I’m often asked, “Should I smile in my headshot?”. My professional opinion in most circumstances is, yes.
As a headshot and event photographer I’ve photographed thousands of faces. Between taking the photos and editing them, I’ve spent much of my life studying faces close up. I’ve concluded people just look better when they smile.
But, I’m also a bit of a geek, and I prefer facts to opinions, so I decided to share the science supporting my preference for smiling headshots with you.
Research suggests smiling in headshots increases attractiveness and perceptions of competence
A study published 30 years ago in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that smiling increases attractiveness compared to a non‐smiling neutral expression. The study also found smiling subjects are attributed greater degrees of sincerity, sociability, and competence.
It’s a little more complex than this though. A more recent 2014 research analysis suggested that a smile in and of itself isn’t enough to elicit these favourable responses. The perceived genuineness of the smile is also critical.
These genuine smiles are known as Duchenne smiles, named after French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne.
Duchenne made a distinction between smiles where the cheek muscles are engaged to raise the cheeks and form crow’s feet around the eyes, and smiles where only the corners of the mouth are raised (non-Duchenne smiles).
Duchenne smiles, like that of my friend Vincent here, are rated more positively, i.e. more authentic, genuine, real, attractive and trustworthy, than non-Duchenne smiles, according to the analysis published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
So whilst our self perception might be that we look better without the crows feet, science disagrees.
Furthermore, non-genuine smiles were associated with unfavourable perceptions of competence, cooperativeness, and trustworthiness.
Interestingly, the analysis also suggested that the perception of smiles was more favourable if the smile was elicited naturally, rather than posed.
So how do you make your smile more genuine for a headshot?
One trick I use is to ask my headshot subjects to laugh rather than smile, as it’s more reliable at activating those cheek muscles.
Even if it starts out as fake, the social awkwardness and silliness of performing a spontaneous LOL usually generates a genuine smile shortly after.
Smiling doesn’t just make you look better, it also makes you feel better
My scientific interest in smiling pre-dates me becoming a photographer. Over 20 years ago I did a liberal arts degree. One of the core subjects was Non-Verbal Communication – ‘body language’ in laymen’s terms.
As part of my assessment I had to come up with a hypothesis and conduct an experiment to investigate it. The hypothesis was that smiles were contagious.
I enlisted the help of my sister, and together we tested the theory. We walked apart down Adelaide’s Rundle Mall smiling at the strangers we passed.
We kept score of how many people smiled back, and their gender. I can’t remember the exact figures, the paper’s probably still in a box in my dad’s garage, but of a sample size of about 100 a clear majority smiled back. Smiling is contagious and the research supports this.
One thing we didn’t expect in conducting this experiment was how good it would make us feel. The simple act of smiling at a stranger and having them smile back made us happier. The chemicals smiling releases in our brains are perhaps the key to understanding why we rate smiling headshots more positively.
The thing is we tend to mimic the positive emotions of others. So when we see a smile it will either elicit a smile from us, or create a positive feeling within us. This releases happy chemicals in our brains. The good feelings these chemicals create in turn makes us more inclined to rate that person positively.
The photos below illustrate the difference between smiling and non-smiling headshots.
The subject, Anna, looks great in both photos, and she selected the non-smiling one of herself, but which one do you connect with more? Science predicts it’s the smiling one.
When shouldn’t I smile for my headshot?
It isn’t always ideal to be smiling in a headshot.
Smiling tends to make the subject look friendlier, more approachable and open. But for certain job roles, or circumstances, this may not be desirable.
The European Journal of Social Psychology study also found smiling subjects were perceived to have lesser levels of independence and masculinity.
It’s reasonable to conclude from this that certain roles might not suit smiling headshots.
You wouldn’t want a neurosurgeon preparing to operate on you with a big grin on their face. Likewise a smile probably isn’t the ideal expression for the captain of a warship, such as leadership consultant Will Martin, pictured above, once was. The expression ‘I want to be taken seriously’ comes to mind here. Some things aren’t laughing matters.
For this reason, when I photograph CEOs and other senior executives, I suggest that as well as getting smiling headshots, we also take some for when they have serious news to share.
No one wants to see a smile on the CEO announcing staff cuts, or a profit downgrade, that would be more douche than Duchenne.
Clothing and facial orientation also influences how you’re perceived in your headshot
The way you’re perceived in a headshot comes down to more than your smile. Your clothing has also been shown to influence the perception of your intelligence.
Dressy or more formal clothing out-performed casual or artsy clothing in a 1991 study of students. They were perceived to be more intelligent and given higher expectation of scholastic achievement. It seems obvious, and the science backs it up.
Even the angle with which you present your face to camera plays a part in ratings of attractiveness.
Presenting your full-face to camera, as opposed to head turned away, was associated with a higher attractiveness rating in a study published this year in Perception.
The study also found that for non-smiling subjects, people were rated more attractive when their eyes are looking the same direction as their head. Intuitively this makes sense, sideways glances look cute when you smile, but maybe a bit suss when you don’t.
Whilst the science is widely supportive of smiling if you wish to be perceived positively in your headshot, it is not the only way to shine.
People look longer at emotionally expressive faces
One study published in Nature noted that humans look longer and more attentively at any emotionally expressive faces over neutral faces.
From an evolutionary perspective, facial expressions, both positive and negative, help us to make quick assessments of friends and foes. So smiling or otherwise, the faces and photos that are different to those in their surroundings tend to get more attention.
If you want to stand out from the crowd in your headshot, having a strong facial expression or hand gesture will get the viewers attention. A scream, frown or funny face may be as good at getting attention as a smile, but whether it’s a good strategy really depends on your audience and objective.
For artists and creatives it’s fun to experiment with different expressions. For executives perhaps the market isn’t ready yet?
Meanwhile, science agrees a good smile remains a safe bet for both standing out and creating positive feelings in your headshot. And if my own experience is anything to go by, you and your photographer will have more fun at a smiling headshot session than a serious one.
What do you respond in a headshot? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Last updated September 7, 2021.