Take a minute and try to imagine what you look like. Chances are the amount of detail you're able to conjure up in your mind's eye is about as detailed and accurate as a self portrait you made in grade school. When you're in a photo, however, you try to look good by replicating a visual memory. You know what a smile looks like, so you make one. The problem is, this doesn't work. You need to remember what a smile feels like and not how it looks.
The Genuine Smile
We've previously discussed the Duchenne smile — a true, believable smile — and shown you how certain muscles make all the difference, but not much about how this can actually help you out when you're getting your picture taken. A genuine smile is believed to be impossible to fake, so you need to feel some kind of genuine emotion to make it happen. This is easy enough, as you can just remember something that makes you laugh or happy. But I also believe you need to remember the feeling of a genuine smile — or any other expression — to replicate it in a photograph. If you just imagine what it looks like and try to fake it, you're probably going to get it wrong. If you can remember the feeling, you'll immediately recognise that feeling again — like a puzzle piece locking into place.
How to Practise
That's all great, but how do you accomplish this? You either need a mirror or a webcam and a little bit of time. With either tool, talk to yourself and react. Smile, laugh, look serious, angry, creepy, etc. Make faces, note how they feel, and try to replicate the same expression repeatedly. If you watch yourself you'll get instant feedback and know how you look when your face feels a certain way. If you do this with a webcam, you can also record yourself and see how it looks.
Getting the Timing Right
Once you think you've got it down, you can test yourself by setting the automatic timer on your camera and taking a picture. Because it's next to impossible to hold an expression naturally for more than a few seconds, timing is important. Assuming your camera timer beeps, you want to start your expression immediately after the last beep. This does not mean when you hear the last beep, but immediately after it. You're smiling on the silence, not the beep. How this timing translates into reality will vary, as your friends and family won't count as accurately as a computer, but the idea is to start you expression about a half a second before the camera shutter clicks.
Yes, This is a Weird Thing To Do
I did this when I was a young teenager, not to improve how I looked in photos (I hated having my picture taken) but to practise reacting to things. I was a really awkward kid and never knew how to react to certain things, so I practised in the mirror. As I got older and less awkward, I realised this helped a lot with photos. It's kind of a weird thing to do, and can seem a little self-indulgent, but practice makes perfect. If you don't want to look weird in pictures (or if you want to be able to control when you do), getting to know how your face feels can be a big help.