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One of the greatest challenges photographers face is getting people to relax and look “themselves” for a portrait. It can be like nailing jello to a tree depending on the subject and his or her mood that day. Oftentimes people are simply too tense or self conscious when facing a camera to really let their guards down – thus denying you a chance to capture their relaxed, natural expressions.

This situation makes a photographer’s job multi-faceted. If it was only a matter of pointing a lens and pressing a button, we’d be awash in stunning portraits. Yet the nuances and skill required for capturing such photos goes beyond technical know-how.

Portrait photographers are specialists in human behavior, and have to be capable of summoning certain expressions and emotions from their subjects – just like the director of a movie. If there’s one skill that can help, a skill prized above all others in portraiture, it’s the ability to make people laugh and smile. 

Think of the cliche “Cheese!” utterance that millions of people have made at the behest of a photographer. The word forces the lips to part and creates a faux-smile. How much better would all those photos have looked if the photographer had elicited genuine laughter instead? 

Following is a list of ideas that will help you to have your subjects laughing and grinning during your next portrait session. Every situation is unique, so not all of the phrases or ideas may be appropriate at all times. However, there’s something here for almost any photo shoot whether you’re capturing kids or a newlywed couple. Just remember to keep it fun, have some jokes on hand, and if something doesn’t work then try the next idea!

15 Ideas to Get People Laughing For a Portrait

1. One of the most common photographer strategies is teasing. This works wonders for many people. It’s easy when there’s at least two people in the photo. Try taking a few shots, and if you need the subjects to relax at that point, say, “That was pretty good, but now pretend that you like each other!” Be ready to get the photo the moment a smile appears.

2. Groups laugh easily together, sometimes they just need a push. A great line that works like a charm is, “I’ll try one more photo to see if you can all keep your eyes open this time.”

3. For weddings, try saying “For this next shot, I want you to pinch the bottom of the person sitting next to you.” This one will have people laughing immediately, so be ready with your finger on the button when you say it!

4. Another wedding or group technique, although not necessarily used to produce laughter as much as relaxation, is to tell the group that you’ll be taking the photo “on three” and then count “1-2-3” before taking the photo as promised on “three.” Immediately following, pause a bit to allow the group to relax, and then take a few more quick shots while everyone isn’t expecting it. Trickery works!

5. Try this for your next group photo: Have everyone point to a particular person for one shot. If the group is a family then it’s best to have everyone point at each child for successive photos. This will have everyone laughing and segue to the right moment for making the family or group photo.

6. What if you’ve got a couple in the studio who aren’t looking very happy? A bit of play acting can turn those frowns into smiles. Try looking through the viewfinder while keeping your finger on the button ready to shoot. Then, while keeping the camera in place, slowly raise your eyes above the camera as if you’re spying at your neighbor over a wall. Stay serious and intense. Your people will laugh as they wonder what you are up to.

7. Kids can be a monumental challenge when you want them to smile. One phrase that often works is “fuzzy pickles!” shouted at random moments. Other effective lines are “Dad’s got smelly feet!”, “Mom’s got a big bottom!”, “monkey boogers!” and “don’t smile!” You can also ask them to say these lines with equal effectiveness.

14 Ideas to Get People Laughing For a Portrait

8. If you’re shooting a family or group with children, and one of the kids won’t smile, try saying, “Okay I want everyone to smile except Jimmy!” This often breaks the spell.

9. Kids cannot help but laugh at fart jokes and noises. If you have a tough customer, try making a fart noise and saying “Excuse me!” This crude technique is amazingly effective if a little embarrassing.

10. A more graceful approach is to tell adults, “Now think of that special someone whether they’re real or make believe!” Many times this will produce an instant softening of the eyes, so again, be ready to shoot when you speak.

14 Ideas to Get People Laughing For a Portrait

11. If you have a bed nearby when shooting, ask adults to jump up and down on it like kids. This is guaranteed to break any seriousness. This also works great with kids too!

12. For pre-teens and teens, there are some go-to lines that usually do the trick. With girls, try having them walk a few steps towards you and then do a modeling pose as if they’re on a runway at a fashion show. It depends on the girl, but many love the thought of being a model and will respond favorably.

13. Another technique is to ask your young lady for a smile. When she does, tell her, “That looks so fake!” She will almost certainly give you a genuine laugh or smile.

14. For young men, you can try this: Ask him to smile for his girlfriend or admirers. He will probably give you a polite smile. Get ready to shoot and then say, “She’s not THAT ugly, is she??” He will laugh!

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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