Wedding portrait photography is much more than taking a camera and pointing at the people getting married. Yes, it is entirely possible to apply all of the technical knowledge that you have gotten from books or online courses and apply it to the situation and come away with a technically good portrait photograph. But in order to get a great portrait photograph you need something a little more. You need the feel for it.
You certainly have some obligatory portrait shots that need to be captures, such as the rings and the bouquet throwing and garter etc. But you also need to be able to capture a great photographic memorial representation of a once in a lifetime event for these people and likely something the bride has been dreaming of since she was a little girl. There’s nothing like putting the pressure on right?
What Makes a Great Wedding Portrait?
You need to remember that a wedding portrait, while similar to a regular studio portrait adds in some things that make it much more of a challenge. For one thing your bride and groom generally have on completely contrasting outfits. That means that you as the photographer need to be conscious of the fact so that you don’t over or under expose the shots.
All too often you have a tendency to focus on the lighter white or pastel colors of the brides gown which then by contrast would lose most of the detail sin the man’s tux. It is by no means an insurmountable problem and as long as you keep it in the back of your mind as you compose and set up the shot, there should be no issues and any that should crop up will be minor and able to be dealt with in post production editing.
Here is a secret that works well for me. If you want to get a portrait that is truly going to be special and mean something to the bride and the groom, take time to get to know them. Start off the initial talk with them and find out what they like to do, how they met and little things like this. It will help you figure out who it is that you will be photographing and as a result you will arrive at the portrait session fully ready to capture the essence of the couple.
Certain things that they have in common can lead you to finding the right mood to convert the session into magic. But this will only happen if you learn about them and take the time to actually really listen to what they are saying.
I have had instances where they couple had been brought together by a mutual love of bowling. They really wanted the traditional wedding portrait package with the stiff and pre posed shots that most people get. While the shots were technically good and captured the nice photographic portrait image that showed a happy couple about to embark on a life together, it lacked the spark that I like to see in my portraits. We were only mile from the local bowling alley so I suggested that for fun we went down to the ally and let them shoot a few frames while I shot some photos.
They were a little baffled at first but since they loved bowling they went for the idea. I set the white balance for the lighting there and used a very fast telephoto lens so I could get some isolation and sat back and snapped as they played. The result was a one of a kind portrait of the couple doing what they loved and what brought them together. They were in a loving gaze into one another’s eyes at the ball return between frames. It was a great contrast with the smooth white of her gown and his cranberry tux framed by the blurred background of the scoring lights on the lane.
To this date that was the most ordered wedding portrait I had from that session and also one of the top five portrait shots I have as far as sales go. But had I been simply thinking inside the box and gone the traditional route on the portraits, we would have lost that great shot.
The point I am after here is that sometimes the standard issue poses work well and sometimes even though you have a good portrait, it doesn’t hurt to go for great and mix it up. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this method. And should nothing good or useable come from changing things around, you still have the shots from the original and traditional wedding portrait set up.
Wedding Photography Tips for Portraits
Add Some Depth
A typical tried and true wedding portrait, whether it is of the groom and groomsmen, the bride and groom or the entire wedding party is to have everyone stand up in a line next to each other and smile as you snap the shot. Yes that will give you a shot but it is more like a mug shot than a true portrait in my opinion.
If you want something that will do a phenomenal job at pulling the viewer in to the portrait try rearranging things a little bit. It will make things far more interesting and it will make the viewer simply have to look at the portrait. It will also generate good comments and a lot of revenue because people tend to buy more of this type of print.
For example, you could start by putting the groom front and a bit off center in some location such as a stairwell. Then you sort of zig zag the groomsmen each a little farther back. It will make people have to think when they look at the portrait and yet it will keep the center focus on the most important person of the shot.
Another very successful way to shoot a wedding if the bride and groom are self assured of themselves and you are gutsy enough to try it is to not tell anyone how to pose or what to do. I have had great success in a less formal wedding by sticking to a very basic camera setup of a 135 mm f/1.8 lens and the camera with a bounce head and just following folks around.
The bad part about this is that you have to be thinking on your feet so that you can anticipate what action is going be taking place where so that you don’t miss the great shot. The absolutely fabulous part of this technique of portrait shooting is that you actually catch people being themselves and the difference between a highly posed portrait and one that just happens in the moment is like the difference between night and day.
I recently did one such portrait session where the bride, the bridesmaids and the flower girl were all present and they were having a little talk over in the corner of the studio and the flower girl to be was listening so intently to the bride that her lips were almost white. It made for a great portrait and the bride, all the bridesmaids and the flower girl’s family all wanted copies of it. That was a shot that could not have been planned and can only happen by giving the people some room to breathe and be human.
This also works wonderfully with the bride and the groom. If you allow them to simply be themselves for at least a portion of the actual photo shoot, I can almost promise you that you will get a portrait that will be far above anything that you could have dreamt up and it shows the real inner people which is often hard to capture in a wedding portrait because they are usually so uptight about all of the planning that has to be done that they forget about the joy.
There is another thing that will serve you well when it comes to wedding portrait photography and the shooting of the actual wedding. Don’t listen to the parents. They might be the ones signing the check at the end of the event but the one’s that you need to keep happy are the bride and the groom and if given a choice here, do what the bride wants to have done. This will eliminate about 90 percent of your issues.
What Equipment Should You Use?
Most people will tell you that you need to have as many different lenses as you can carry so you can vary the shots. I have come to the conclusion after years of weddings and wedding portraits that when it comes to lenses, less is definitely better.
Remember that for the most part, the lighting will be low and subdued. That immediately puts the brakes on any lens that you have that is slow. Leave anything that is above an f/2.8 back at the studio. I would suggest that you try and keep only f/1.8 and lower lenses in your on location wedding portrait gear case. These will allow you to get low light shots that you can later actually edit without making them grainy.
