What I’m about to share with you in the next few paragraphs is priceless. First, lets understand that if every technical detail of your photo is perfect (lighting, focus, exposure, subject position, overall composition, and a few others I’m probably leaving out), but the expression is bad, the entire picture is worthless. You might as well photograph the back of their heads. If you do nothing else I suggest here, the rest of this section will improve your pictures to such an extent that once again, everyone who looks at your scrapbooks will be begging you for your photographer’s phone number. They won’t understand why their kids can’t look so genuinely happy (because they are) like yours do. They may even stop liking you and make up terrible rumors about your family, but your pictures will be awesome!
CHEESE…delicious to eat, terrible to teach your kids to say! It’s funny, what we always want from our kids is a natural smile, or even laughter, but what we always tell them to do is say “CHEESE!” It’s not really your fault…our parents, and their parents all taught them the same thing, but the truth is, there could not be a worse word to use for creating a happy expression. It consistently produces the most unnatural smile possible. Cheese, as a word, is probably not all that bad a thing to say. The problem comes from how we’ve taught them to say it…extremely exaggerated and drawn out. Do your pictures a favor, for get this word and lets move on to professional tricks of the trade.
Better ways to get a pleasant smile are through conversation while you’re photographing them. Of course, these would not be conversations about what they did at school today. You want to talk to them about happy things, like what’s the absolute, best thing they make for lunch at school, what’s their favorite ice cream flavor, favorite candy bar, favorite movie/cartoon character. Then shoot while they answer. Try to catch them off guard with questions like, “If we bought you a purple turtle, what would you name it?” Or, “What color turtle should we buy you?” Or, “If you could draw a giant picture on your bedroom wall with crayons, what would you draw? What color would it be (Choose this subject at your own risk. I am not legally responsible for your walls now being colored on)?” If you can coerce them into saying the word “green” (without telling them to say green), it’s usually makes a beautiful smile.
If you’re going for laughter, you’ve got to be prepared to get down and dirty! You’re going to have to talk about things like boogers, farts, poop, and don’t forget to tell them that you heard little Jimmy down the street always smells like stinky feet. Tell them you’ve been taking singing lessons while they’ve been at school, and if they will name any song in the whole world, you can sing it. They’ll name a song and you belt out some horribly made up lyrics and prepare to snap away.
Before we leave the subject of expressions, lets talk for a moment about one of the greatest of all…no expression. Yep…I just said that…a picture with no expression at all. And why in the world would I say that’s the greatest of all? Because it’s what we call a permanent expression (as opposed to a temporary one). Temporary expressions are exactly what they sound like…temporary. For example, a smile. It’s temporary because we don’t walk, sit, and sleep wearing it on our face. A happy event occurs, you smile or laugh, it ends, and you stop. A permanent expression, while not truly permanent, is the expression we maintain most of the time. It’s not happy, but it’s definitely not sad…it’s just there. Sometimes its called stoic, calm, peaceful, contemplative, cool or patient. If there is a smile associated with it, it’s a subtle hint of one, sometimes seen more in the eyes than the mouth, and is often referred to as the “Mona Lisa” smile. This is an expression that best belongs on your wall in larger portraits. If the idea seems odd to you, think back to your last trip to a large museum. Of all the painted portraits I’ve seen that date from our current time, to a thousand years ago, I can’t recall a single one where the subject had a big toothy smile. Before you get too upset with me, I’m not suggesting you stop taking pictures of your kids having the times of their lives (or at least pretending to for the ice cream you promised). I’d say that at least 90% of all your pictures should be happy ones. I’m just encouraging you to capture something different every once in a while.