(Editor’s Note: We welcome Jemma Pollari to Photofocus. Jemma is a photographer on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, where she photographs in between mothering her two little boys, writing, teaching and designing. She delivers free weekly photo prompts on her blog the Promptographer Photo Prompt Guide.)

“I hate how I look when I smile!”

It’s not an uncommon complaint to hear when working as a family and portrait photographer. Maybe it’s the way her teeth look. Or it’s the way his cheeks pop out. Or she’s just 13 years old and hates this ridiculous family photoshoot that Mom is forcing on her. Whatever the reason, when you find a client who feels they look ugly when they smile, it’s a delicate problem to navigate.

In this article, I will share some tricks to help your client achieve a relaxed, cheerful look and avoid looking sullen, grumpy or arrogant.

It’s rarely helpful to force a cheesy grin. When you feel happy, it shows in a lot of different ways: All over your face, in your posture and in the way you interact with the camera. Try it in a mirror: Imagine you’ve just lost your job, your dog just ran away and you’ve lost all your money to an internet scam. Really feel that worry and despair. Now smile. Did you look happy and relaxed? Probably not.

When you force a client to smile who doesn’t want to, you won’t get the result you want. They’ll immediately worry about how they look, and the last thing you want to say is, “Smile! Hmm … OK, um … smile, but not like that …”

Try these prompts as an alternative to a cheesy grin

With your client in front of the lens, try giving these suggestions instead.

  • Imagine you have just returned home from a long overseas holiday and are greeting your favorite person at the airport. Feel the joy in your heart, the excitement of all you have to catch up about, then take a deep breath and relax into that feeling.
  • Just try to smile with your eyes and the tiniest turnup of the corners of your mouth — the “hint” of a smile. Imagine you are eagerly listening to a funny story that a friend is telling, and you’re anticipating the next twist and punchline.
  • Force a really fake, ridiculous laugh! It’ll make you laugh for real, then let your face relax naturally into a happy position.
  • Give a huge cheesy fake grin, showing as much teeth as possible, then relax. (Wait until you’ve got to the “relaxed” soft smile at the end before you click the shutter!)

Find out why your client hates their smile

Ask your client what they don’t like about their look, and then adjust their pose, your angle and the lighting to flatter their features.

  • If they hate their double chin: Ask them to push their chin out and down slightly, as if holding an orange under their jaw. Shoot from higher up and closer (a short focal length will narrow the chin). Raise the light source to create a shadow under the chin that will hide the doubling.
  • If they hate their teeth: Try a closed-mouth smile (think Mona Lisa). Open-mouthed, shoot from further back and try different angles. Remember that whatever’s closest to the camera looks the biggest, so avoid having the chin (and therefore teeth) pushed toward the lens.
  • If they hate the way their face looks: Get creative with different angles. Check in with them until you both find something that works for them. Soften the lighting — for example, harsh, direct flash is far less flattering than soft window light.
The soft window light here helps shape and smooth.

If all else fails, try getting philosophical

When you can’t get a relaxed look that your client likes, you can at least try to sooth their urge to dissect how they look.

  • For an unhappy kid in a family portrait session, try saying: Your parents want to take your photo because they are enjoying being with you so much right now they want to remember this moment forever. When they look back on the photo, they’ll remember the fun you were having, how much they love you, how beautiful they thought you looked (even if you don’t agree). That’s what the photo is for: a memory you can share in years to come.
  • For anyone who thinks they look old, try this: When you see this photo in a few years’ time, you will think you looked way better than you remember! In this moment right now, it’s true that you’re older and more world-worn than you’ve ever been before — but you’re also younger and fresher than you’ll ever be again.
  • For someone who is overly critical of their own appearance, try reminding them: Would you criticize someone else for having (insert perceived flaw here)? Judge yourself with the same gentleness and grace that you’d give to someone else’s flaws.
Reassure your client that you see their beauty, and help them see it, too.

Getting a beautiful portrait is possible despite having a client who struggles to smile (even if they tend to look like a serial killer in photos). With patience and empathy, you’ll be able to capture their inner beauty.