5 Tricks for Getting Great Natural Smiles for your Family Portraits

One of the most important skills you can learn as a family photographer is how to coax natural smiles out of your subjects, whether they are young or old, during a photoshoot.

Taking great photos of families is one part photography skills and one part people management. It doesn’t help to be the best photographer in the world if you can’t get anyone to smile.

Sure, anyone can force their face into a smile upon request, but there’s a huge difference between a thin smile that says “Do I have to?” and a smile that shows genuine warmth and interest.

First things first, let’s all agree on one thing: “Cheese” is out of date. It’s more likely to prompt eye rolling than a smile these days. 

These are some much more effective ways for getting some genuine smiles in your picture!

Interact with the family

When I first started with photography, I was pretty quiet throughout a shoot. After finding the right spot, getting my lighting in order and arranging some basic poses, it was just a matter of telling the subjects to smile and then taking some nice shots, right?

Well, not exactly. Not everyone can produce a great smile on cue.

Photography can feel like a very strange and artificial process. Sure, there are some people are more naturally photogenic than others, but the majority of people quickly feel very self-conscious once a camera is pointed at them.

And that will lead to a shaky or uncertain smile.

The solution? Talk to your subjects.

For some photographers, this isn’t necessarily so easy. I’m naturally very quiet, so it takes a bit of effort to kick into a more sociable gear. But ultimately it’s necessary for making sure you get the shot that you and your client are looking for!

Be interested in them and get to know them. Make them feel involved in the process. If you can hit on some common ground or a shared interest then it will help create some more trust.

Besides, you can use what you’ve learned through discussion to encourage some smiles as well. If you get to know a family then you can drop an inside jokes or mention certain characteristics that can get everyone smiling again.

Your goal during a family photography shoot should be to make sure that everyone has a good time. You aren’t likely to get shots with bright, vibrant smiles if everyone is actually feeling quite miserable in between poses.

Liven things up a little bit!

“Your goal during a family photography shoot should be to make sure that everyone has a good time. You aren’t likely to get shots with bright, vibrant smiles if everyone is actually feeling quite miserable in between poses.”

Give helpful suggestions and positive feedback

It can be incredibly awkward to be photographed without having any sense of how the shots are turning out.

I know this from experience. I hate being on the other side of a camera because, just like everyone else, I become hyper-aware of everything I am doing — or not doing.

That’s why I think it is important to let your subjects see how they look on the camera.

Now, editing is a critical part of the process. I don’t enjoy showing “unfinished” images on the back of my camera during the shoot. But I feel it’s important to do this to:

  • Let the subjects get a sense of how they look and make any corrections as needed; and
  • Give them confidence in you as a photographer

It’s one thing to say: “You guys look great!” and it’s another for them to have the chance to see and verify, “Yes, I do in fact look great!”

Once you’ve got their trust they will become more excited about the photoshoot and it will be a little easier to get some great smiles.

Of course, make sure that any feedback you give is positive. If all the subject hears from you is comments like, “Your arm looks funny” or “Your hair is all over the place” then it’s going to be a lot harder for them to imagine coming out of the photoshoot with a shot to be proud of.

Point out common mannerisms

Have you ever become aware of your own hands while being photographed? And despite your best effort, you simply can’t think of anything else?

Yeah, it’s awful.

The way I see it, there are two possible approaches as a photographer when it comes to addressing these little awarenesses and mannerisms:

1. Don’t mention anything and hope that your subject figures things out for themself; or

2. Give a brief overview of common tendencies people do that can make themselves look less flattering.

I like to choose the second option.

This means I can emphasize things like the importance of good posture and remind everyone to keep that in mind just before the picture is being taken.

I can also give them an idea of what to do with their hands, so that they aren’t panicky and uncertain every time the shutter is about to click.

This also gives a great opportunity to interact with the family and share some photography knowledge to reassure them that you’ve got everything under control.

Sometimes, it can also help calm things down a little bit.

Why do you need to calm things down? Well, because sometimes a big part of being a family photographer is being able to delicately manage opinions — as we’ll read in the next section.

Positively manage ideas & opinions

Once you start as a family photographer, you’ll quickly find that Mom often has one idea in her head about the “perfect shot” while Dad has a very different opinion altogether.

Meanwhile, the younger kids just want to do a silly picture.

And the older kids are losing their patience and want to leave.

This means it’s a delicate balance to keep everyone involved and interested. If anyone feels like you are ruining their incredible idea then they aren’t likely to give you any more smiles.

Communication upfront with the parents helps set expectations. Odds are they’ve already got some idea about what the final pictures should look like. Depending on your approach, you can either reassure them that you’ll work within those guidelines, or you can ask them to trust your creative vision.

Either way, they should know what the plan is.

Throughout the shoot, it’s hugely important to make sure everyone feels involved and that their ideas are being considered.

This could mean that you have to allow for a silly pose every now and then. Or maybe you will use an idea, even if you think won’t turn out well.

By being open to all ideas then you’re less likely to have someone check out halfway through the photoshoot and give only a cold and distant smile from that point on.

“Throughout the shoot, it’s hugely important to make sure everyone feels involved and that their ideas are being considered.”

“The Squish”

Alright, here’s the last tip and it’s definitely the most powerful weapon in my repertoire.

I’d like to introduce: “The Squish”.

This is my tested and proven technique for getting a great group shot with fantastic smiles.

When families line up for a shot, they typically leave a bit of a gap between each other. In real life it may feel natural, but in a picture it looks like everyone hates each other.

One of the most effective ways to remove that gap and get some smiles in the process is with the Squish.

This is when I simply tell everyone that after you count down from three they should all slowly and gently squish towards the centre of the group.

Remember to flip your camera to fast shutter and take a lot of shots!

This result is an image where everyone looks cozy and friendly, and with genuine smiles from ear to ear.

Make sure to check to see if anyone is being blocked in the image — you don’t want an uncle or a sibling to disappear behind everyone!

The Squish

Go out and make magic happen!

Ultimately, reading articles online can only help you get better at family photography up to a point.

In the end, the best way to learn is to pick up your camera and go out and do it!

Use each shoot as a learning opportunity and you’ll be a master of conjuring up smiles for family portraits in no time at all. Good luck!

Frank Myrland Photography

About the Author

Hi, my name is Frank Myrland and I'm a photographer based near Orangeville, Ontario. While I am active in most types of photography, I mostly enjoy sports, events, family and commercial photography.

I like to learn by doing — and also to share my own experiences for the benefit of others, whether they are just getting into photography or if they are well on their way to mastering their style and craft.

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions at all at [email protected]

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