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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Science of Smiles

Microsoft Office Clip-Art Image, used under Creative Commons 3.0 license

On an old episode of 'Friends,' Chandler and Monica were going to get engagement photos done. Big problem, though: every time a camera is pointed at Chandler, he breaks out in a hideous grimace when trying to smile. Hilarity ensues.
It may have been funny in a sitcom, but as a photographer trying to get a "natural-looking" smile from portrait clients, it's no laughing matter when your clients' posed smiles are on the hideous side. As it turns out, there's a neurological basis for what happens...and knowing what it is can help you avoid it.


Smiling seems like such a simple thing -- you see a good friend you haven't seen in a while, and you grin. But if that same friend (or a photographer) points a camera at your face and asks you to smile on command, instead of a natural expression you produce a forced grimace. An act you can perform effortlessly dozens of times a day becomes nearly impossible to perform when someone simply asks you to do it. Why? As neurologist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran explains in his book, "Phantoms in the Brain":
"The reason these two kinds of smiles differ is that different brain regions handle them, and only one of them contains a specialized 'smile circuit.' A spontaneous smile is produced by the basal ganglia...and the evolutionarily older thalmus.

When you encounter a friendly face, the visual message from that face reaches the brain's emotional center and is subsequently relayed to the basal ganglia, which orchestrate the sequences of facial muscle activity needed for producing a natural smile. The entire cascade of events happens in a fraction of a second without the thinking parts of your cortex ever being involved."
"But what happens when someone asks you to smile while taking your photograph? The verbal instruction from the photographer is received and understood by the higher thinking centers in the brain. From there it is relayed to the motor cortex, which specializes in producing voluntary skilled movements, like playing a piano or combing your hair. Despite its apparent simplicity, smiling involves the careful orchestration of dozens of tiny muscles in the appropriate sequence.
As far as the motor cortex is concerned, this is as complicated a feat as playing Rachmaninoff, though it never had lessons, and therefore it fails utterly. Your smile is forced, tight, unnatural."

So how does knowing the science behind how the brain handles smiling help photographers? Well, clearly the most "natural smile" is one that comes from a genuine emotional response, and not a forced one. Other than some professional models who actually practice smiling in front of a mirror to "train" their muscles, very few clients are going to be any good at producing a smile on demand. We need to find ways to tap into genuine emotions, not just keep repeating "say cheese."
A few strategies I've found useful for getting genuine, emotional smiles:
* Music: Preferably their own choice, not mine. Encourage clients to bring a CD or their iPod, and put it on your studio stereo. It gets their mind off of trying to smile, and relaxes them. One teen male I shot last year, who really didn't want to have his photo taken, brought an iPod full of death metal...he was sullen and uncooperative until the music came on, then his face lit up and he started "rocking out." It wound up being a fun session with some great shots!
* Patter: Ask them questions about their life, their family, their friends -- things they're emotionally connected to. Have the camera ready while you're talking, so that when you hit on something that connects with them, and the natural smile happens, you've got your finger on the shutter release. With teens, talking about a girlfriend or boyfriend (or someone they *wish* was in that category if they don't have one) is a good approach. Prompting them to imagine that person in a bikini or speedo never hurts, either...
* Surprise: If you've ever taken photos of children, you've probably pulled out a stuffed animal or a toy, hidden it behind your back, then whipped it out playing "peek-a-boo" with the child. It's very effective. Don't be afraid to try something similar with teens or adults, as surprise is genuine and emotional in them as well. I was once frustrated with the forced smiles I was getting from an older couple, and after 20 minutes was running out of patter to try. I finally simply said, "Hey, you two, look here," and then stuck my tongue out at them. It was genuinely surprising to them, and we got the best photos of the session from their reaction!

Whatever you try, keep in mind the most important point: that the best smiles are emotional responses, not forced poses. To get real smiles, you need to connect with your subjects on an emotional level, and not just a casual one. Think about what makes you smile when nobody else is around, and chances are good that the same kinds of thoughts can get your clients to do the same thing. It not only results in better photographs, but it makes sessions more fun and relaxing as well. And it's got solid neuroscience behind it.

1 comment:

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