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Photography Help! Eradicating stiff, nervous and awkward subjects forever

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Photography Help! Eradicating stiff, nervous and awkward subjects forever

As an artist the thing that drew me to photography in the first place was the way you could capture relationships with a camera. In my opinion this is the most amazing component of what cameras allow us to do. With just one click a relationship and it’s current moment can be archived forever. What a magical thing!

I’m pretty lousy at photographing a lot of things – architecture, food, newborns and large groups, just to name a few – but I do love capturing the beauty found in the connections we have with the ones we love. Taking all the cheese out, this is the air beneath my wings. To be true to myself, my art and the ones around me I’ve chosen to only photograph what I’m good at. It’s not much (when you consider all the available genres where photographers are needed), but again, capturing relationships is what gives me life. Now, here comes the tricky part: Relationships captured genuinely is no easy task! I mean let’s be honest, having our faces in front of a giant camera is no easy task! Now put those two pieces together and add a photographer who is requesting everyone to just “be yourself” and you’re almost always stuck with frozen muscles, half smiles and sweaty pits (from both the subjects AND the photographer).

Did you know that there is a way to prevent stiff, nervous and awkward subjects for every single shoot you do from here on out? It’s true! I have a pretty no-fail answer to all your frozen-half-smile-sweaty-pit moments. Ready for it?

GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO DO (and never say look here and smile).

Always-always I show up for every shoot I do with a plan. I might not always have a plan for hot spots, poses or even what to do with the overwhelmingly bright, summer sun, but I ALWAYS have a plan for how to have a little fun.

Me: “How do you feel having your pictures taken today?”

Subject(s): “We’re okay. I mean we’ve never really done this before as a family.”

Me: “Awesome! Follow my lead. I promise to guide you through every step of our time together. All you have to do is relax.”

Almost always that’s just what they do. When they realize I don’t have high expectations for them to “perform” in front of my camera they breathe a giant sigh of relief. What our clients need is for us to be the boss. And, if we’re the right kind of boss they’ll become faithful clients.

Now for some examples …

Toddler to the left was so stinkin’ cute and lively, but he was a mover and he was a shaker! He had all kinds of plans and none of them included having his picture taken. My move: “Let’s all have a good laugh! You ready? 1 … 2 … 3 ….HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!” That “HAHAHAHAHA” was me laughing nice and loud all by myself. Next round? They joined in! Or maybe they didn’t. Honestly I can’t quite remember. I do know though that they thought I was pretty ridiculous and the daughter laughed and the rest of them enjoyed themselves and gave my camera genuine smiles. Christmas card picture secured!

I was taking pictures of the daughter all by herself. She was sitting all cute and sweet on a chair. Then, I had mom come around the corner and surprise her. And, this is what happened …

“A, when I say GO! give mama the tightest bear hug ever! Okay?” “OKAY,” she excitingly replied! “GO!” …

Alright, G (husband) you have my permission to squeeze and hug and kiss and grab her however you wish. Enjoy yourself. I gave a wink, he knew just what I was talking about and I snapped away …

“Hmmm … I wonder what would happen if daddy tickled you?”

This picture is of my mom and dad. I told my dad to pick my mom up. Those pictures I love very much, but this one takes the cake. He was simply setting her down and the joy that seeped out of them from being asked to be teenagers again was electric. Giving them a simple task made my job ridiculously easy.

“E, where’s Dadda’s tongue … teeth … eyes … hair?” This series of pictures got enlarged and framed in a hallway of their home.

“Alright Mum, alright Dad … each of you snag two kids and hold on tight!” The chaos that ensued for the next two minutes created about five photos that ended up in their final proofing gallery.

“P, tell her something that’ll make her blush. Don’t mind me.” Snap, snap, snap …

This photo was taken as I was simply having a conversation with the couple. I love to spend the session getting to know my subjects and often I am still snapping pictures all the while. I believe here I asked them each to tell me something quirky the other person does.

I loved this session so much. The boy on the left was bawling when I showed up because he didn’t want his picture taken and to add insult to his injury mom put him in the same stuffy sweater his brother was wearing. He was not a happy boy. I had my work cut out for me and I worked like a dog. I can truly say that this session is one I’m very proud of. I adore so many images from it.

Here I was hosting another laughing contest. And, yes, again I laughed LOUD by myself the first time. Then I told the boys it was sad they couldn’t beat me. The next few rounds they beat me for sure …

I made a funny face at her and then asked her if she had any funny faces. This image I have hanging in my office.

