(Editor’s note: This guest post by Andrew Darlow is excerpted from Focus and Filter: Professional Techniques for Mastering Digital Photography and Capturing the Perfect Shot, by Andrew Darlow, © Ulysses Press.)

They say: “It’s not what you say but what you do.” Well, in portrait photography, what you say to your subject is as important as what you do with your lighting, framing and camera settings. Knowing a few simple things can help your subjects relax, and at the same time help them to express themselves so that you can capture their emotions and not just a typical smiling face. I hope this helps you on your journey to capture more natural images.

A quick tickle elicits a child's smile.1. Count to Three for Great Smiles!

Being able to photograph one or more people smiling naturally with their eyes looking at the camera is a good start. To do that, I often use a tried-and-true method of saying, “Okay, on three: one, two, three!” and I take the photo when I say the number three. I don’t know exactly why the “happy face magic” enters the atmosphere when the number three is said, but it is amazing how well it works! To break the frozen grin that can happen when people are waiting to be photographed, you can say, “okay, now every one count with me to three: one, two, three!” It just so happens that saying the number three will cause your mouth to be in a position very close to a smile, so it often works very well.

For babies who have not yet learned their numbers, words like “Who’s a good baby?” with a tickle to a leg or arm (by a parent or with a parent’s permission) using something like an artificial feather can work wonders. Singing songs that the baby likes can also do the trick. A parent or relative can also hold the child and do whatever they normally do to elicit a smile, such as tickling the child’s stomach as you take some photographs. In this image, my father was singing to my son and making noises, which allowed this photo to be possible. You can also look for opportunities to take photos when your subject is looking away. Those might include full profile images, which can elicit a pensive look regardless of age. You can also have someone hold a toy or puppet next to your lens as they make funny sounds. I asked my father-in-law to look at me as I counted 1,2,3, which also attracted the attention of the little boy. Who needs a smile when you can get those types of expressions?

Camera: Panasonic DMC-LX5; Lens: Built-In @ 7.5mm; 1/400th sec. @  f/8, ISO: 400

Father and infant son

2. Take More Photos than You Think You Need

Be sure to take more photos than you think you need, which should reduce all or most of the cloning of heads that may be necessary later. It’s easy to miss seeing that someone blinked or turned at just the wrong time, even if you check the LCD. There’s no magic formula, but in general, take twice as many photos as you think you need. I captured this image of my two-month-old son and my dad at my home. The lighting was entirely from a table lamp (shown in the photo) and a halogen torch lamp (camera right). Both of those lights had the same color temperature, so it was easy to balance them when I prepared the final image. I took about 15 photos total, and this one stood out from all the others in the group.

Camera: Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro; Lens: Tamron 28-300mm XR DI f/3.5-6.3 @ 60mm; 1/250th sec. @ f/4.8, ISO: 200

3. Ask Interesting Questions for Kids Who Won’t Cooperate

For younger kids (about 3–10 years of age) who just won’t crack a smile, or from whom you want to elicit a bit more emotion, here are some things you can say and do that should help:

Ask, “What’s your favorite TV Show?” When they answer, you can converse with them a bit if you are familiar with the show, or you can ask them to tell you something funny from one of the shows. You can also ask them to act like one of the characters in the show. Viewing a clip from the show on a smartphone (YouTube is usually the best place to find them) can really help them to perk up. You’ll be surprised at the reactions you get. For siblings or close friends, you can also ask them to look into each others’ eyes and “Don’t Laugh!,” or you can say: “How about if you give each other a quick hug?” That will often elicit some funny or heartwarming expressions, like the photograph of the brother and sister.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D; Lens: EF 24-105mm f/4L IS @ 105mm, 1/640th sec. @ f/5, ISO: 800

Models for a hair salon

4. Ask Teen and Adult Models These Two Specific Things for Great Results

When photographing individual male or female models at a workshop or for a paid or test photo session, there are many things you can say to get more natural-looking images. This is especially so with models who have little to no on-camera experience. One of my favorite things to do is to ask the model to “look at the main light and think about what you would like to eat for dinner.” That will usually elicit a smile, but also a pensive look that does not look posed. Another thing I often say to models is to “Act as though you are waiting for a bus or train.” Just about everyone has done that, and I generally get some good images with that statement. For this photo for a hair salon, lighting was natural daylight and a monopod-mounted umbrella with a single shoe-mount flash unit. Throughout the session, I used some of these techniques. For this shot, I asked the male model to look at the female model. Then I asked her to turn her head slightly as I took a series of photos so that my client and I would have a selection of different looks from which to choose.

Hair & Makeup: Pirri Hair Team Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T4i; Lens: EF28-135mm, f/3.5-5.6 IS @ 80mm; F-stop: f/5; Exposure: 1/100 Sec.; ISO: 200


Jump for joy!5. Make them Jump for Joy!

Another great thing to try is to say: “If you feel up to it, can you jump for a photo (but please be careful!).” Then capture photos before, during and after the jump. Those photos can be really outstanding. In one case, a guy I photographed told me that he had a special jumping pose, and I was very happy with the resulting image. It’s easier to get “keepers” if you are using continuous lighting and burst mode on your camera. If your flash recycles quickly, you can get quite a few  well-exposed images with strobes as well.

Camera: Canon EOS T4i; Lens: EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS @ 28mm, 1/125th sec. @ f/5.6, ISO: 400

For more tips from the book, visit www.focusandfilter.com.