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Photography Help! Eradicating stiff, nervous and awkward subjects forever

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 Hughes
    August 24, 2011 at 9:08 am — Reply

    WOW WOW WOW!!! AMAZING article, I fell in love with it!!! I love your perspective and your photos are great! Definitely will be taking some tips!

    • August 25, 2011 at 11:23 am — Reply

      Awesome! Feeling your enthusiasm and loving it. ; )

  2. August 24, 2011 at 9:13 am — Reply

    This is one of the best photography blog posts I’ve ever read!! I’m going to use some of these tips. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Cathy
    August 24, 2011 at 9:18 am — Reply

    great reminders…..I am making a laminated card to take with me to sessions. Sometimes I need reminders of what to do to loosen up family sessions. I love capturing emotion and life and if there are limbs that suffer so be it : ) I love your article and images.

    • August 24, 2011 at 11:03 am — Reply

      Haha! I love the line “If there are limbs that suffer so be it”! ; ) We need to all loosen up a bit and have a little fun, don’t you agree?

  4. August 24, 2011 at 9:22 am — Reply

    awesome awesome awesome post! i love the way you capture relationships…. i definitely try and accomplish the same thing. LOVE IT!!

    • August 24, 2011 at 11:04 am — Reply

      Fantastic capture, Micah! That picture is sure to be an heirloom for years to come for that little one.

  5. August 24, 2011 at 9:25 am — Reply

    I’m not a great photographer. I’m learning and loving the process. I take pictures of my family for me. I want to capture their true essence – these tips are fabulous! Last week took a few pictures of my 14-month-old granddaughter (who absolutely refuses to look at me when I snap her picture). A few shots into it she spotted her daddy driving up in the car. I could not have asked for better poses! She was so excited, giving him a cheesy grin and hand motions. You just confirmed what I learned by accident. Thanks!

    • August 24, 2011 at 11:06 am — Reply

      Oh my, it’s so funny you shared this because the same thing happened to me! I was trying (without success) to photograph my 13 month old daughter and she just kept whining every time she looked my way. Then, my husband pulled up and she went crazy, showing off all of her 9 teeth. Happy photo captured – yay! (then I went inside to cool off from my workout, ha! ; )

  6. August 24, 2011 at 9:26 am — Reply

    “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 definitely agree with you on this. I just keep shooting and try not to get stuck in my camera. There are too many “in between” moments that may be technically incorrect camera wise, but come out oh so perfect!

  7. August 24, 2011 at 9:50 am — Reply

    Great post! Thanks.

  8. Andrea
    August 24, 2011 at 9:58 am — Reply

    I adore this post. Thank you!

  9. August 24, 2011 at 10:02 am — Reply

    Best. Article. Ever. Thank you thank thank you! Your honesty and creativity are inspiring.

    • August 24, 2011 at 11:06 am — Reply

      Awww … yay! Thank you, Christa.

  10. August 24, 2011 at 10:03 am — Reply

    Great post. Thanks!

    • August 24, 2011 at 11:07 am — Reply

      You’re welcome! Thank you for your kindness.

  11. August 24, 2011 at 10:05 am — Reply

    Great tips! I think these will really help to get me into a more comfortable groove more quickly. Thank you!!!

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm — Reply

      Yes, they will! The thing we have to understand is that some moments like this will undoubtedly unfold before our eyes, but it is SO much easier on everyone if we’re the one doing the directing so to speak. At least in the beginning. Then we’re the ones to set the mood.

  12. Kenn
    August 24, 2011 at 10:10 am — Reply

    Wow…I just shot an engagement photo session with two people who definitely needed some loosening-up. Since this was my first time ever shooting something like this (for pay no less!) I definitely didn’t get some of the shots I should have (but I did get some great ones). Your article is now saved in my favorites and I will definitely be referencing it in the future. Thanks for the great tips!

  13. August 24, 2011 at 11:24 am — Reply

    I loved the tips you shared to capture the relations. Interactions and expressions make an ordinary photo look awesome..

    Just recently I was photographing my wife on our trip and tried to get her to pose. I actually posed for her and she asked smilingly “do you actually do this with your clients” 🙂 I said yes.. and she laughed.. :)) Of course, a guy in a girly pose would look funny.. but I got her to do exactly what I wanted 🙂

    What tips do you have when you have a single subject? I guess that becomes a bit more challenging for me..