A good selection of various focal lengths in the f/1.2 to f/1.8 range will do you well here. Typically I will carry a 50 mm f/1.2, an 85 mm f/1.4 and a 138 mm f/1.8 when I do any kind of wedding portraits. That works well on location and in the studio. They are fast enough to capture quality images in only low candle light and will give a sharp enough image that I can blow it way up for prints.
This all assumes that you are using a high mega pixel digital camera. If you do not have one that is at least 15 mega pixels and can not afford the low f stop lenses, it might do you well to not take any critical weddings until those options are met. The last thing you want to do is mess up someone’s wedding with low quality photos.
The one caveat here is that if you are lucky enough to be doing the actual wedding portrait before the ceremony, you can sometimes get away with a lower resolution camera if need be and the lens and the lighting is right, But I would still rather go with a higher quality resolution camera for something that is this critical.
Avoid the temptation to start using a zoom. Yes you can carry fewer lenses but you also tend to get lazy and getting laze will lead to a slacking in your technique and a lower quality in technique will eventually give you moderate photos that will eventually cause your reputation to suffer. Avoid all of that and take the few extra steps to correctly frame the shot with a high quality prime lens. Your clients and your reputation will thank you in the end.
Developing Your Style
As you continue doing portraits for weddings you will find that you are hopefully developing your own style. Something that will set you apart from the other wedding portrait guys out there looking for the same job that you are after. At some point you will start to find shots and poses that will work for you in almost every setting and you will rely on those as your staple shots.
That is great and it will increase our comfort level as you do this. But avoid the temptation to rest on your laurels and shoot only your approved shots. At some point you need to step out of your comfort zone and shoot some shoots that nay or may not work. If you don’t you will stagnate and you can tire of doing it at all.
I have found that when doing these types of portrait shoots, it is often best to use evaluative metering. I actually find that about 95 percent of my shots work well this way so I use that. The nice thing about that is that I can look at a pose and tell almost immediately if it is going to work based on the lighting and my ability to be that familiar with the metering I am using.
A lot of photographers are afraid to shoot in lower light and will move their subjects to a more controlled lighting area to get a better shot. In actuality, if you can attain a good sharp focus on the main point of the portrait, you will be amazed at how devoid of noise your portrait can be. And by using the ambient lighting it will be warm and inviting. As long as you have the focus where it needs to be and are using a good exposure and ISO setting, you can get some astounding results in low ambient light. Again, this takes practice to be comfortable with and not afraid of this type of lighting situation. But once you master it the wedding portrait world as they say, will be your oyster.
Slower shutter speeds can also help you get a handle on the lower lighting. You can fairly easily go down as far as 1/8 of a second and certainly 1/15th of a second will be no problem for a tripod and even hand holding the camera can be a real possibility if you want to go for a more relaxed and normal sitting for the portraits.
When you combine all of this with a very fast prime lens as I mentioned above, you should never run in to t situation where you are unable to get a decently focused shot.
Today’s digital cameras offer a plethora of resolutions and types of compression for shooting. If you are taking a photo to list something on EBay then you can certainly shoot whatever you want. If however you are shooting something that is of importance, use the RAW mode. Let me say that once again for you NEVER shoot in anything but the RAW mode,
Yes, the photos will eat a lot more of your memory card. But memory cards are almost cheaper these days than a 36 exposure roll of good film used to be back in the day at a decent camera shop.
Yes, the photos will be more of a pain because you actually need a program that allows you to work with RAW images. While a good selection of the professional photo editing programs out there today will allow you to edit down the RAW files, I found one that takes up very little hard drive space and is easy to learn and use, has many of the features found on Photoshop and works in RAW. It is called GIMP and you can download it and their website and the RAW plug in called UFRaw here. Oh, and did I forget to mention that both of these aside from being easy to get, are also free!!!!
Okay, back on track. So why do I suggest that you use RAW to shoot your shots? Well it gives you much more data saved as a Meta file which will aid in your post production of the portrait images.
Let’s face it, you should be concentrating on capturing the images and not stuck trying to figure out actual color temperature of the room. The one big saving grace of shooting in RAW is that once you have shot the portrait you can export it into the above named Gimp or whichever editing program that you use to edit RAW images and it is like starting with a blank canvas that will allow you to add or subtract what you need. It can be a lifesaver. Trust me on that one.
Location, Location, Location
Some photographers prefer to let the client set the place where the official portrait session is going to take place. They think that it works the best. Some of the people I know insist that the shots be done in their studio so that they can have complete control. And both of these guys are right for their circumstances.
I prefer to have a list of places that I have already pre-scouted so that I know what is there and what kinds of things are available there. Such as wild flowers, water falls, benches or covered bridges, etc. That way after I have gotten to know the couple I can mentally picture them in one of those locations and we are off and running. Many times we can actually get to the location and set up and begin shooting for the session before some of my friends even have the gear set and ready to go at the studio where they shoot. It is entirely up to you how you do it but as the one taking the portraits you need to have control and make the decisions and stick with them.
When I am out doing nothing in particular I scout locations that might be good for a future portrait session. When I find one I snap a few photos to remind me of what was there and then I write down the GPS information on latitude and latitude so that I can locate it again easily and then when I get home to my studio I catalog the location by keywords so I can pull it up on my tablet easily.
My clients are constantly amazed at how I can quickly find just the right location for the wedding portrait shoot. I usually can pull up several that are good choices and I can show them the photos so that they can visualize what I am saying. I typically show them three choices and let them choose two.
In my humble opinion, we sometimes get too caught up in the mechanics of the portrait shoot and often sacrifice the beauty of the job for the semantics of the correct traditional poses and that often can kill an otherwise great wedding portrait session.