Tips to capturing natural smiles

by Mary Jane

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My two year old has reached the inevitable “cheese” face phase. It’s fake, it’s canned, it’s painful to look at. We know it all too well. The forced, wide -toothed grin that has, “Are we done yet?” written all over it. It’s a look that has boggled mothers and photographers for centuries. It’s a face that, yes, only a mother could love. It’s not genuine or natural and shouldn’t even earn a post on Facebook, let alone a frame.

So, how do you get your subjects to relax, be themselves and forget about the camera?

I believe the secret is not in the actual pose, but in training your eye to look for what happens right before the pose and right after. In those split seconds, a subject’s identity shines, for only then do they forget they are being photographed. These are the moments I live for!

As an artist (and documenter) I have realized I am ultimately a photographer of persons, not poses. I have studied all of the traditional poses, the s-curve of the arm and the various tilts of the head, etc, etc. But, those don’t apply to our overly active mini subjects and honestly, if you’re wanting a natural, candid type feel to your photos, they don’t work all that well for adults either.

I was reminded of this one Sunday as I was sitting outside in the beautiful, late afternoon sun. I was watching my 2 year old desperately trying to do a somersault (unassisted) in the backyard. It was quite entertaining, so I grabbed my camera hoping to capture the action.

But, the somersault photos were disappointing. I couldn’t get a good angle. I couldn’t see her face, and the photos didn’t really convey what she was doing.

I was so focused on capturing the somersault that I almost missed the magic that was happening right before my eyes. The photos that truly captured her, were the ones that showed the anticipation on her face as she got ready to do the somersault and her joyous, unforced laughter as she laid in the grass immediately afterwards.

When thinking about this concept of posing, I realize that I do this all of the time! For me, posing is really just a means to an end – a way to break the ice, get a laugh and take the pressure off of my subject. I always photograph the pose, but what I’m really documenting is how they get into the pose and their natural reaction as they come out of it. This technique can be applied to a family portrait shoot, engagement shoot or a wedding.

When approaching posing in this way – it’s important to have your subject DO something, even if it is just something simple. The very act of having to do something makes your subject forget about the camera and this is key to releasing those natural, genuine smiles.

Here are some other examples…

In the shot below, I asked the little boy to jump down from the fountain. Now, the actual shot of him jumping is fine, but his reaction to the jump is the natural, little boy smile every mother wants.

To get the shot that I wanted of this little one, I asked him to climb up the ladder. The act of him climbing was an ok shot, but the look on his face as he reached the top from the other side is priceless.

During this engagement shoot, I set up this shot of the groom to be holding his fiancé and kissing her. It’s a sweet shot, but I tend to like the shot that happened naturally as he was putting her back down. It’s much more real and un-orchestrated..

I set up this first shot with the couple opening the champagne, but what happened afterwards I could have never set up! I am constantly shooting so I don’t miss these natural gems – these are the shots that I love (and my clients love).

In the shot below, I prompted the couple to throw water in the air and then kiss. I really do like the way the shot turned out. But, I LOVE the moment that I captured immediately after the kiss.

Here’s another example of a kissing shot, but the sweet, natural moment happened a split second after their lips parted.

Sometimes I think it’s fun to do a goofy jumping shot or something just crazy! It’s not because I think jumping shots are aesthetically pleasing, but look how happy and natural they are walking away after the jump. It’s perfect.

The black and white shot below is a portrait that I set up, but I positioned them just perfectly, so that when a big enough wave came, they were going to get wet. I knew that reaction was going to be a keeper!

Always start shooting before you think the pose is perfect and don’t stop even after you think you’ve captured it. The best moment is the one that is a split second away. It would be such a shame to miss it because you’re looking at the back of your camera.

In a world where cheese tries to rule – we must fight back! We must train our vision, ready our triggers and shoot like we’ve never shot before. If we can allow our subjects to laugh, to relax, to breathe, to be…they will write their own story and we will be able to document it. In the moments before and after – life is happening – and no amount of cheese in the world can stop it.


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