How To Handle Shy Smiles in Headshots

By Douglas Gritz

Denver Photographer

Professional headshot big smile

I was asked back last week by a regular client located in Greenwood Village to capture headshots of a few more new staff members they added to their business. I arrived and began setting up. A short while later my contact pops in to say “hi” and to give me heads up that I might have some challenges ahead with a couple of the people she had lined up for headshots that day. One was very uncomfortable in front of the camera and the other she said she had a hard time finding any photos of his where he looked “natural.” No problem, I told her, I have some methods for working with both of those situations.

First up was the woman who was uncomfortable, which I picked up on as soon as she walked in the room. So I employed some of my techniques to try and help her feel more comfortable and relaxed, which seemed to help. Once I got her in front of the lens, hair where it needed to be, blouse collar adjusted, I went into my bag of tricks for eliciting some laughter, which helps to put most people at ease and distract them from their uncomfortability. She smiled, but would not laugh. But I could tell she wanted to and wasn’t like, “who is this unfunny idiot?” As you can see below, she was actively suppressing her laughter.

Professional headshot with no teeth showing

This is never a good look. First, it forces the eyes open wide, and then we are back to our deer-in-the-headlights problem. Second, It scrunches up the face in odd contortions. Simply put, it’s not flattering and not how you want to represent yourself in a professional business headshot portrait.

So why was she holding back? Almost always it’s because the person is self-conscious about their teeth (sure enough, she revealed to me after the headshot session that she did not like one of her two front teeth because it stuck out too far). I’ve encountered this situation several times before and I know trying to force someone to do something they don’t want to do is just going to result in more unflattering headshot photos. So I called an audible.

My approach usually consists of a combination of direction and humor to get the results I need. When I get someone who is trying not to show their teeth, that’s a cue for me to drop the humor and double down on direction. And that is what I did here. Soon after, we arrived at this final result that she was very happy with.

The eyes are relaxed and assured. The smile is easy and content. In other words, 180 degrees away from uncomfortable.

Next up was the gentleman who had a paucity of photos where he looked natural.

I always like to chat up a person when they first walk into whatever room I’m set up in. It gives me a chance to get a feel for them and what approach might work best to get the results we need. When I did that with this gentleman, I could tell an approach that provided precise direction was going to work well with him. I suspected that the reason no natural photos seemed to exist of him was because he was not comfortable opening up in front of the camera. So like the woman previous, I eschewed using humor and doubled-down on direction. And boy, that ended up being the perfect call because he was dynamite in executing every direction I threw at him. That helped us get to this result pretty quickly.

Professional headshot with precise direction

We reviewed together this result and others with it. We both liked this one but we were seeing more under-chin action than we’d like and the smile was close but looked a bit too forced. I said I thought we could do better. “No problem,” he said as he jumped back in front of the camera. I then gave him a few precise instructions for very minor adjustments and he dialed them all in like a pro, resulting in this killer headshot look below.

The lesson here is everyone is different and what works for one person, doesn’t mean it’ll work for all. Part of my job is figuring out what is going to be the best approach for each person that steps in front of my lens. Sometimes, like the gentleman above, I can get a sense of that right away. Other times the solution will reveal itself as we go along, like woman above who did not want to show her teeth. When you are a “professional,” excuses are not acceptable. You have to deliver results that exceed expectations no matter what the challenges are. You have to know challenges are part of the job, anticipate them, and have tools for overcoming them. For me, challenges are part of the fun of the job!

See this page for more about my services as a Denver professional business headshots photographer.

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