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm — Reply

      Me, too! I’ve actually just recently started shooting a whole bunch more seniors and I’ve found it’s a whole different ball game. I definitely chat a lot and try to keep a very relaxed atmosphere. Also, I compliment (genuinely, of course) a lot which takes extra thought because I’m the type to think something nice about someone (“oooh, I love her shirt), but I never think to say it out loud. So, complimenting seems to go a long way. And, just being a little silly. “C’mon girl, show me whatcha got!” They usually do something silly and then I’ll get that good, genuine laugh. (Attaching a picture from my session yesterday.) I think the biggest thing is simply keeping the convo going and light-hearted. Hope this helps!

  14. August 24, 2011 at 11:33 am — Reply

    Thank you for this article it was wonderful and a great reminder to capture the relationship or moment and try not to get to caught up in technical stuff.

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm — Reply

      It’s a fine balance for sure, but I think capturing the moment trumps all the rest. And, of course, knowing your technical stuff is what will make someone a gifted photographer all around.

  15. August 24, 2011 at 11:44 am — Reply

    I think this is my favorite article so far from MCP. Love Jess’ style and I agree with the way she thinks. Capturing relationships are the priority for me. Thanks for the confirmation! xo Best

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm — Reply

      Wow! HUGE compliment because this site rocks! Thanks so much, Andrea.

  16. August 24, 2011 at 11:49 am — Reply

    Thank you so very much for this article! It’s exactly what I needed to hear.. keep em coming!


  17. JackieG
    August 24, 2011 at 11:58 am — Reply

    This was just a great post!! It answered so many questions that I always have and have never been answered before. I have continually looked at videos and books to find out how the photographer achieved the great emotion that was in the picture but until now I have NEVER gotten the true photographer. Thank you…Thank you…Thank you. You have totally inspired me but I want more!! And tips on single subjects would be awesome! Oh and especially teenage boys!

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm — Reply

      Check out my reply to Dharmesh on my style for photographing singles. I’m still learning so I’m not near the expert, but there are a few simple things I’ve learned. And, funny you mention teenage boys …

      I decided long ago to *only* photograph things I’m good at photographing which is ultimately the things I enjoy photographing. I have 4 younger brother-in-laws and I know how awkward boys can be to photograph. So, I made the decision to only photograph senior girls. It’s just my thing and I’m okay with that. So sorry I can’t be of help with teenage boys! That’d be a fantastic post though!

  18. August 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm — Reply

    Amazing article! By far my favorite posted on the Guest Writer section in a long time. Thank you for the inspiration!!!

  19. August 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm — Reply

    GREAT post!!!! Thanks so much!!!!!

  20. August 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm — Reply

    Great article! I think I’ll be coming back to it for some great reminders before every family session.

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm — Reply

      Please do! I’m sure nothing of what I do is original so you’re only using stuff I’ve learned elsewhere. Aren’t we all? ; )

  21. Pamela S
    August 24, 2011 at 1:39 pm — Reply

    Most of my photographs are of nature besides my own family but I have been asked to photograph a close friend of mine’s family this fall so this is just perfect. Definitely bookmarking this one!

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm — Reply

      In the beginning I like to give my “getting your picture taken is never a normal thing” speech and then I do a few standard/boring shots (like the posed type) to get a feel of how the family is in front of my camera and with each other. Then I know how to conduct the rest of the session. Some families need more direction than others so those first few shots tell me stuff I could never get over a conversation via phone. Hope this helps!

  22. August 24, 2011 at 2:13 pm — Reply

    Yep! GREAT article! Awesome advice!
    Thanks so much!

  23. Tara Swartzendruber
    August 24, 2011 at 2:59 pm — Reply

    Awesome post, thank you for the great tips AND reminders!!

  24. Laura
    August 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm — Reply

    What a great post! It is nice to get ideas to inspire great moments to capture on film. In my own family I can get these moments easily, but bringing them out in others can be challenging. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • August 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm — Reply

      Great point, Laura. With our own families these types of moments are always occurring. And, that’s what is our favorite things to capture, right? So, it’s about figuring out how to get these same moments to unfold when we’re meeting a family dressed up at a park. It’s not easy, but it can be done!

  25. August 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm — Reply

    I LOVED this post! I’m going to study it carefully later. And I have to tell you that the photo of your mom and dad made me tear up. So special. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • August 25, 2011 at 11:15 am — Reply

      Thank you! It’s funny because we don’t think to photograph the people we spend the most time with, you know? I really want to be more intentional about getting more photographs such as that one. Those are the ones that will mean the absolute most to me when my business has shriveled up and died!

  26. August 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm — Reply

    What great tips! Thanks so much!

  27. August 25, 2011 at 12:09 am — Reply

    Thanks for the tips!! Such a great post!

