Gouda! Great Photos Without Saying Cheese

We’ve all been there. You, your mom and dad, your brother(s) and sister(s) all packed into a Sears Portrait studio, or if your family had a bit more money back in the 80’s, an Olan Mills studio, and the photographer says, “Alright, everyone look at the camera and say cheese!”  At which point I’d say, ‘Gouda,’ and ruin the whole picture!  Well…not really, but in my mind, that would have made for an awesome and humorous family photo.  To my family, though, it might not have been so funny, because family portraits were serious.  We dressed up in our Sunday’s best, looked at the camera, smiled and went home.  Definitely not fun.

Thank God we no longer do that.  These days we either have a photographer friend snap a few family portraits of us or I use a tripod and take them myself.  It’s less stuffy and pretentious than portrait studios and we have fun just being ourselves.

One of the very first sessions I was hired to do for almost free, I had a customer who wanted photos of her kid.  The kid was cute and had lots of personality, but the kid was also two years old.  We all know kids, in general, are very unpredictable, especially two year olds.  I agreed to meet them at a local park, and I took what I thought were great photos of a two year old being, well, a two year old: laughing, crying, playing, running around, the whole nine yards.  I worked very hard to get great shots.  I think I even lost 5 pounds in that one hour session.

When I posted the proofs, there were 5 photos of the kiddo looking at the camera smiling, but the other 15 or so the kid was not.  Because all of the photos were not of the kiddo looking at the camera and smiling, the mom was not happy.  She bought one or two prints, told me that I wasn’t a good photographer and I never heard from her again.

I felt like a failure.  I had an unhappy customer and it ate at my soul, for a little while.  I thought, maybe she was right.  Maybe I was not cut out to be a photographer.


Then, something happened…

I booked another session and I got over it.

I realized after talking to my mentor and a few other photographers that I did nothing wrong.  The customer was there and aware of their kid being silly and playing one minute and throwing tantrums the next.  If they wanted “traditional” photos, they should have communicated that to me and helped direct their kid accordingly.  Maybe my only fault was not asking, but I was new.  It was a rookie mistake.  I learned a lesson.

I also learned that there is something special about photographing authentic moments.  No one, I repeat, no one walks around cheesing all day, especially not children.  If you know someone who walks around with a permanent smiley face, stay away from that weird person.  It’s not natural, yet, we are taught as kids to look at the camera and say cheese.

Traditional photos have their place, but for me, smiling and engaging with the camera are optional.  I believe some of the best photos are the ones when people are not smiling or looking at the camera but instead, they are enjoying being with each other as if the camera were not there.

Ten years from now, those traditional photos won’t recall too many memories, but that photo of your son crying or the photo of you having a conversation with your daughters will conjure a memory and prompt a brief story.

So the next time you and your family have your photos taken, forget about what you’ve been told.  It’s okay to be yourself and not always look at the camera smiling.  As a photographer, I’m more interested in the real life moments than I ever will be with the Gouda moments.

{Photos above of my mom, sister and me circa 2011 taken by Dion Burton for DioBurto Photography}