Q&A: The superpower of freezing time with Jessica Woodall (Wake Forest, NC)

To spend a photoshoot with Jessica Woodall is to feel like you've reconnected with an old friend. Her North Carolina charm and easygoing manner make you feel at home in front of the camera.

"I want to get to know [my clients] before that first time we meet at the park and hear their story," she says. "I genuinely enjoy making those connections and meeting new people."

A self-taught family and wedding photographer, Woodall has a deep appreciation for the moment — "it's important to capture these everyday moments we're in," she says. "I have always been one to value history and other people's stories."

We spoke with Woodall about lessons learned from Christmas shoots, getting her subjects comfortable in front of the camera, and the superpower of freezing time.

This interview has been condensed.

How did your photography journey begin?

JW: It started when I was thirteen years old. I was in a little band, playing guitar and singing, and I would take our band promo photos — this was back in the day when we had just a little point-and-shoot digital camera. So I would set it up on a timer, and I would tell everyone how to pose, and we would do it. 

I’ve always [thought] it would be so much fun to start a business, but when it came to numbers and having to keep track of all that stuff, I was nervous. When it comes to marketing and design, it’s like, "okay, cool, that’s fun," but running my business with numbers and trying to keep track of everything, that terrified me. And then [I needed] to purchase a decent camera where I could do something that’s worth people paying for.

Photo: Jessica Woodall Photography

About three years ago, I found myself with a little bit of debt, and I wanted to get out of it, so I was watching TV, and it was my big-screen Bluetooth TV — it had all the features on it. I sold that, and then I got a Canon Rebel, and I just started doing Christmas card sessions. One thing led to another; after the Christmas season, people wanted to book me for their spring sessions, and it just kept going from there. I fell in love with it, and [it got to the point where] I was losing money being at my part-time job [instead of taking more shoots], so I quit my part-time job and took this up full-time. Then 2020 hit, and everything shut down [laughs].

But that’s how I got started. I love creativity, and with music, I always thought my creativity was with that, but now I’m learning I can [create] art with photography and unleash my creativity.

Where was home for you growing up?

JW: Wake Forest, North Carolina. I’ve always been in this Raleigh area. I was born in Florida, but moved up here when I was thirteen, so I consider Wake Forest home. My family would probably give me the evil eye if they heard me say that, but it’s the truth [laughs]. It’s where I grew up and went to high school and did all those fun things.

What did you think you would grow up to be when you were young? Was music the thing?

JW: It was music. I thought I was going to go on the road with my music. I was not that good, though [laughs]. My parents encouraged me to have a backup plan, so I thought, “well, I could teach high school history.” So that’s what I got my degree in.

Photo: Jessica Woodall Photography

I ended up teaching preschool — [which was] a little bit different. I loved it. I did get some of my creativity out there, because I got to design bulletin boards and do science experiments, but within the preschool role, I was an assistant teacher, so I would even bring my camera to school sometimes, just whenever I was starting to dabble in it, and I would take pictures of the kids and send them to the parents. I even got some bookings from my students — from the moms [laughs], so yeah.

Were the Christmas card photos your first paid photography work? Or could you tell the story of your first paid shoot and how you got it?

JW: Yeah. Christmas tree farms are really big around here, and everybody wants that look for their Christmas card. Everybody’s picking out their Christmas tree and [wants the] winter wonderland look. And I went on Canva and made a [flyer] and put it out there on all the [Facebook] community pages. I was booking [shoots] left and right. 

I charged next to nothing just to meet people out in the Christmas tree field [and] took their pictures back to back. I think I gave them a date that I was available and then told them, “I have this time slot available.” I want to say I even had to double-up for one session, because [these clients] just wanted a cheap photo session. I look back at them, like, “man, that was awful.” But you learn from it.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from those earliest photoshoots?

JW: That it’s not as easy as you think it is. A lot of people, even myself, would think you just show up, take some pictures, and you’re done. It’s not that easy. It’s time-consuming leading up to it, because you have the client interaction, just following up — “hey, still good for this date?” And then you have the actual session: making sure people get there on time, making sure families get along. One of my first couples, the mom and dad were at odds with each other; it was so awkward. And then you have after the session, all the editing. A lot more goes into it than what you think — and that’s definitely what I learned that first time around.

Photo: Jessica Woodall Photography
Were you starting to think, “I need to start charging more if it’s going to take all this work”?

JW: For sure, yeah.

How would you describe your photography style?

