The Headshot: Capturing Authentic Smiles Via Residual Laughter

Excerpted from The Headshot: The Secrets to Creating Amazing Headshot Portraits by Peter Hurley

I love, love, love capturing what I call “residual laughter.” When I’m going for a smile, I’ll direct my subject toward the smile with a plan to crack them up. I’ll hit them with what should get a big, jolty, reactive smile out of them and hopefully they’ll start going into convulsions, jumping out of the frame, etc. I’m trying to knock their socks off and slap them right into the smile dimension.

As they start to regain their composure, the energy that created the laughter slowly drifts out of their body. I’m shooting them from the moment that jolt happens all the way until they’ve settled back down. In this way, I get the most authentic smiles they could possibly ever give me and I capture them at just about every level. This is an entire juggling act over the course of the session. I just love creating smiles on people’s faces, and cap­turing the residual laughter as it drains out of their bodies is a tool that you’ve got to add to your toolbox, as well.

Tara Martell

Tara Martell

For instance, I like to have people make funny faces. For some reason, many people find making a funny face hilarious. For those that do, this works like a charm. They can’t see themselves, but they know it’s funny, and the fact that it’s being recorded has them cracking up after they’ve made the face. So, I’ll go for the funny face move, and then shoot everything that happens until the person settles back down.

At the top of this post is an example that I captured of Nicole, one of my longtime clients. First the funny face, then the big reactive smile, and finally the toned down version coming off the big smile. I absolutely love this because there is no way in a million years that you could ever tell someone to look in the camera with that kind of energy. It has to happen from a reaction to the stimulus that you create. How wonderful is that? It’s a gift and, if you can get people to do this in front of your camera, you’ll enjoy every single minute of it. I know I do.

For me, this is what my work has really come to be about whenever I’m shooting commercial headshots. As they come down off these real smiles, I’m shooting. Shoot through it continuously as the smile subsides, and now you’ve entered the smile dimension. When I’m in that zone, that’s where I’m cranking SHA-BANGs out left and right. You are never going to get there with fake smiles. Never.

So, hopefully your work can become a series of these real moments happening—some serious, some smiley, but all the time focused on keeping your mojo on the move. In order to keep my mojo firing on all cylinders, I’m pulling people outside their box, but in a very methodical way. I like to say it’s like I’m playing chess and I’m 10 steps ahead of them. They don’t know what’s coming. I’m hitting them with it, getting reactions, and simply recording what’s happening. It’s transpiring because of the atmosphere that I created for them in that studio situation.

I’m building trust and the reactions I’m getting are based on that. Nicole put her trust in me, you can see it in her eyes. We connected through the camera. I’ve actually been shooting her since she was nine. I think she was 17 when these shots were taken. You can’t buy that look. It’s completely natural and, to me, it’s priceless.

The backbone of one of the techniques: building a rapport with them that creates trust. Trust allows you to mold your subject, having them team up with you on this. The reactions and smiles then come from an authentic place. They can’t fake it. There’s no shortcut, you can’t just hope that they’re going to smile genuinely. If you hone your shtick well, they should buy into it, and when they do, you’ll be getting authentic smiles over and over again.

Looking for more Hurley How-To? Download an additional excerpt from The Headshot and order your copy now!