Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Photos?


Ever looked at an old, black-and-white photograph and wondered, “Why the long face?” You might have heard that it was because of the cameras' long exposure times, or maybe you were told that poor dental work meant that fewer people wanted to show their teeth in old photos.

While these explanations may play a part, the main reason why people didn’t smile in old photos had more to do with culture and customs of old paintings and portraiture than it did with poor technology.

The Tradition of Not Smiling for Painted Portraits

portrait of man smiling. people didn't smile in old photos because of traditional portraits, which frowned upon wide smiles

Before photography, the main mode of preserving a family’s or person’s image was through painting portraits. It was customary for families and individuals in these commissioned, traditional portraits to have stoic, regal expressions. If they did smile, it would be only slightly.

This early custom was because wide-mouthed, toothy grins were considered inappropriate for portraiture. Even in other kinds of old paintings, a person's wide smiles were often associated with madness, drunkenness, or otherwise informal, immature behavior.  

When photography was introduced as a new way of preserving a person or family’s likeness, people continued the tradition of unsmiling expressions because it was familiar to them, and the ideals for capturing someone’s likeness had not changed.

When Did We Start Smiling in Photographs?

So what changed? How did we go from stoic expressions to saying “Cheese!” for grins? It goes back to the 1900 Brownie camera, one of the first early cameras that were accessible and affordable to the public. As photograph technology became more accessible to everyday people, photos were more spontaneous and captured candid smiles and laughter.

People smiling in black and white photos. Traditions around portrait painting is the main reason why didn't people smile in old photos, but candid photos captured more smiles

People began to prefer the amateur photos that captured their smiling, joyful expressions. The practice of photographing smiles crept into formal photography, and eventually it was culturally acceptable—and then encouraged—to smile in family photos and portraits.

Turn that Frown Upside-Down

If you’ve ever wondered what those old-time photos might have looked like with a few more cheesy smiles, now is your chance! Using Picture My Heritage, you can pose with whatever expression you want in old, black-and-white photographs.

1. Visit Picture My Heritage, and either sign in with your FamilySearch account or continue as a guest.

2. If you aren’t immediately taken to a page with old, black-and-white photos, be sure to click the top-right silhouette icon.

3. Click a photo you wish to picture yourself in.

4. Select the face you want to replace with your own.

Picture My Heritage screenshot - placing face in a black and white photo to smile

5. On the next screen, make sure your camera is turned on (if your laptop does not have a camera, you can also use your phone), and place your face where you want it in the image. A white outline of a face will guide you to the best placement.

Picture My Heritage screenshot - placing face in photo

6. Click the black button to take the image.

7. Adjust the brightness and contrast by clicking either the sun or the black-and-white circle icon and moving the slider. You can also enlarge or minimize the photo by clicking and dragging the rectangle box on the image.

Picture My Heritage - Adjusting photo on face

8. When you have finished, click either Retake, if you want to redo the photo, or Done. If you click Done, you will be taken to the final image. Save the image by clicking the black Download button, or you can return to the home page, and try other photos.

Picture My Heritage - Final photo of someone smiling in an old photo

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