Don't smile, just relax

Don't smile, just relax your face

is something I frequently tell people in front of my camera. I'm drawn to the ambiguous and not easily decipherable.

The face without a specific expression is something very interesting, it's the mold that you derive every other signal from, if it's anger, fear, happiness and deserves far more credit than it gets.

Often, when I want a friendly expression, I ask our model to relax and first start smiling when we say "Now!", because keeping a put on expression for longer than a few seconds is genuinely difficult for most people.

Before I say now, I usually have taken a few photos already, so I have the neutral expression as a shot available as well.

During a portrait project the neutral ones were my favourites and I even got some with closed eyes, that usually shift the expression from unknown to peaceful.



Often when photographing people, I don't understand why they try to smile all the time. They look perfectly fine or interesting or beautiful by just looking at me. For CV pictures I understand that a slight smile is beneficial, but always?

Other Photographers

In one of the German photography magazines I liked to buy when I lived down at the border, there as a photographer who had a sticker on their camera reading:

Don't smile

and I found that fascinating. Back then I had very little experience having any people in front of my camera, so I couldn't really imagine anyone would ever read what ever I'd stick on my camera, no matter how big the sticker.

A lot of our photographic inspiration actually have many shots of people who don't smile, both in street photography and portraiture.


See me. Meredith wearing @7115nyc #vscofilm

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My Own Facial Expressions

In public I spend a lot of time smiling at people, mostly because I want to re-assure them that I'm not a threat, but just a curious guy, be that in crowded public transport, on the street, at the airport security. Trying to make people feel welcome and like they can talk to me if I'm standing in their way.

When I'm very much out of energy that disappears from my face and I don't really look at anyone, but focus on my phone.

On the other hand, when with friends or family, I don't necessarily smile the same way, I feel free to not have to smile much, but to just have a conversation without spending a lot of body language or mimics. It's unnecessary, because they know who I am and that I don't mean them harm.

Scientific Sources

Recently I came across Why It Seems as if Everyone Is Always Angry With You, a brilliant article on the subject by the New York Times, which describes why facial expression more frequently are mis-categorised by people who had to navigate a lot around conflict as kids.

Do you have a camera reflex? Do you think about looking as happy as possible? What does a neutral face look like to you?

Please let me know in the comments, I'm painfully curious!

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Written by: Jonathan M. Hethey tagged with blog, portrait