Capturing Genuine, Heartfelt Smiles

As I slowly venture into the world of professional childhood and family photography, one concern keeps nagging at me.  What about the part where I’m supposed to make someone look at me and smile???   I’m rather introverted and also a tad shy so the thought of needing to be bubbly and entertaining fills me with dread.  As I’ve pondered this concern I’ve come to realize a few things.

First, my goal is not to take pictures of “look at me because I’m entertaining” smiles.  My goal is to enjoy doing photography while taking beautiful pictures of genuine, positive moments in families’ lives.  I can’t reach my goal by taking pictures of fake smiles.  What are fake smiles?  I’m reading a book called Positivity by Positive Psychologist researcher Barbara Fredrickson.  She talks about insincere positivity and non-enjoyment smiles, or smiles that lift the corners of our mouths but do not involve the muscles of our eyes – the muscles that lift the cheeks and create crow’s feet.  It turns out that smiles that lack the lifted cheeks and crow’s feet, or non-enjoyment smiles, are actually bad for our health!  They are also easy to spot in photographs.  While most adults have learned to paste on non-enjoyment smiles (or even genuine smiles), most kids haven’t mastered that, especially for a stranger wielding a camera.  Here’s an example – you decide which smiles are genuine and which smiles are … less genuine.


I have a picture of my own family that is similar to this one – everyone is looking in the general direction of the photographer and some family members are even smiling.  It is priceless to me and makes me happy each time I see it, mostly because I have so few pictures of all my family members together.  I understand that families want pictures of everyone looking nice together and that every family photography session is going to involve a few “everyone look at me” pictures.  But there’s much more that I want to give as the photographer.

In reaching toward my goal to capture real moments, I step outside the world of posed portrait photography and into the world of lifestyle and documentary photography.  The boundaries of these types of photography aren’t all that clear cut, but lifestyle photography involves capturing real (though at times somewhat staged) things that families do – eating together, playing together, making food together, reading together, joking together.   Maybe you clean up the house first and pick the time of day when the lighting is best.  But the stories are not made up and the activities are true to the family’s life.  Documentary photography, or photojournalism, is another step further away from posed portraits and lets people do whatever they want while the fly on the wall (the photographer) watches and works.  Lifestyle and documentary photography appeal to me because they capture so much more about the family’s life and so much more genuine emotion.   They don’t focus on “look at me” smiles, but instead capture many real moments.  Here’s an example from my own backyard.

Backyard (1 of 1)

There are ways to capture genuine, heartfelt happiness without being a bubbly, entertaining photographer.  If I’m capturing real moments with real interactions, there will be smiles present that I haven’t enticed.  In lifestyle and documentary photography it’s more the job of the family than the job of the photographer to create the moments that the photographer captures.  If these are real moments in the life of a happy family, there will be genuine enjoyment and play in the interactions.  Having fun and playing together make people smile with beautiful, genuine happiness.  All I have to do is be in the right spot and capture the moments.