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Why People Say 'Cheese' When Being Photographed

Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She writes articles that are interesting to her readers.

"Say Cheese" Expression

"Say Cheese" Expression

Everyone knows the traditional word photographers tell them to say when they are being photographed. However, very few people know why that one-syllable word is used when they are in front of a camera.

"Say cheese" is the instruction used by most photographers to get their subjects to smile. By saying "cheese," the corners of the mouth turn up, cheeks are lifted and teeth are shown. When all of those things happen, the result is a great smile.

Explanation of Saying "Cheese"

The “ch” sound in the word "cheese" causes a person to position the teeth just right. The long “ee” sound causes a person to parts the lips in a smile.

The earliest use of saying "cheese" dates back to the 1940s. According to The Big Spring Herald in 1943 former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies was the first to use the word.

Now here’s something worth knowing. It’s a formula for smiling when you have your picture taken. It comes from former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and is guaranteed to make you look pleasant no matter what you’re thinking. Mr. Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his “Mission to Moscow.” It’s simple. Just say “Cheese.” It’s an automatic smile.

Since then, saying cheese has become a common phrase for people to utter when getting their picture taken. That simple command is meant to elicit a smile. Saying "cheese" spreads a smile across anyone’s face no matter whether the subject is an adult or a child.

At the beginning of the 1900s, celebrities began to have their photos taken on the red carpet and at other places. They all smile because they know their pictures will be seen around the world in the media. Therefore, they want to look their best. Saying "cheese" will make them have a smile on the faces.


Other Words to Say

Saying "cheese" today is the usual word to say to show those pearly whites, but it is not the only word that has been used throughout the ages.

During the Victorian era, etiquette and beauty standards were much different from the way they are today. In that period, a small, tightly controlled mouth was considered beautiful. Therefore, photographers did not want their subjects to smile.

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When Richard Beard, Britain's first portrait photographer, began taking family portraits, he allegedly encouraged his subjects to say "prunes" to keep them from smiling. That way, they would not show their teeth at all. Also, since most Victorians had a dental hygiene problem, they were instructed to keep their mouths closed.


Saying "cheese" is not the only word to say to elicit a smile. In fact, some photographers say it is better to use words that end in "ch" instead of "cheese" that starts with "ch." Saying "cheese" actually stretches the mouth into an unnatural, unflattering smile, but saying words that end in "uh," like "mocha" or "yoga" bring the corners of your mouth up naturally.

If you have a hard time smiling when your picture is taken, try to think of something funny. A laughing smile is almost always a better-looking one than a staged or forced one. That's why photographers use tricks to get babies and small children to smile.


Today, people love taking selfies. That is a self-portrait photograph taken with a smartphone or digital camera. What do they say since they are their own photographer?

Most people who take selfies are more focused on pouting their lips than on smiling. Therefore, they make up their own words to achieve the photo they want. Then they post their selfies on social media.

People Did Not Smile In Old Pictures

Occasions Not to Smile for Photos

There are occasions when people are instructed NOT to smile.

  1. You are told at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) not to smile when you get your photo taken for your driver's license.
  2. You shouldn't smile when your mugshot is been taken in the police department.
  3. You shouldn't smile for your passport photo.

It is difficult for face recognition software to identify people who are smiling and showing teeth on those official documents.


Jo Miller from Tennessee on January 11, 2021:

Interesting and informative, Dora.

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