“E, can you hug mama tight, tight, tight!?” And, this … sigh …

“Let’s make a ‘Daddy Sandwich!'”

With every picture above the moment didn’t just happen. All of them came about with a little bit of guidance from me. The beauty is that for most of my subjects once I get them loosened up and enjoying themselves the remainder of the shoot flies by.

Are my photographs perfect? Heck no.

Is the lighting always just right when the moment occurs? Not at all.

Do I chop off limbs? Absolutely.

Do I miss the focus because I’m enjoying myself so much? Sure do.

Does it really matter when genuine relationships are captured in a way that is pure and real and heart-wrenching? Not in my humble opinion.

I believe strongly in knowing your stuff technically, but it’s important in the midst of all the fun posing, props and edits we don’t lose sight of the person(s) we are capturing on camera. I believe as photographers we hold a very important role in preserving life and memories in a way that no other medium can. Let’s do it in a way that allows our subjects to relax, have a little fun and truly and genuinely be themselves!

Jessica Cudzilo is the photographer behind 503 Photography based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also the owner and creator of 503 |online| Workshops, turning wannabes into photographers one workshop at a time.

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  1. Amanda
    August 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm —

    Jess, this is a great post! I have read your blog also and you have such a wonderful way of communicating!

    This resonated with me like you can not imagine! Helping people to feel comfortable and natural in front of the camera is so important! Smiles are genuine and joy comes through in your photos! Such a great article! Thank you!

  2. August 27, 2011 at 7:04 am —

    These were absolutely wonderful reminders that we all should be having fun while snapping those precious shots! Thanks SO much!

    Here’s a cute shot that I snap of a clients daughter when I found these flowers near by and handed them to her. The look of surprise…and I was ready with the camera!

    • August 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm —

      There is nothing more satisfying then being ready when a moment like this unfolds. Too cute. Well done!

  3. Julie D.
    August 27, 2011 at 7:21 am —

    I am a proud alum of one of Jess’ AMAZING 503 photography workshops (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, people!). Love the article, the photos, and as always, the honesty and inspiration.

  4. Chel
    August 29, 2011 at 9:06 am —

    Thanks so much! You helped me get some great pics of my kids this weekend when they did NOT want to cooperate. This is a fabulous post. Thank you!

    • August 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm —

      Oh yay! So fun to read that my tips & tricks are already being used successfully. ; )

  5. Kiki
    September 8, 2011 at 2:03 pm —

    Wow! Can you come take our next round of family photos!! Texas isn’t THAT far! 😛

    • September 13, 2011 at 10:56 am —

      How ’bout you head on up here to the beeee-autiful Midwest! ; ) I’d love to take your family photos!

  6. September 20, 2011 at 11:59 am —

    Jess! Yes, I am yelling your name because I am literally THAT excited. Ha. Thank you for putting together such an informative and inspiring post. It’s so easy (at least for me) to sometimes get caught up in all of the technical aspects of photography to the point where I tend to lose sight of what I’m trying to accomplish. While I do want my photography to be pleasing to the eye, what good is an image if it doesn’t have meaning to someone?

    Thanks again for the great post! I wish that more photographers would take the time to share useful tips and other insight that they’ve gained from their experiences the way that you have.

  7. Corry Heinricks
    October 25, 2011 at 11:56 am —

    Thanks SO much for the article, very informative and something I will definitely put into practice!!

  8. December 8, 2011 at 11:27 pm —

    Fantastic article! So many great tips, and such an easy read. Love your photos as well, great job!

  9. August 20, 2013 at 4:03 am —

    This was really interesting, with some great tips. It’s so true, these sort of photos look so so much better when they’re natural! Especially like that one where the girl is being surprised!

  10. Bethany
    February 11, 2015 at 8:00 pm —

    I’m currently in the process of starting my business. I’ve done plenty of photo sessions in the past and I must say that posing has been my biggest challenge (especially with children.) I love the feeling I get when I see a photograph that looks so natural and effortless. THIS is the post I have been looking for.

    And a lot of photographers don’t understand that when it comes to portraiture…the most important part is the connection you have with your client. Your photography is beautiful & the mindset you have is GLORIOUS! Keep up the good work!!!

  11. August 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm —

    Just stumbled across this and I’m so glad I did! Your photos emulate real emotions, and I love them! Thank you for this.

    Ps, that photo of your parents is just AMAZING.

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Photography Help! Eradicating stiff, nervous and awkward subjects forever