Shooting Nervous

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Sweaty palms. Nausea. Chest tightness. Racing thoughts. “What if I can’t get a great shot? What if I forget something? What if I totally fail?”

This is how I feel before a session sometimes. Particularly if it’s something different than the norm, or I haven’t shot in a while. Even after 10 years of shooting, I still get incredibly nervous before a shoot.

I think it’s good and bad. A little tension can help me to focus on the task – I’m certainly not worried about what I’ll have for dinner at moments like these. Every little speck of attention I have is going towards figuring out how to do my best in this session.

But here’s what I’ve found goes poorly when I’m nervous.

I get tunnel vision.

My thoughts becoming fixated on certain things. I become completely focused on just one goal, to the point of neglecting to really see what’s around me.

For example, in a family portrait session where I’m particularly nervous, I’ll often spend WAY too much time trying to get a simple shot of everyone looking nicely at the camera. I know it’s an important photo – even the clients who say they don’t care about them (myself included) will want at least one good one. So I try, over and over, in different spots, to get that one shot. Even after I’ve already gotten a good one, I’ll keep trying to take a better one, for fear of failing to get the “must-have shot”. I often wind up with hundreds of crappy photos, nervously shooting the crap out of it, hoping to get something good. Yuck.

Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to get a great shot, especially with a client. The problem lies when you’re so nervous you can’t recognize when you’ve achieved that goal, and can confidently move on.This is an enormous problem of mine.

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So what happens in these sessions of mine? By the end I’ve got a lot of nice shots of everyone looking at the camera, but I’ve failed to break outside that box. I’ve failed to really look, to open my eyes to all the other amazing potential in front of me. I’ll fail to get anything really creative. To capture small details, candid moments, to try something new. Even worse, I end up making so much extra work for myself, sorting through all those hundreds of bad photos to find the keepers.

I wind up with a result that’s good, but not great.

So how do I get to great? Well, I’m not sure. When Rob and I shot as a team, it was easier. I was in charge of getting those “must-have” shots, and he was free to just shoot all that creative stuff, without any pressure. Free to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy, as Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus would say. And he’d do just that. His keeper rate would be way lower than mine, but he’d come up with some truly original, beautiful stuff. I’d have lots of “nice” photos, but not much that would really stand out in a crowd. It was a good system, and we delivered a great set of images at the end of the day.

But now I’m starting to contemplate shooting on my own. No Rob as backup. That creative stuff will need to come from me. I need to learn how to tame those nerves, and find the confidence to play and experiment with my photography.

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A few things I’m going to be trying:

– PREPARE.

This is always my go-to to calm my nerves. I sit down with a piece of paper, or grab my Photography Logbooks, and write out my goals. Figure out the “must-have” shots, and then what other creative goals I want to achieve. I write it down, and bring it along. But I usually forget to stop and review this sheet during the session. I know if I start taking that time, it will help.

– SLOW DOWN.

I usually write this in all caps and underline it when I’m prepping. When I’m nervous, I speed up. My mind goes a million miles an hour, and I forget things. Photography is about slowing down, so you can see what’s right in front of you. When I’m in panic mode I miss those beautiful little things that make for breath-taking shots.

– MUST-HAVE SHOTS FIRST. THEN MOVE ON.

I need to break free from my fear of missing “the shot”. I need to be confident when I’ve gotten a good standard shot, and then move on. I’m not sure how to do this, other than a lot of practice.

– SHOOT A LOT.

When we first started shooting all those years ago, I was a wreck before each and every session. I found it SO HARD to remember every single thing I was supposed to do during the shoot. But over time, as I shot more and more, that anxiety faded. Many things became second-nature. Automatic. And started to trust myself, because I saw day after day where my skills were. I haven’t shot regularly in a few years though, with the boys being born, and us focusing on this site. And so my nervous ways have returned. But I know that with regular shooting, that relaxed approach will come again. Some things just take time.

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So that’s where I’m at, and what I’ve been thinking about this. It’s been really interesting to see that, despite having shot for so long, getting out of practice with client sessions can bring me back to where I started in terms of my confidence. But I know so much more about photography now than I did then. So I hope my trust in myself will return faster. Until then, I’ll just keep carefully preparing, shooting, and making sure I’m having fun with my work. That too is a key to losing the nerves, methinks.

How about you? Do you feel nervous before a session? What do you do to calm down and focus while shooting?

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