Want to Shoot a Portrait of Substance? Leave Out the Smiling!

Rodney Smith of The End Starts Here has written an interesting piece on the topic of smiling, and argues that smiling is a “false sentiment” that separates a casual photograph from a portrait:

The truth is no portrait of substance has people smiling. Look at the history of painting, Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Velasquez, Sargent, Vermeer, DaVinci, etc., the subjects gaze to the viewer is neutral at best, neither inviting nor forbidding. It is there for the viewer to see and feel.

Smiling is like much of American popular culture, superficial and misleading. It is part of our vernacular, but it should be expunged in photographs.

You can find some famous portrait paintings made throughout history here. Virtually all of them support this argument.

Smile (via A Photo Editor)

  • Damien Bouvy

    The historical reason behind the lack of smiling in paintings is simply that, unlike photography, painting instantaneous.

    “Now if you could hold that smile for the next 6h, it’d be perfect!”

    Just try and hold it for 5min, you’ll understand right away why they did’nt smile!

  • Sam Whited

    Though I personally like portraits without smiles, I disagree overall. This sort of thing goes in and out of style as times change. Some artistic periods seem to think that smiles decrease the value of a portrait, and other periods think that portraits should contain smiles to be considered serious.

    It’s just one of those artistic trends that comes in and out of style.

  • Ryanroehl

    Yeah I think this is a little bogus, I am not a big fan of smiling in portraits my self, but I think there are better arguments against it.

  • Rick Bennett

    As others have commented, comparing painted portraits to photographic portraits is asinine. You might as well say “No portrait of substance has back-lighting”, or “No portrait of substance was shot digitally” or “No portrait of substance shows nose hair.”

  • Artguy20

    Maybe it’s all about bad teeth!! :)

  • Rob Mulligan

    I’m with Damien. Even in the early days of photography, shutter speeds were too slow to ask the subject to hold a smile.
    In addition, portraits were usually commissioned by the moneyed class, and they wanted to portray a sense of gravitas.
    You want smiles? Look at almost any portrait of the Dalai Lama.

  • 9inchnail

    That’s some bad color noise in that Van Gogh portrait. Should have painted with a lower ISO setting. n00b.

  • Sebastián Soto

    And some of them seem to have Instagram filters applied. Hipsters…

  • stanimir stoyanov

    I agree that smiles (can?) make portraits look superficial or at least very common/uninteresting. Just compare the following:



    Can you imagine the Afghan girl portrait with her smiling?

  • Sara Frances

    When analyzing smiles in photographic portraiture, the best example is John Singer Sargent, who is considered by most experts to be the father of contemporary portrait images of people. Yes you will find a few Sargent portraits with smiling subjects, including teeth, and others with serene, quietly pleasant expressions – almost a smile. But many more are serious, substantial,  challenging; lots of women with attitude. The point is not the smile, but the personality that comes through. And yet sometimes the most engaging photo of a child has a full-blown smile, natural, unexpected, a little minx of personality with joy of life.

  • Steven Blackwood

    Some funny comments (higher ISO, indeed!)  and some good critiques of the premise presented. The author would have made a more compelling case if he has shown PHOTOS illustrating his point. I myself would prefer it if my family stopped grinning like idiots in photographs but, somehow, they believe that the lack of a smile indicated unhappiness, rather than the way we usually look. (This is why I usually take pictures from a distance.)

  • cpm5280

    > “Smiling is like much of American popular culture, superficial and misleading. It is
    > part of our vernacular, but it should be expunged in photographs.”

    Issuing proclamations like this is a waste of brain activity on the author’s part and reading it is a waste of time for the rest of us.

    Go shoot something, preferably a portrait of someone laughing and smiling.

  • Laura Barisonzi

    Last time I checked everyone in the world isn’t serious or bored (or stiffly posed). This type of portraiture originated in posing for paintings, then posing for portraits with long exposures and then now posing for portraits with complex lighting. If the point of portraits is to capture a person’s personality I don’t see why some of them shouldn’t be more natural or smiling.