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How to put your best face forward for the camera

For as long as she can remember, Marla Thirsk has been the poor soul in photos with one eye half-closed, looking in the wrong direction, lips "doing something funny," as if caught midsentence.

For as long as she can remember, Marla Thirsk has been the poor soul in photos with one eye half-closed, looking in the wrong direction, lips "doing something funny," as if caught midsentence.

"My mother's nickname for me when I was a child was 'ugly monkey,' because that's what I looked like in photos," said Thirsk, an artist who grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and now lives in the town of Ucluelet. It bothered her so much she would go to great lengths to avoid being photographed.

Now 59, Thirsk no longer minds being a picture's comic relief. But as the snap-happy holidays approach, many people who consider themselves unphotogenic dread fighting losing battles with cameras that seem to hate them.

The good news is that a slight turn of the head, tilt of the chin, wardrobe adjustment and, often, mood adjustment can improve how anyone looks when the flashes are flying. Lighting and camera angle also make a big difference.

We asked several photographers to offer advice for getting families to look their best in photos during this shutterbug season.

And if that doesn't help, you can do as Thirsk has done: Embrace it.

"When I'm 90 years old, I'll look back and think I was such a character," she said.

Create good vibes: Being photogenic "is really more a mental issue than a physical issue," said J.D. Wacker, a Wisconsin photographer and author of Master Posing Guide for Portrait Photographers (Amherst Media), which comes out with its second edition next year. If you're not enjoying yourself, he says, "it shows through."

Feeling confident, comfortable, and happy translates to better photos, so Fort Lauderdale, Fla., photographer Danny Steyn said he jokes and engages families in relaxed conversation to help them forget about the camera. Loosening people up also helps steer people away from their go-to smile or pose, which usually isn't their best look, Steyn said.

Turn and tilt: Of course, plenty of people with great attitudes can take horrid pictures, so there is a physical element. But posing can fix that.

A more sculpted face, because of how the light hits the high cheekbones and other angles, can look good facing the camera straight on, said Bill Robbins, chairman of the still photography program at the Brooks Institute, a visual arts school in Santa Barbara, Calif.

A rounder face tends to look better when turned 5, 10 or 20 degrees to the side, Robbins said. People with asymmetrical faces or distinctive features, such as droopy eyes, very thick eyebrows or a bulbous nose, also photograph better turned at a slight angle.

A handy trick for most everyone is to stretch their head and neck forward and tilt their chin down a notch, which remedies multiple chins and emphasizes the eyes, Wacker said. Rarely is it flattering to tilt the chin up, which hides the eyes and gives a view of the nostrils. In the same vein, taking photos from a higher angle, slightly above eye level so that people are looking up at the camera, is almost universally flattering.

The more angles your body can create, the better, Wacker said. Tilt your shoulders and tip your head toward the higher shoulder to get a more feminine look; tip your head to the lower shoulder to appear more masculine.

To improve how a body looks in photos, Wacker likes to "divide and conquer": Position arms and hands in front of the midsection, or stand partially behind a family member, to create the illusion of less mass. To cinch a thick waist, turn your body for a three-quarters view, then square your shoulders to the camera, Wacker said.

Rather than have your hands hang at your side, which looks heavy, hold on to something or rest them on your thighs, hips, arms, or pockets, Wacker said. Having some separation between the arms and body also highlights the waist.

As awkward as it might feel, it can help to practice these techniques in front of a mirror until you like what you see. Keep practicing until the effect can be achieved naturally.

Dress and groom: Most people know that darker solids and vertical stripes are more flattering than bright colors and loud patterns, but when cameras are snapping it's really time to pay attention. It is not the time to show off your new horizontally striped neon shirt, no matter how trendy. It is also not the time to try a new haircut, spray tan or eyebrow waxing procedure, lest it not turn out as you hoped, Steyn said.

For formal group shots, Steyn advocates harmony of color - not identical shirts, necessarily, but some uniform palette - so that everyone gets equal attention in the photo. Pick colors that are flattering to everyone in day-to-day life.

Robbins recommends soft colors and advises against wearing white shirts, for all skin tones, because the brightness draws the eye and distracts from people's faces.

When it comes to hair, men without any should position themselves so light doesn't bounce off the tops of their heads, and women and men with thinning tresses should be careful of backlight and backgrounds that might peek through, Robbins said.

Makeup also is important, even for women who don't normally wear any, said Janna Giacoppo, a portrait and fashion photographer based in LA. A foundation or tinted moisturizer will even the skin under a harsh flash, Giacoppo said.

Smile (but not too big): Saying "Cheeeese!" usually forces a frozen, unnatural expression, so try bringing out a more natural smile through laughter and conversation, Wacker said.

Smiles are personal, so ignore this if you have a spectacular Julia Roberts grin, but a more toned-down, less toothy smile tends to be more generally attractive, Robbins said.

And if you can't get everyone looking good in one shot? Hello, Photoshop.