A creative director once told me “I don’t want to hire that photographer for this because no one is smiling in any of their photographs and we need a smiling person in the photo.”

Are you kidding me? Are you crazy? All I have to do is tell the goddam photographer to take a smiling photo. What can be so hard about that?

Plenty, I’ve discovered.

Taste is the mysterious imprint every photographer leaves on a picture, it’s what makes them uniquely yours, it’s the emotional content, it’s your photographic dna. It’s impossible to quantify because taste is the sum result of your life and how you see the world.

The clothes, grooming, background, surroundings, body position, subject selection, moment in time you click the shutter, your connection to the subject, the subjects emotional state based on how you’ve treated them and yes, the expression on their face, are all a reflection of your taste.

There are two types of photographers in this world. Those who shoot smiles well and those who don’t.

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  1. dont you ever dare to call me if you need those shiny smiley people.


  2. I used to shoot no smiles, no eye contact. That was my thing. Then Interview mag made me shoot all eye contact and People mag made me shoot all smiling.

    In the end, I don’t find either so bad. I see portfolios filled with overly serious people all looking off to the left or off to the right. These portfolios mostly belong to recent college grads.

    Don’t get me wrong, I can’t shoot happy, smiling people all day long. But I’m not afraid of it anymore.

  3. I understand what you mean about taste and style. But it could be equally true to state that there are photographers who can take a certain amount of direction (without it impacting their ‘brand’ image, artistic integrity or whatever) and photographers who won’t/can’t. And anyway, if the photographer whose work you otherwise like is a pro, given the opportunity they will either convince you they are more than capable of doing what you ask because they know they can do it/can easily proove it, or turn the commission down. No?

    Or is the creative director in this instance embellishing a simple “I don’t like this photographer’s work” with the kind of justification for not liking it (work not smiley enough) that pre-emptively parries further discussion?

  4. Hey Man – You need to find photographers who are more versatile me thinks.

  5. I don’t shoot much these days BUT I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t shoot smiley happy people when the story is about doing happy smiley things. Shooting someone who has just accomplished something difficult and is showing some pride, self satisfaction or joy would be telling the story and revealing something about the person. To shoot them with a pained or dead expression on there face would be telling me something about the photographer, art director, editor and not the subject.

    Now if they just lost their home to a flood I wouldn’t expect happy.

    Too often the photo is a very nice visual that says NOTHING about the story or the subject. Many of the portraits in WIRED come to mind.

    If I want to see your vision I will go look at you work on the wall at a gallery or buy a book about you. I want your talent and vision to show me something not just about you but about the subject. If I have to chose between learning something about them or you from the photo I want them. Tell me the story.

  6. How many people are smiley in Anton’s book?

  7. The facial expression is but one of a million things that make up the emotional connection and at first I thought it was insane to focus on one little thing like that but shooting a believable genuine smile is really, really hard and people who don’t do it usually can’t.

    My method of assigning involves finding the right photographer not envisioning the end result. I hardly ever have a photograph in mind just an approach.

  8. Folks, the photo editor has it right. While there a great many generalists out there that can shoot serious and shoot smiles, the generalist that is fantastic at both is a very rare photographer indeed. Be excellent at one thing and you’ll find that the other things are not so interesting to you anymore.

    Think of it this way – the photographer that has the skillset to conjure up the great smiles is quite different from the one with those that get the genuine look on concern or candor. Both are of value, but one is better for the job at hand.

  9. What’s considered a “good” smile does not come naturally to everyone.. Some models can smile all day, others look as though they’re shipping gas. This is one of the (many) reasons I’m really into urban/industrial :-)

  10. A Photo Editor,

    Would you say that people who are “good” at shooting smiles are just more willing to compromise their personal aesthetics (if they have them)? Or do you think that these peope are just happy-go-lucky types who actually view the world in a more positive light?

    Brent Clark

  11. Peter Garner says “Some models can smile all day, others look as though they’re shipping gas”

    So, see there’s more to it than just telling someone to smile. Casting the right person and then creating the environment and then having the right crew on set and then it goes on and on… just for a simple smile.

    I could pick photographers simply based on their ability to reliably elicit certain facial expressions because the steps that lead to this are so complicated.
    You may be unaware of the specific facial expressions you and your: casting, crew, environment, attitude… elicit.

  12. alas even hitler was smiling in some of his photos and newsreels.

    I like that you use goddam like holden caulfield.

    there’s always peggy sirota.

  13. smiling takes so much effort nowadays that people don’t do it easily for free or for anyone anymore.. at least not the genuine ones. sobness.

    it’s true. im one of those who’s still learning how to get that smile on cue everytime (like the iron chef photographer :p). it’s hard cause the minute a camera gets in the subject’s face, they have a ‘template smile’ or pose that they subconsciously take out. and the more they model, the more it’s hard-programmed into them that you have to keep reminding them which is irritating. and it doesn’t matter how much you already know the model, or how much effort you put in to get to know them, it’s really like a reflex their body makes the minute they see a camera.

    that’s why i like candids. and i think that’s also why cold no-smiling pictures are generally more acceptable to put forward. sure they’re not cliche like some holiday pictures where people smile all day, but it’s not turning people off for being fake either. real smiles are genuinely hard…

    anw, been enjoying the writing p.e. , and learning from the insight..

