A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do photographers ask you to say "cheese"?

September 20, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Why do photographers tell you to say "Cheese!" before you get your picture taken?

SDStaff Hawk replies:

The reason photographers tell you to say "cheese!" is that it forces the face into a smile. Try it yourself in front of a mirror. When you say the word, the cheeks tend to lift, the corners of the mouth tend to turn up, and the teeth tend to show. The same thing happens with the words "whiskey," "breeze," and "ready." One photographer I work for has people say "money." You'll notice the words all end in the long "e" sound, which is key. If you merely said "eee," you'd get the same effect.

One exception is the word "grin." This word, while lacking the long "e" sound, positions the face close to a smile, and the psychological effect of the word seems to do the rest. In that same category, the previously mentioned photographer has young girls say "boys" while, conversely, he has young boys say "girls." Towards December, he has people say "Christmas."

After getting people to smile, another challenge is to get everyone in a group photo to smile at the same time. Unless a smile is genuinely felt, the muscles involved in forming it quickly fatigue, causing the smile to weaken and sag into a grimace after a short period of time. B y having everyone say a given word at the same time, you have fresh smiles at the same time.

If there's one problem with this trick, it's that it gives everyone the same smile, which isn't universally flattering or natural. For some, a half-smile with a few teeth showing is best, while for others, a full smile with no teeth is the most flattering. For the rest, there's a brown paper bag.

As you can see now, simply translating the word "cheese" into another language doesn't convey the same effect, for it's the sound, not the word, that carries the smile. Just imagine what a photo of a group of French people would look like as they exclaim, "Fromage!" Meanwhile, and not that far away, the Spanish would be envious of their neighbors, as the word "queso" would contort their faces into something not unlike fish.

What do photographers tell people to say in other languages? Don't ask me; I don't get out much. If the Teeming Millions want to chime in with their experiences abroad, now's the time.

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