Chapter 7: Capturing Portraits
Creating the portraits seem to be most photographers' favourite part of a wedding day.
All couples are different and yet I have found that I often work with three distinct types of peple:
The shy couples:
The majority of my clients are rather shy people, who do not love the idea of the camera, which is often why they choose me, because they see that my images are natural and unposed. And exactly because they are so nervous about the experience but value great photography they are also willing to pay a premium for an experienced photographer who can guide them through it. They want to feel safe.
With this type of client I often move and talk alot in the beginning. I ask them a bunch of basic questions (like how did you meet, how long have you been together, where do you love to travel to, where did you guys grow up etc. ) answering these simple questions take them out of their head and into good familiar territory at the same time as the physical act of walking along with me makes their bodies relax. I may shoot a few images here and there but it is mostly to warm them up and only a few of the photos from the first 10 minutes are keepers. The really good stuff starts coming as soon as they relax, figure out it's not as bad as they thought it would be, and they start to focus more on eachother than on me.
Truly tender, honest, charming and delictae moments can occur between this type of couple once they're warmed up. And personally I repsond well to these quiet couples because I am by nature an introvert myself. Also despite being shy these couples come prepared to go ALL in and are actively working with me
I often find that it helps to not be in their face the whole time but give them a minute every 15 minutes or so where I move away to capture them in the larger perspective, so they can communicate freely and forget me for a second.
The super comfortable and outgoing couples:
The second largest group of my clients are those magical couples who are just COMPLETELY comfortable in their own bodies and, equally important, with eachother. They naturally move beautifully and hold themselves in a flattering way. They are not afraid to touch eachother. When I ask them to stand close they snuggle up really close, and are not afraid to start kissing and hugging without me having to ask it of them. They are in touch with their emotions, often laugh alot and may start crying when they become moved and do so without being embarrassed about it. All of this makes my job extremely easy and I often produce a large number of images during a session with this type of couple.
Sometimes I can almost feel like a complete bystander (in a good way) I just let them play around, only intervening or taking control over which spot or general scenery I put them in. I can just stand aside and observe and capture one beautiful moment after another.
The self-conscious couples:
The last group which make up about 10% of my clients every year has luckily been a rather rare experience the past many years (after I moved beyond traditional couples and kept raising my prices). They require ALOT of work. They are stiff and have a poor sense of how their bodies move. Often, nomatter how much I work to lure authentic body language and connection out of them, they remain focused on what they might look like instead of giving into their feelings and the moment and surrendering to the emotions of the day and their partner standing right in front of them. They are shy and self-conscious, often very conscious of their 'good side' or other specific body issues.
I am always COMPLETELY exhausted and spent after a session like this, working my ass off for every.single.frame. But on a positive note these couples are often very much aware of the fact that this is how they are, and that almost nomatter what I do or say during the session they will never really love themselves and how they look, and thus their expectations to the images are not super high.
I never feel creatively fulfilled working with these couples but consider them my bread and butter.
In passing I also want to mention a client type who, thankfully, I haven't encountered or worked with in years! But who I hear from beginner photographers still exists out there:
The bossy client:
While you are still building your portfolio and price yourself cheaply, and/or while you still feel too insecure to truly take charge of the situation you will encounter the brides and grooms who act like they are the boss of the shoot and of you. This was extremely detrimental to my self-esteem in the beginning, but a necessary learning experience. The situation only changed when I decided to change my approach and take charge.
As we discussed in the branding and pricing section there are ways to get around this, but for now, if you often find yourself in this situation here is what I used to do:
At first I do it gently to see if he or she will take a hint, but if not I would say outright to their face (in a firm but respectful and positive/light tone) that he or she should just relax and let me guide them. I sometimes still experience a groom who will try to pose his bride or tell her to move a little to get a certain type of light (often based on amateur or "old" standard photo tips, like always face the sun) but considering the fact that I almost always shoot backlit on sunny days I have to take charge and literally tell him to stop. It is MY responsibility to create a situation where I can create the type of images my clients have seen on my website. The client thinking you are a pushover starts on your website. If you come off bland and like someone just there to push a button, that is often how this type of client will treat you. The client thinking they know more about photography than you is not a constructive work situation. If they don't respect you they will most likely also not be happy with their images.
In the end you are letting your clients down by not taking charge and creating the working conditions you need to create the kind of images they are expecting of you and paying you for.