  28. Sarah C
    August 25, 2011 at 1:53 am — Reply

    You are speaking my language!! I loved the do I cut of limbs? Right there with you. Fantastic post!

    • August 25, 2011 at 11:17 am — Reply

      I’m not proud of all the limb chopping that takes place, but I for sure do it. It’s hard not to when you’re so zoned in on someone’s face and anticipating the moment. And, if that is captured – “the moment” – and a limb or two goes missing well then so be it. ; )

  29. Karen
    August 25, 2011 at 9:08 am — Reply

    How kind to share such specifics! This was so helpful. I especially chuckle because my husband and I are probably the most awkward in front of a camera! So as subjects to be photographed as well as taking the photos… well, this was great!

    • August 25, 2011 at 11:19 am — Reply

      Karen, someone told me that if I don’t like having my picture taken then I won’t be able to help others relax because I’ll – more or less – feel sorry for them as I’m taking their picture. Oh my gosh, I realized in that moment how true that was! So, I started having more people take my picture and then when I realized it wasn’t all that bad I got much more comfortable taking other people’s picture. I pass the same advice onto you. : )

  30. August 25, 2011 at 9:42 am — Reply

    WOW! Loved this article! Amazing photography and perfect pointers! I especially appreciated the end when you said that you cut off limbs, sometimes didn’t have optimal lighting and at times the focus was off. What a relief! I needed to read that today!!!!

    • August 25, 2011 at 11:21 am — Reply

      As photographers we need to learn our stuff technically for sure, but then have a little fun and learn to relax. Don’t you think? : )

  31. Amanda
    August 25, 2011 at 10:30 am — Reply

    This really hit me today! Thank you! Great tips..

  32. Amanda
    August 25, 2011 at 10:36 am — Reply

    And I should add that it totally made me cry. My sign of a good photograph..lol! When I take a session off my camera I really don’t consider it a success if I don’t tear up. I am such a sap!

  33. Cynthia
    August 25, 2011 at 2:09 pm — Reply

    Love this!! Thanks so much!!!

  34. August 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm — Reply

    I took notes on all your ideas – love them! Inspires me to come up with more of my own…

    • August 26, 2011 at 11:06 pm — Reply

      Smart girl! I often will make a list on my phone and look it over when I have a brain freeze and can’t think of anything to do.

  35. August 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm — Reply

    Great ideas in this article…and wonderful example photos. I’ve always admired people who can make quick connections with strangers, though I don’t consider that a skill of mine. You’ve given me new ideas for accomplishing that with subjects, so thanks!

  36. August 26, 2011 at 12:01 am — Reply

    Getting “real” photos is something I’ve really been wanting to work on! I’m so grateful for this post!! 🙂

  37. Rebecca
    August 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm — Reply

    Great, great article. I love hearing the tricks others use to pull out the genuine images we all love. I find myself more in my groove towards the end of the shoot…but definitely need some tips (and confidence) in starting strong. Thank you!!

  38. August 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm — Reply

    BEST article I’ve read in forEVER! Thank you!

  39. August 26, 2011 at 2:19 pm — Reply

    What a great article Jess. 🙂 I loved seeing some of my favorite images of yours and hearing the story behind how you created them. One of my favorite things to say is “throw your head back and give me a big fake belly laugh.” the initial laugh is totally fake, but it loosens them up. And then I can capture that “oh this is so silly, but I’m kind of having fun” realization face. Its natural and shared by all in the group. 😀
    I appreciate your tips on working with younger children… I know that is something I have to work on.
    Thanks for your wisdom and for your generosity in sharing. I just love that about you. 🙂

  40. August 26, 2011 at 8:58 pm — Reply

    One of the best, most useful tutorials I’ve read in a long, long time. Thank you so much for the inspiration!

    • August 26, 2011 at 11:07 pm — Reply

      Absolutely! Thank you for your kindness.

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

    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!

  42. August 27, 2011 at 7:04 am — Reply

    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 — Reply

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

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

    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.

  44. August 27, 2011 at 8:07 am — Reply

    […] ACHIEVING NATURAL EXPRESSIONS: This post by my fabulous friend Jessica was a breath of fresh air. I’m really studying the art of […]

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

    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 — Reply

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

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

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

    • September 13, 2011 at 10:56 am — Reply

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

  47. September 20, 2011 at 11:59 am — Reply

    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.

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

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

  49. December 8, 2011 at 11:27 pm — Reply

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

  50. August 20, 2013 at 4:03 am — Reply

    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!

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

    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!!!

  52. August 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm — Reply

    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