth, is how we distinguish between a real smile and a fake one.

Photographs of female model, illustrating three different types of genuine smile in which the eyes are full of expression.
The Eyes Have it. Three Beautiful and Different Smiles Captured on a Fashion Shoot.

For a photographer this distinction is crucial. If I were to photograph my clients without giving them any direction or prompting, the “say cheese” fake expression is what they’d give me: it’s what most people think they need to do when they’re being photographed, and sometimes it can take quite a while to convince them otherwise.

Just Don’t Say “Cheese”. How I Get a Genuine Smile from My Clients

The first thing I get people to do is relax their facial muscles. When they’re being photographed, their faces will have a tendency to tense up as they prepare themselves. By getting them to relax I can also observe what they look like at rest, when they’re not emoting.

I then have the choice of either making them laugh, which is the quickest method, or directing them to look at me and smile with their eyes; I might also get them to think about their favourite person or place, since what’s going on in their heads will be reflected in their facial expressions.

The Three Phases of a Smile

A smile is actually composed of distinct phases, so it’s important that I press the shutter at just the right moment, depending on which type I’m after.

  • The Laughing Smile. This is the first phase, which you can see in the left-hand picture. Here, the subject’s eyes and mouth are fully engaged in the act of laughing.
  • The Relaxed Smile happens when the person has just stopped laughing, and the mouth has relaxed a little (right-hand picture).
  • The Eye Smile. The final phase is the most tricky to achieve, but it’s one of my favourites, since here it’s mostly about the eyes and only a little about the mouth (centre picture).  This is when I’m directing my client the most; getting her to look at me with intention and emotion, projecting that emotion in her eyes, with just a hint of a smile in the lips. It can be a really soulful and intense expression which speaks volumes.

So next time you’re in front of the camera, don’t forget to think eyes and then mouth, rather than the other way around!

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