  14. When the editor wanted Arnold Newman to photograph Alfried Krupp a Nazi war criminal to have to have a smile, Arnold the artist that he was, knew just what was called for

  15. A smile photographer? Don’t make me laugh!

  16. I couldn’t agree more. I definitely think inducing a good photographic smile takes talent. And in a way, it can be more difficult than directing body language, since most subjects are more capable of faking/manipulating their facial expressions than their body language and thus are more likely to produce horribly forced expressions. It can sometimes seem easy to induce a decent smile, but I think when it’s done really well, almost anyone can tell the difference between a Pamela Anderson and a Brigitte Bardot.

  17. i completely agree. Also, if there are no smiles in a photographer’s book, it could mean that the photographer is of the “if a person is smiling it’s a commercial picture and if it’s a commercial picture it cannot be a good picture” variety. Which is wrong on so many levels.

    Recent college grad, most likely.

  18. I think what I’ve noticed lately in the past couple of years is the sitter becoming a prop in someone’s creation. Forcing people to cut their eyes, hold their hands in awkward positions and shooting people “off guard” has created a new subset of acceptable treatments. What sells and what’s fair, IMHO, to the subject doesn’t always happen.

  19. simultaneously…..

  20. Completely agree with you, photo editor. It takes a different kind of person to attract a genuine smile from their model.

    On a side topic as a woman I personally loathe the non-smiling photos that are the norm in fashion photos. Models that appear aloof at best, moody or angry at worst don’t in any way convey a sense of pleasure in wearing the beautiful clothes they are supposed to promote… It just doesn’t make sense to me. Feels like fashion makers are shooting themselves in the foot. But of course I’m just a plain consumer.

  21. ^Nadag
    I am just a complete poser wanna-be, so my opinion comes on weak experience photo wise. But in regards to your comment with fashion shooting/smiling. If I see more upscale designers with smiley models it conveys that the clothes are weak, soft. A grumpy looking model in a certain designer tells me they feel bad ass and ready to stomp the comp if you will.
    WTF do I know though.
    Love this blog, but I do not tell anyone about it, its like a secret porn stash.

  22. Happy photos are out of fashion. The world loves emo models.
    go go emo models!

  23. Sam Jones rules for smiles, plus he can shoot dudes smiling and well, looking like dudes.

  24. I shoot warm smiling people all the time, mostly for corporate annual reports and it takes a lot to break through the barriers of some of the executives and management. To get even the hint of a smile to give them a semblance of humanity is a major effort. My corporate clients hire me to make their people look like you would actually enjoy being around them for more than a minute or two.

    Editorial, I shoot it like it is.

  25. Hi, I’m new to this site, a photographer friend told me about it last week.
    Just wanted to say its really nice to read some intelligent comments about photography, and unexpected analysis like this smiling post – strange, it actually made me go back over my work and look again at how I photograph people. That’s what I’ve enjoyed here, its not just talking about photography, but making you think about it.

    Anyway just my thoughts, this being my first post – but I’ll be back.
    Thank you.

  26. I never consciously set out to take photos of people not smiling, but that’s what seems to happen every time. Your case proved. I tend to get the itch to trip the shutter when other moments happen rather than smiles.

  27. i quoted/linked you in my blog recently about the whole “taste is the sum result of your life and how you see the world.”

    i have one too many discussion with fellow photographers, artists, filmmakers, friends on what is “good” art/film/music/photograph. it’s like, there is so much to take into consideration of how something will be looked at. is it all a matter of taste? are their agreeable ideas one can come too about what is “generally” good? it’s always been a fascinating subject to me.

    i am glad i found this blog. thanks for telling it like it is!


  28. Really, what this comes down to is a marked distinction between Photo Editors and Art Directors:

    •Photo Editors can look at a photographer’s book and see its potential. We can see that a photographer has the ability to shoot food, even if the whole portfolio is filled with still life. And, if I like a photographer’s work, I – for one – genuinely want to give that person a chance. And I will fight for that person.

    But then there’s the Art Director…

    •Art Directors have [what they call] a “vision.” (Sometimes it ends up being more of a “nightmare”, but for now we’ll let them hang onto that euphemisms if it keeps them happy.) They will then articulate that vision using a bunch of deep, profound abstract (read: VAGUE) language and then explain that when they see the right photographer, they will know it.

    So then you – as the photo editor – trot over with the portfolio from the photographer of your choice. The Art Director will flip through, get to the end, then look at you and – in all seriousness – will state very matter-of-factly: “I really don’t think this person can shoot an apple on white seamless. I only see shots of basketballs on black seamless in his portfolio.”

    At this point, the photo editor must commit every bit of his/her energy to preventing the cross-eyed look he/she longs to give the Art Director, while calmly stating, “But, clearly this photographer has a strong grasp on lighting a sphere in the same clear manner in which we were planning to shoot the apple. I really think that this person can do it.”

    The photo editor knows this is already a “lost cause”…but braces for the final SMACK DOWN from the Art Director: “I just don’t see it in the book.”

    Fine, you want to see a portfolio of smiling happy people? Right. Yeah. I’ll bet $200 then when you get it, you’ll want the frown.

  29. Has anyone ever seen a smiling person in art photography? I mean an intentional smile not one which is candid or from an appropriated photograph.

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