It’s all about the Smile

For my first headshot blog, I’ll start with the most difficult and important expression to get right – the smile. Creating a headshot with the perfect smile is what separates an average photographer from a headshot professional.

The importance of a smile in headshots for Business use

Much of the time my business subjects want to portray coolness, leadership, authority and similar Alpha traits. This is easily accomplished with the correct posture, eye focus and gaze, clothing, head tilt and camera position. However, such desirable Alpha traits can be interpreted as competitive and aggressive, so in business it is necessary to soften the image to avoid looking mean and unapproachable.  The best way to do this is with a small, genuine smile that brings warmth to the whole face.

Take a look at the following headshots.  The subject is posed well and he looks professional, authoritative, decisive and focused. But in a survey of 100 people, 100% said they would be more likely to approach the man in the second picture.  What difference do you think that would make for your business?

Interestingly, the first picture is technically superior – the head tilt makes for a better composition, the eyes are at a slight angle and the colour in the shirt and tie adds interest. But in every case, a poorer picture with a better expression will be preferable to a technically superior picture with a lesser expression.  This is where it pays to work with a headshot specialist as they won’t be influenced by aesthetics that may be contrary to your business goals.

The importance of a smile in headshots for Social use

Here is another example, this time with a more informal look. Imagine these pictures are for use on a dating website.  Which picture do you think would receive a more favourable response?


A genuine smile affects the whole face.  In the second picture above, notice the smile lines around the eyes. If photos are to be retouched, it is very important that these smile lines are not airbrushed away because it is these lines that give the picture warmth, caring and approachability.  I’ll discuss retouching in detail in a later blog post.

Mouth tension

When selecting images, pay close attention to tension around the lips and mouth area. Avoid pictures where there is tension – tight-lipped people are thought to be mean spirited or liars.

If you find it difficult to relax the mouth, try parting your lips slightly. Notice in the pictures below how simply parting the lips removes all tension from the mouth area. Once you have relaxed, you can bring the lips back together without the tension present.

If you want to show a big smile with teeth, start with the lips parted. If you want a smaller smile with no teeth, start with the lips together. In each case, it is important to start without any tension in the mouth.

Genuine smiles

Take a look at the following pictures. Unless you have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you should be able to tell instantly which smile is fake and which smile is genuine. The fake smile has significant mouth tension – the lips are thinner, and only the mouth area is affected by the “smile”. With the genuine smile the whole face is pulled into the emotion. This is especially noticeable around the eyes, and they appear more alive in the photo that is genuine.

Getting genuine emotion

If a photographer says “Smile”, run away quick! Unless you are in the top 1% of actors and actresses in the world, it is unlikely you can pull off a genuine smile on command and you will end up looking fake. Who wants to do business with somebody who looks fake?

Getting genuine emotion in a picture is one of the most difficult parts of being a headshot specialist and is what separates a professional from an average photographer. The best method I have found is to have you become engrossed in a story where you forget about being in the studio and in front of a camera. In the first picture below, she was asked to look sad. In the second picture, she was involved in a sad story.

You may be wondering why anybody would want to look sad in a headshot?  Notice how the eyes in the second picture have an endearing quality that holds the viewers attention.  This can be combined with other elements to create a unique look that can create versatility in an actor’s or model’s portfolio. I’ll be writing a lot more about eyes in later blog posts.

Internal smiles vs Reactive smiles

Some photographers tell a joke to get a reaction, but this results in a reactive smile. There is a difference between reactive smiles and smiles that begin from within. Reactive smiles generally make you look like you cannot be taken seriously.  Neither of the following images would be suitable for a professional headshot, although they make great Facebook pics!

Capturing a genuine smile

If you’re an experienced photographer, you’ll know that a subject captured candidly looks different to a subject that has been posed. For a professional headshot photo, the subject needs to be posed or to avoid it looking like a snapshot.

So how can we capture a genuine smile if the subject needs to be posed?

When somebody smiles genuinely, it is possible to ask them to hold the smile for perhaps a second before tension becomes apparent – just enough time to focus the camera and take the shot. In the sequence below you can see the smile build as I involve the subject in a story, then when the smile is at the right point in the smile I ask her to focus on the camera so I can take the shot. For many people this won’t work at the beginning of the session, because the expression changes as they are pulled back to reality and think about the camera and “having their photo taken”. But as the session progresses and they get used to me asking this, their mind can stay with the story and I can capture the picture.

This is why I find it takes an average of 2 hours and 10 minutes to get a selection of good headshots if somebody is camera shy or unfamiliar with having their photo taken. Focusing on the camera becomes second nature and not something you think about, and it takes time to train your muscle memory so you naturally fall into the best posture and eye focus for every shot without consciously thinking about it.

Types of smile

Researchers have catalogued dozens of different types of smile. Warm smiles, playful smiles, flirty smiles, nervous smiles, hearty smiles, bemused smiles, arrogant smiles, reactive smiles, giggles, laughter, and so on. Depending on the purpose of the headshot – executive, modelling, acting, online dating – a different type of smile will be appropriate. For example, a big smile with teeth can be perfect for a commercial model, but unsuitable for a professional executive.
The important thing is that the emotion is genuine. Below are 4 different types of smile. 3 are genuine and one is forced. Can you spot the fake one?


  1. For business, a smile is necessary to counter the desirable Alpha traits and ensure you look approachable to your clients and employees.
  2. For actors and models, the right smile can make you stand and get noticed among a 100 other faces on a page.
  3. For online dating, displaying the right character is more important than simply how you look.  Getting the right smile is a big part of this.
  4. Only use headshots with smiles that look genuine.
  5. Smiles should start from within rather than be reactive to avoid looking silly and immature.
  6. Avoid photos where there is mouth tension.
  7. Don’t try and smile, you’ll just get muscle ache.
  8. To remove tension, part the lips.
  9. To get a genuine smile, have the photographer immerse you in a scenario away from the camera. It is your imagination that should cause the expression.
  10. Use muscle memory to automatically go into the correct posture, eye position and gaze for your best look so that you don’t need to switch back to thinking about this when the photographer takes the shot.
  11. Don’t retouch lines in the face that signify a genuine smile and warmth.
  12. The type of smile must match the intended use of the headshot.

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