JW: I like natural and candid [images]. I try to stay true to colors [with] my editing style. You have the “Light & Airy” and the “Dark & Moody,” and mine’s right in the middle. I want people to look back and remember how they saw [the moment] — not through a different filter. And that style is great for other people, because that could be what they’re looking for, but that’s my style. And then just capturing the candid moment — almost journalistic in a way. I give prompts that will get laughter from mom and dad. I’ll ask, “who’s the favorite in the family?” And they’re all grown children, and it always gets a good laugh. I like that kind of work — it’s a lot of fun.

I like a timeless look. I have always been one to value history and other people’s stories, and so I’ve always valued capturing things the way they are, seeing things the way they are. So I guess that’s always been my style. [But] the way it looks has changed over time, and I’m sure it’s going to continue to develop as long as I’m in this business.

Photo: Jessica Woodall Photography
Speaking of history and the value that photos can bring, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind talking about your grandmother and how she shaped your photography path.

JW: Man, you might get me to cry. My grandmother was my best friend, and even though she lived in Florida where I was born, she was up here [in North Carolina] like once a month. We always talked on the phone several times a day — and in 2015, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. So I was down there [in Florida] quite a bit.

She was my biggest cheerleader. With my music, anytime that we were together, she would want me to bring out my guitar and sing to her. Anytime I wrote a song, you would think it was Elvis or something [laughs]. She was always there to encourage me and cheer me on. There’s a picture that I have of her sitting at my parents’ dining room table, and I’m just playing guitar and singing to her like I normally do, and she’s eating it up, and my grandfather comes over and gives her a hug. I decided in that moment to take a picture, and that was the last time that they were up here together. 

That picture, it’s not the best quality; it’s not a great picture. But you can’t pay me enough money for that picture. You know, it’s important to capture these everyday moments we’re in. Because now, it’s the only thing we have left. I wouldn’t be able to listen to her voice — that would be too hard. But it’s easy for me to look at pictures of her around my home and tell my kids about their great-grandmother, and tell stories about her. It just keeps the memories alive.

I just recently started doing prints and albums [with] my clients. I [tell them], “get them off your computer.” Because your computer’s going to crash; you’re going to lose your USB stick. Get it printed; put it up on your wall. Let your kids see themselves on the wall. Put your wedding in the album. Pick it up a few years down the road to celebrate your anniversary, and have those same ooey-gooey feelings all over again. It’s just so important to have.

You were speaking earlier about prompting candid moments in front of the camera. Could you talk more about that? How do you get your subjects comfortable in front of the camera?

JW: You’re going to be awkward. I’m awkward in front of the camera [laughs]. I’d much rather be behind the camera than in front of it, so I feel like I can relate to that. But even from the very beginning with my clients, I want to talk to them on the phone or via Zoom or FaceTime before our session begins, because I want to get to know them before that first time we meet at the park, and hear their story, and pick up on ways I can relate to them. I want them to feel like they’re with an old friend. Honestly, I go into it just talking like they’re an old friend.

Photo: Jessica Woodall Photography

I studied other people, other photographers, and found different prompts to get people to laugh. “Look at laugh at mom and dad’s favorite,” or “look and laugh at the person that took the longest to get ready.” Especially the adult kids, I’ve been doing a lot of extended family sessions the past few months, and just the joy and laughter has been so refreshing. I don’t even have to give prompts, and they’re already laughing and cutting up together. It’s so much fun, and it’s so encouraging to see that we’re almost over this hump of the pandemic.

What’s in your camera bag on any given shoot?

JW: I have a Canon RP, and then I have my nifty 50mm [lens]. And my business cards. I keep it pretty simple in there, just because it’s a smaller bag I like to throw over my shoulder. And then the Pelican has the flash and the backup body, and then a 24-70mm lens. [More] business cards.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from running a photography business during a pandemic?

JW: You can’t count on anything [laughs]. I thought I had some income coming in, but I didn’t. Embrace the moments. I just dove into education and learning how to run a business — different avenues, you know?

What’s the best part of the job for you?

JW: There’s two answers to that. One is just to be able to preserve time. I tell people that freezing time is my superpower, and I joke around by saying that, but I mean, I do look at it kind of like a superpower, because you get to preserve history. I mean, how important is that baby album from 1910? My best friend still has her great-grandmother’s baby photo album. That’s important. And it’s just cool to be able to take part in that.

My second-favorite part is meeting new people. I would say that I’m an introvert, and I’ve learned how to be an extrovert. I love putting myself out there, and like I said before, with me, you’re going to feel like you’re with an old friend. I try to take that approach with every client that I meet, because I genuinely enjoy making those connections and meeting new people.

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