Why Do We Smile in Photographs?

We do it a lot of times. When a camera sets in, we have the automatic response of showing our pearly whites, sometimes preceded with a “Say cheese.” Well it can also be “Say pizza,” donuts, sweets or maybe even bacon. Err.. Whatever word you prefer and is classified under the food category that’ll surely make you grin with excitement is acceptable.

But what is really in smiling that we do it whenever our picture is taken? Why do we smile in front of the camera? And what is in your smile that makes you think it’s picture-worthy? Oh, forgive me. Sheez.

I have been wondering why medieval people were unsmiling or stern-looking in their portraits. Perhaps they weren’t happy about their outfit? But recently I learned that photography at those times required a very long exposure in capturing their subjects. It would take at least eight hours for a single photo to be captured by the very first camera invented (some historians say it would have actually taken days), which must be the probable reason why people couldn’t stand to smile. History also tells us that there were even head rests to support them as they did their poses. Talk about being already stressed out before the camera clicks- hence the plausible cause of Victorian people’s almost angry demeanor. Certainly no cheese moments for them.

Technology back in the 1800s was still underdeveloped. Until years later, another inventor came up with a more improved camera, the Daguerreotype camera, which only required 60-90 seconds to keep the subject motionless. And, at least hold a smile.

Another reason why people in the Middle Ages couldn’t manage to smile for portraits and photographs is that, they didn’t have proper dental hygiene. Unlike today, anyone who dreams of having perfect white teeth can wear dentures and voilà, can flaunt their captivating smiles!

Years passed and there came the inexpensive and efficient photography that had shorter exposure time. Not only the nobles were able to afford to have their pictures taken, but also the middle class and peasants at the time. Children were also a lovely subject for photographers too, and there are old photos showing smiling children during the Middle Ages.

Media and Hollywood are also a reason why we believe a smile and a happy countenance looks attractive when we are being photographed. Actors and actresses on TV were always being candidly captured smiling, laughing, or with their mouth open. Hence, the start of photos with smiling people!

So, that was the history of smiling in pictures. On a personal level, there linger questions such as: Why do we really smile for it? Is it because it’s the norm? Or, do we see ourselves beautiful when we actually smile? Is it because we’re commanded to say cheese, or we’re being told of a funny joke by the photographer perhaps? Does smiling in photographs make us appear happy? And I mean truthfully happy?

We can always have the choice to just frown, pout, or make a poker face or show an unforgiving look. Or even make a duck face if you please! (Ughhh.)

When I was five, I held a Kodak camera in my hand. I took pictures of just about everything at the mall. Only to find out afterwards that I won the competition of some sort of young photographers. I mean, I was just so little and didn’t know anything about photography and the only scenario that I can remember is when my dad and mom were smiling for the camera that I was playing with using. Now I don’t know if they were grinning at my smallness (because I was so tiny as a child) and like, “Aww look at her! She’s so cute and little and she’s acting like a real photographer,” or something like that. Or maybe they were beaming ’cause I actually joined that contest, the timid and tiny me. Whatever their reason was, their wide smile at the photograph was clearly evident. And hey, that particular shot was my winning entry!

I reckoned that putting a smile on my face would make me look jovial and look like I’m enjoying my life! But dear fellas, I also realised years ago that smiling doesn’t mean being happy. Sometimes there’s no connection at all! Smiling doesn’t equate to the person’s real life disposition.

We can always smile in front of people but we can never fake our smile to ourselves.

We know the truth. A smile does not mask out our despair, sorrow, and sadness. It can never masquerade true happiness. Some say, “Fake it ’til you make it.” But I believe it doesn’t apply to a person’s expression of his/her own happiness. We can never fake a smile. Yes, we can smile to a friend, to a stranger, to our loved ones but we can never smile at the fact that we are hurting or unhappy deep inside.

We can’t fake happiness, for the truth is written all over our faces.

Truth is, it’s not only our smile that’s the basis of our true spirit. It’s our eyes that give us away. Our eyes hold the truth that can never be defied and denied, for

Our eyes are the windows to our soul.

The eyes also know how to smile, likewise. When we’re happy and we smile, that smile radiates brightness to our countenance; it gives sparkle to our eyes. It shows. And it impacts the people who come close to us.

Smiling in photographs has become a tradition. It has become the norm. Nonetheless, who could say that the medieval people who looked sullen in their portraits weren’t happy and fulfilled in their lives? That was their norm. And it’s the same with us today. Who could say that we can’t smile even if we feel the otherwise? Or we can’t cry when we’re happy? Crying when one is actually overjoyed is called gratitude or thankfulness. Tears of joy, as what they say.

