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That’s your ugly smile! Use your pretty smile!

Say Cheese! Ah, the age-old trick to get you to smile long enough for the photographer to get a nice, happy, toothy picture. We work so hard to get everyone to smile in our pictures, and I get it. We want to remember the happy person. If social media has taught us anything, it is that people put a skewed version or reality forward in hopes of highlighting the best parts of their lives. A good photographer puts people in their best light, both figuratively and literally. The photographer highlights one’s best attributes and hides the faults. A smile is a good attribute, right? Then it only makes sense to smile in your pictures, right? Well, I don’t think so. In fact, the smiley pictures are rarely my favorites and almost never the shots I choose to go on my walls.

It isn’t that I don’t like a good smile. I’m not taking the Dwight Shrute stance (from the show The Office):

I never smile if I can help it. Showing one's teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.”

When a person smiles, many subtle but interesting facial characteristics and expressions can be eclipsed. Take a look here:

Where did your attention go? Did you even see her eyes drifting to her left as she was distracted by something off frame? Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine picture. Actually, I really like it! But it’s not the best one in my opinion. She does have a pretty smile, but it dominates the picture and everything else is lost, even though she has a fairly subdued smile in this shot. Also, notice that when she smiles her eyes begin to squint…..Now imagine how the photos turn out when I say, “OK, smile, but not too much; and make sure you don’t close your eyes when you smile.” Go ahead, try to do it. Do you feel awkward? Well, I bet you look awkward too.

Now look at this picture.

By now, you know my tricks. Where did your eye go in this picture? I think you see a different side of her altogether. To me, it almost feels like she is looking back at me, not just because she is looking into the camera, but because I sense from her eyes that she is communicating something, and I want to interact with the picture.

Unfortunately, we are living in a time when people are walking around with face coverings. What I have found truly amazing is how recognizable people are, even with masks. So much is communicated with the eyes alone. When you think of angry eyes, what comes to mind? What about sad, happy, confused, worried, curious, or bashful eyes? Can you picture those? Can you see those same characteristics communicated by a person's mouth? Probably a few of them, but for me, I think the eyes are far more expressive.

Once I was photographing kids at a school function and I had a parent trying to “help” me by coaching her daughter the whole time. “Stand like this, look at the camera” she would yell as if only she could give meaningful direction. Finally she yells out to her daughter, who was clearly embarrassed, “Don’t smile like that. That’s your ugly smile! Use your pretty smile!” The result was a kid trying to smile in a pleasing way while the tears welled up her eyes, crushed by the insensitive comments of her mother. Of course, all she heard was that her smile was ugly, and we had to reset to recover and get the shot we wanted. The truth is that she was trying so hard to smile that it looked unnatural and the more her mother pressed, the worse it got. Because of the nature of this event, the photos did need to have some smiling in them, but I would usually start from a more stoic pose and work into the smile by telling a joke or asking questions that gave me the real smile. Even then, I would try to time the shot to be just as the smile begins before the eyes go full squint and the smile takes over the face. My point isn’t to have an expressionless portrait, but rather to have portraits full of expression not overshadowed by the all-consuming smile.

People who like my photography will often comment on how well I capture expressions. I don’t know how true it is; I tend to be my hardest critic. It is encouraging, though, when people notice the very thing I was hoping to communicate. What is funny is that many of those same people will choose the smiley pictures when picking their favorites from the shots of their children, while very little of my work that I make public or hang in my studio has smiley pictures. It is like we are pre-programmed to value the happy emotion over all else, especially when it’s our own children, and I think that makes sense. But, I challenge you. The next time you are picking photos of your children to make prints for the wall, pick the one with your favorite smile AND the one with the best expression in the eyes. I’ll bet in a year you’ll much prefer the picture that shows that expression over the smile!

Nate Falk-photographer

Cedar Mountain Photography

Pinson, AL

edited by Kathleen Falk

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