If you’ve ever perused a collection of old photographs, you might have noticed a peculiar trend – the absence of smiles on the faces of the subjects. From vintage family portraits to historic snapshots, the somber expressions captured in these images stand in stark contrast to the smiles that are so common in modern photographs. Why did they never smile in old photos? This article will delve into the historical, cultural, and technological factors that shed light on this intriguing photographic phenomenon.

Evolution of Portrait Photography

Understanding why people rarely smile in old photos requires a journey through the history of portrait photography. In the early days of photography, posing for a photograph was a serious and formal affair. Subjects were expected to maintain stillness for extended periods, resulting in somber expressions.

Historical and Cultural Factors

Several historical and cultural factors contributed to the lack of smiles in old photos:

  • Differing Perceptions of Smiling: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, smiling in photographs was often associated with foolishness or a lack of seriousness.
  • Long Exposure Times: The technology of early cameras required long exposure times, making it uncomfortable to maintain a smile for extended periods.
  • Etiquette and Formality: Photography was considered a formal event, and subjects were expected to project a dignified and composed image.
  • Lack of Dental Care: Dental hygiene and access to dental care were not as advanced as today, so people may have been self-conscious about their teeth.

Technological Constraints

Early photographic processes, such as daguerreotypes and tintypes, had limitations that discouraged smiling:

  • Long Exposure Times: As mentioned earlier, long exposure times meant that holding a smile for several minutes was physically taxing.
  • Blurriness with Movement: Even slight movement during the exposure could result in blurry images, discouraging any form of motion, including smiling.
  • Sensitivity to Light: Early photographic plates were sensitive to light, and sudden flashes of teeth in a smile could result in overexposure.

Role of Long Exposure Times

One of the most significant reasons for the absence of smiles in old photos was the long exposure times required by early cameras. Subjects had to remain still for several seconds to minutes, and smiling for extended periods was challenging and uncomfortable. As a result, people often opted for a neutral or stoic expression.


The absence of smiles in old photos is a captivating aspect of photographic history that can be attributed to a combination of historical, cultural, and technological factors. Understanding these influences helps us appreciate the evolution of portrait photography and the shift towards more candid and expressive images in modern times. While old photos may appear solemn to us, they provide a valuable window into the customs and sensibilities of bygone eras, reminding us of how photography has evolved to reflect changing societal norms and values.


Did people in the past never smile at all?

People in the past did smile, but they rarely did so in photographs due to the reasons mentioned in the article.

When did smiling in photos become more common?

Smiles in photographs became more common with the advent of faster exposure times and the popularization of candid and snapshot photography in the early 20th century.

Were there exceptions to the no-smile rule in old photos?

Yes, there were exceptions, especially in candid or informal photographs where subjects were caught off-guard.

Did famous figures from history smile in their portraits?

Some famous historical figures did smile in their portraits, although these instances were relatively rare.

How has photography etiquette evolved over time?

Photography etiquette has evolved to become less formal and more relaxed, encouraging natural and genuine expressions in modern photographs.

This page was last edited on 6 November 2023, at 12:00 am