Painting a smile on our face entails different meanings. Whatever our reasons for smiling might be, the expression that we bear says a lot about who we are.

So, the next time you prep up for the camera, you have the options of expressions that you can make. Seriously, who cares?! If you want to look somber or unfriendly or rather frivolous or merry, go ahead! Breaking the norms is fun. And the next time a camera clicks and you’re not ready for the shot, you can say “Hey!” unsolicitedly. You’ll be surprised afterwards to see yourself almost smiling in the photo, with mouth open, though unintentionally. But at least it’s close to smiling. Though not that pretty. But then again, who cares?

Daguerrotype of author Henry David Thoreau
Dutch painting of a smiling woman
from “The Smiling Victorian”
from “The Smiling Victorian”
Ambrotype of a smiling man, 1860s
from “The Smiling Victorian”



Photo credits: All photos are grabbed from the internet.

Author’s note:

This article was shared 26 times on Facebook with its old domain name. Too bad for the author, those “appreciation badges” were gone with the old blog name. BLNT.


© Camille de Pano, 2016


Like all the other grass, he struggled. He had to. He had to raise his leaves to show us what beauty it is to lift our arms toward the sky. He had to sprout up amidst the scattered stones to show us how great it is to press forward against our stumbling blocks. He had to show the world that it is defeat to stop and just let his leaves wither and die. He had to reach the top and look up to the sun to sustain his existence, to live. He had to. He did.


The Lamppost


Yes, it’s a lamppost by the road. It seems nonsensical, dull. The gloomy horizon and the teardrops from the sky put the image in a pensive mood. The car I’m in was moving when I caught sight of these street lights in that rainy afternoon of February a year ago. With my headset snuggling in my ears and spectacles hanging before my eyes, I looked through the windowpane and saw the drizzle becoming heavier. I took a shot of the post and captured it well enough to be recognized despite the moving vehicle. The picture appears simple and empty… yet never devoid of words to tell.

This lamppost is lit when evening comes. It gives enlightenment to a dark path; it shines out so that everyone passing by may see the road they are taking. It makes it possible for drivers and commuters to perceive every intersection, highway interchanges, sign posts, turn, curb, or if there is a walkway or a pedestrian lane, to notice the people walking or crossing the street, and to see the other vehicles moving along. It lets them discern which way to go. It serves as an illumination. Or for a simple passerby, it prevents him from tripping over something that can possibly hurt him.

Without this lamppost, accidents and crashes can happen. Darkness is a deadly path to take. A dark road is never a safe course to trek. Traveling through the darkness means getting lost and deliberately pushing yourself to potential fatality. No one wants to get lost; everyone of us wants to see even a flicker of light twinkling in the middle of a dark place.

We all need a lamp that lets us see our way as we journey through our dark lives.

We all need light. Without it, we cannot live. Who can live in darkness? Can you see in the dark? When the clouds become thick and begin to hide the sun and heavy rain pours down, where is your shelter? When the night falls, what is your lamp that lets you see through?

Who is your source of light? You know the answer to the question. Why not let it light up?

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – Jesus in John 8:12

Withered At Sunset

While I am not much into photography, I believe my visual sense has always loved capturing matters around me, and sometimes for no reason at all. I know I have a deep appreciation of nature and that gratitude drives me to take the best shots that I could.

Walking around our subdivision in the nearly highland setting in the province of Laguna in the Philippines is a simple activity that I often enjoy. Not only that I get to see the lush trees, some vacant lots filled with the mixture of colors of plants, grasses and pretty flowers, and the nice mountain backdrop, I also happen to recognize the depth of each thing that I pass by. Some of the trees are so thick and rich in appearance but this particular kind of tree, which I don’t know the name, kind of caught my attention. To some this may probably be a plain picture of a somewhat dry and not-at-all beautiful tree, but for me it tells of genuineness and artistic tendency of this very part of nature. Taking some shots I suddenly noticed the colors of sunset in the background, that’s why I fell in love more with the picturesque image.

Though what we tangibly see is a withered form of a small tree, subliminally, it is a perfect illustration of life’s physical descent- that all of us will ultimately reach in time. Coupling this with the beaut of dusk, it so perfectly describes this degeneration. Nevertheless, I never intended to make the impression dismal, but this simple scenery is just a real interpretation of the natural inclination of earthly life. On the one hand, despite the gloom, I believe there is beauty in everything. And beauty is not seen superficially but rather discerned in depth, nature, and authenticity. This withered tree is just beautiful.