How To End Fake Smiles

How To End Fake Smiles

Every portrait is ultimately judged by the expression on the subject.  It doesn’t matter if you are a photographer or a client- everyone hates fake smiles. Nothing spoils a session like a long, dramatic “CHEEEEEEEZZZEEEE!”.

So how do we avoid it?

First Things First
Like most projects, the planning is a critical part of the process. When you are scheduling a portrait session for your child, there is absolutely no need to prep your child in any way.

A good photographer will know how to work with your kids to get the expressions that they need.  Any coaching you do ahead of time will only make the photographer’s job harder.  Kids are pretty good at just going with the flow, so they don’t need a whole lot of build-up for the portrait session.


One common snag that will derail a portrait session is when a child is forced to wear an outfit they don’t want to wear.   I was lucky to not ever have this issue with my boys – they would generally just put on the outfit and be done with it.  If your child isn’t so tollerant, try this:  Bring two outfits that you like and let them choose which one to wear.   That way, they feel like they are in control – but you are still choosing the clothing.  (Of course, you could make the same argument from the kid’s perspective)

Ease Into The Session

The first few minutes after a child arrives will set the tone for the session.  Don’t rush right into the studio.  Take a few minutes to let your kid get their bearings and let the photographer start building rapport with them.  Once the child is comfortable, they will head into the studio on their own.

Mom Pressureportait laugh

When I am photographing a child, one of the biggest obstacles is often the mother.  It is human nature to try and guide your child -but it will drive the photographer crazy.  Every time you say, “Do a big smile” or “That’s not your real smile” you are adding more confusion to the situation.  Sometimes it is best if you just bring a magazine and sit in the next room.  Trust me, you will get better results.

Forget Smiles

From my standpoint – behind the camera- I’m not interested in kids making a smiling face.  I’m interested in actually making them laugh and then capturing it in the camera.  That is the only way to get an authentic expression.   The key is to have a whole bunch of tricks and strategies ready, since every kid is different.  A joke that makes one kid laugh might be totally lost on the next one.  Working with kids is truly an art, just like the actual photography.  If you don’t believe me, just ask any teacher.  The people who are best at interacting with children are almost always the best photographers.

Have Fun!

Honestly, the best advice is to have fun and enjoy the session.  If your child isn’t in the mood to smile that day, just go with it.  Some of my favorite portraits of my boys are ones where they are not smiling.  As long as the expression is authentic – smiling or not – it will have emotional impact.


  1. Lisa Kanarek

    Excellent tips! Where were you years ago when I was getting photos of my kids? :) These tips will help adults take good pics too. My kids gave me a photo of themselves for my birthday and I cried. (Maybe it’s a mom thing!) It’s one of the most natural photos of them that I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  2. Mary C. Nasser

    Great tips!
    This advise will help with both photos of children and adults, too.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom from your photography experience.


  3. Nathalie Villeneuve

    I loved you post! Having fun is so key…My kids are all grown up now but I do have great pics of them. I find that natural smiles are the best. Also the eyes says it all… It’s funny because yesterday I found a picture of my daughter taken when she was 18 months and the poor thing was teething so needless to say that even a fake smile wouldn’t have been helpful at all… I don’t know why I had her picture taken that day…LOL Great tips!

  4. Jayne Kopp

    Hi Larry, what a wonderful post full of great tips.

    I totally ‘get’ how parents can be a pain in the … well you know.

    It’s too bad you’re in Texas and I’m in BC. We don’t have many great photographers in my area… well at least I haven’t been able to find many.

    There was one fellow who came to our preschool a few years ago who used to have the kids rolling in laughter… he would ask them if they’d like some brocilli ice cream. If not he’d ask they “well how about salmon?” :-) I’d love to find him again.

    The ‘school’ photographers are pretty terrible though. They wouldn’t care if the kids were in the middle of a sneeze… they’d take the pic and call it a day!

    In any event Larry, I loved the suggestions and your work looks awesome too!



  5. Theresa Torres

    Hi Larry,
    I wish I was aware of the mom pressure factor when my son was younger and was having his elementary graduation picture taken.
    I wanted him smiling but at the end he was in tears and that’s what the photographer captured.
    Those were the days. Now, I think it’s easier to capture natural moments with children since you only have to whip out your phone and take quick amateur shots.

    • Larry

      It is definitely a common situation. A photographer needs to recognize it and distract the kid (and the mom). You are right about the phone too!

  6. Mr One Take

    It helps when the photographer is one of the genuinely and spontaneously funny people I know. People like me would crash and burn at photographing children.

  7. Holly Jahangiri

    One thing that always worked very well on my kids, when they were very little, was a feather duster or a joke (up to a certain age, the cornier the better). But a feather duster, a fake sneeze, a gentle surprise (no loud noises, please!) worked wonders.

    I second your suggestion to leave the room. But that’s hard for us moms to do unless we know and trust the photographer, or the studio’s got a one way mirror/closed-circuit TV.

    • Larry

      Great question, Ann- that is the tricky one. Honestly, I just tell them that people generally look younger and more healthier when they smile-which is true. Sometimes they feel better if you just ask them to give you a range from no smile to “over-smiling”- then tell them that they can pick the one that is the best level of smile. People love choices!

      • James Moralde

        I’m not a pro photographer, so most of the pictures I take are of friends and family. But when it comes to taking official pictures where they need to smile, I just tell them to ‘give me your silliest smile’, and as soon as their mouth cracks into a smile, I click. A second or 2 longer, and it would turn into fake smiles. Right after hearing the ‘silliest smile’ phrase, the humor in their eyes usually glistens and some even giggle out loud.

        I suppose this would work even with strangers.

  8. Astro Gremlin

    Larry, when photographing a child, the use of a live squirrel or small raccoon can evoke a natural reaction. I use them on the mother. This genuine expression of laughter suggests you may have used my technique.

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