When starting a portrait session I always make sure we move. As mentioned above, I will walk along with them chatting casually, and often they will feel so invested in our collaboration and interested in me as a person that they will ask me lots of questions about the island and what its like to live here, or when I travelled, about my life as a destination wedding photographer. Then, as soon as we reach a spot with great light, I will ask them to continue on without me. I will tell them to walk ahead, holding hands or around eachother's waists, looking at eachother and chatting as they walk along. Sometimes I will ask a bride to look back at me over her shoulder.
Having the couple walk along like this into the scenery whether it is urban or nature is a great way to set the scene visually for the collection of photos as a whole. Moving in and out, coming in close and pulling further away, being intentional about the sequence is story telling at its best.
When guiding my clients, the last thing I always notice and, if needed, correct before I press the shutter are their hands. Some couples will naturally touch and connect physically, but many, especially the guys have a tendency to just leave their arms and hands hanging down their sides or place them in a very stiff way on their partner's hips or waist. An awkward hand can ruin an otherwise lovely photo. So I always encourage the guys to rest them in their pocket or actually move, so as not to freeze up in a "pose". Caress a cheek, brush off a stray hair, entertwine fingers etc. Again, movement is SO important. Keep their body language alive. Invite and encourage them to move within the spot you have selected for them, allow them to come alive. Most of the time people are just afraid to look or be silly, or even more so of doing something wrong, but as soon as you tell them directly that you WANT them to engage and take part in it, they will.
After hands, I am extremely aware of their body leaning direction. Most people have a tendency to lean away from eachother with their upper bodies so they can look eachother in the eye or talk to eachother. That makes total sense interaction wise in our everyday lives, and eye contact can make for a beautiful intense photo. But in most cases, especially form a distance, that body language will most often read like the couple don't like eachother very much and are trying to get away from the other.
Thirdly, I am always ready with a few constructive words when couples kiss and they do not naturally do it with passion. Many couples will either kiss directly face to face meaning their noses will get super squished and unflattering, or they will kiss fish-mouth style. Neither of those two options look great in photos and as soon as you have "caught" them doing it the first time, most couples will naturally get closer and slightly tilt their heads whenever they kiss for the rest of the session.
Some of the words and sentences I repeat most during portrait sessions:
"Move closer... closer... closer... You can get closer"
"You don't have to look at eachother, just focus your body language towards eachother"
"I'm not here, focus on eachother"
Time, even just a few minutes, and a few helpful hints can make a world of difference in terms of capturing intimacy. Below are three examples of photos taken of the same couples just 2-3 minutes apart. The difference in body language and level of relaxation in the before and after is noticeable:
When taking individual portraits I always ask the other to stand right behind me and say to him or her to feel free to make weird faces at the person in front of me. Most people will take me up on it, and make their partner laugh genuinely and I can mix between asking the subject to look at me, look away into the distance, look down, or look at their silly partner. In some cases I may even stick my tongue out myself. Adults are used to politeness and masks, so the sheer surprise of seeing another adult do that in front of you always makes people laugh. Something which is an almost sure way to get an authentic emotional facial reaction out of women especially, is to say, "look at your husband". In the emotional roller coaster of a wedding day and after months of planning, even if the couple is eloping, people will actually often have forgotten that they just got married, so when I say that, their face will light up as they remember what they've just done. Some react with laughter, some with tears.
When photographing a woman, I will always try to get the following (but it is important to make clear that this is not a set shot list, and often I will forget or not do at least one of these. My main goal is to flow with the couple's dynamic and personalities):
A full body image, especially if she's wearing a full length dress, and if the back has any unique features or details I will capture that too.
A bouquet shot both vertical and horisontal
A detail shot of ring hand touching or holding the skirt/veil/bouquet.
Any significant jewelry (I will ask her if any of it is an heirloom or has special meaning) or hair piece or veil detail.
A portrait and, if she seems comfortable at this point, I might move in very close too.
When I feel done or if she starts to feel self-conscious, I will then often lean back and whisper to her partner who's standing behind me to go back to her, hug her from behind and whisper something in her ear of his own choosing. She doesn't know what I've told him and will always look slightly curious or insecure, making the release of the moment when he does what I asked, all the more genuine. Depending on the chemistry of the couple, what he whispers (although I can't hear it, I can tell by her reaction) will either be something sweet and romantic or something naughty. Both will make space for a genuine moment between the two.
For grooms who are not casual on their own I will always ask them to put their hands in the pants pockets, and often also to unbotton and re-button their jacket, to give them something active to do and create life in the image.
Unless you really want to, don't feel pressure by yourself or anyone else to re-invent the wheel at every single shoot. The beauty of using some of the same cues, is that no couple will carry them out in the exact same way. They will all interpret them slightly differently.