07/02/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Smile for the Camera -- But Only if You Mean it!


A bride was referred to me when she was utterly unhappy with her photographer after seeing how her engagement photos came out.

The reason she was unhappy? "I'm not smiling in any of the photos," she said.

Now, I know many photographers opt for the overly serious, glum-faced look of couples peering off into different directions. And I know conversely there are those photographers incessantly prompting their couples to "Say cheese! Say #$%@! Smile! Smile bigger! Bigger yet! Show more teeth!"

We're used to seeing fashion photographs stereotypically featuring angry looking models while every mom and dad with a camera basically has trained each new generation to "smile for the camera." So it looks like we have wedding photographers who want to emulate fashion photographs in a tug of war with clients who've been trained to think photos should all have smiles in them.

Hence the conflict. And it made me wonder: Is one fashion or the other the right one? Is there actually such a thing as "right"? Or is it a matter of flipping a coin or going with a personal preference?

Nah. I don't think the answer resides anywhere in there.

I think the real answer of whether you should be depicted smiling in a portrait -- or not -- has to do with the story told in the portrait.

Because imagine you have an image of a firefighter at the scene of a burning building. It's dark out. The fire's blazing. The scene is hectic, frenzied. And suddenly, out of the window he climbs, rescuing a baby...

...given the serious story and how that firefighter is keenly concentrating on the rescue effort with the foremost concern being that of getting to safety, it might be unnatural or incongruent were he flashing a big happy smile at that moment. In fact, sporting a smile would be a mixed message, and could even give the image a phoney feel as if that shot were staged, as if the performance was put on for the camera.

It wouldn't seem real.

But now the next day, the same firefighter is photographed at a ceremony accepting an award for bravery from the Mayor. He saved a life. He's being honored at City Hall. The Mayor's shaking his hand. It would totally make sense for him to be smiling in that photo.

Similarly, a portrait meant to tell a story of a couple feeling romantic love where the mood's meant to be serene, intense or demure, might not be the correct atmosphere that normally prompts a big smile but might more reasonably prompt an expression suggesting their passion. While another image of them being playful, being silly, having fun, would totally make more sense if they were grinning.

So it's not a preference, or a rule, a fashion or a flip of the coin that determines whether it's best to smile in a portrait or not.

It simply needs to make sense for the image.


The mood in this portrait wouldn't be the same if they were both smiling broadly.

Photo by: G.E. Masana