Making Portraits that Dazzle

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Here comes the bride!  And the groom.  And the bridesmaids, groomsmen, bride’s family, groom’s family, assorted friends, and former classmates—all anxious to return to the celebration. Your mission? Make glorious portraits of each and every one of them, individually and in groups. Alright, take a deep breath—you can do this. The first step in taming the wedding-portrait dragon is to get a complete list of everyone you will be photographing, as well as a list of each grouping (and who is in each group). You’ll need a designated “spotter” who knows all the players, and who will help you find and corral each person when it’s his or her turn under the lights. (Members of the immediate families will be able to appoint your official spotter or spotters.)

Speaking of lights, the portraits portion of your assignment is perhaps the most crucial in terms of lighting. While the photographs captured during the ceremony and the pre- and post-ceremony festivities are essentially spontaneous shots of a more journalistic nature, the portraits are the crown jewels of the occasion and should be approached as such.

If you‘re shooting in a modern catering facility, hotel or other establishment that specializes in weddings and other large catered affairs, there’s a good chance you will have access to a large open area with ample room for your lights and, if needed, a backdrop. Before you set up your first light, you should know in advance the number of people in the largest group photo of the day and set up your lights and background to accommodate that number of people. By setting your lights to evenly light the largest scheduled group portrait, you’re automatically home free in terms of evenly lighting the smaller groups as well as the newlyweds. When placing your lights, you should allow for enough spillage to evenly illuminate an area a bit beyond the last person on the left and right sides of the frame.

Depending on the number of packs and heads they are toting, as well as the number of camera wielding backup assistants they are working with, some photographers set up a smaller lighting system that allows for carefully modeled lighting for individuals, couples and small groups, and a larger setup designed to cast an even wash of light across a broader area for larger group portraits. If time, space and other logistics make setting up two separate portrait stations difficult, all of the portraits can be taken just as easily using the large-group lighting setup.

When shooting wedding portraits, you want to create a wall of soft light from above and approximately 45 degrees to the side, which requires the use of large umbrellas (40 to 60") or soft boxes (2 x 3' or 3 x 4'). For photographing singles, couples and small groups of three to four individuals, two lights of this sort, complemented by a rim light from behind and above should fill the bill. You should also use pieces of tape on the floor—for “blocking”—to mark where people will be standing for each grouping. For larger groups, you’ll want to use more umbrellas or light boxes in order to maintain an even sweep of soft light with little falloff. Assuming you have enough juice in your packs and room to spread out, you can further even out the light by moving your lights farther back from the subject positions you have marked with tape.

The qualities of a light source are determined by a combination of the type and size of the umbrella or softbox you are using, as well as the distance of the umbrella/softbox from your subject(s). As a rule, the closer the umbrella/softbox is to your subject, the softer the light will be, the farther away, the more specular (directional and hard) it will be. On the same note, the larger the umbrella/softbox is, the farther you can move the lights from your subject while maintaining a soft wall of light.

Although electronic flash systems are the lights of choice among portrait photographers due to their ability to capture sharp, blur-free images, some photographers are beginning to incorporate compact fluorescent lighting systems into their tool kits. The advantages of compact fluorescents are that they are relatively inexpensive, they’re daylight balanced, soft in nature, produce little heat and because they are a continuous source, they are extremely easy to model. The downside is that, unlike flash, they cannot freeze movement and cannot produce the same volume of light in relation to size that electronic packs and heads produce. Regardless of your choice of lighting, always make sure you tape and secure all cables in place in order to avoid accidents. Whenever possible, use wireless triggering for your lights.

It’s always a good idea to have an assistant, or better yet, a stylist/makeup person available to act as a second pair of eyes for spotting (and fixing) crooked collars and ties, bunched-up jackets or dresses, awkward hand or foot positioning and other imperfections that can throw off an otherwise perfect portrait.

In terms of optics, depending on the number of people in your largest group shot and how far you can back up in order to fit them all into the frame, you will most likely be forced to use a wide-angle lens. If this is the case, be aware of any distortions that might occur near the edges of the frame and try your best to keep the lens plane square to your subjects. Don’t place anyone too close to the edges of the frame, in order to avoid turning otherwise normal-looking people into distorted caricatures. (For more information, please see the InDepth Guide to Lenses.)

Some Basic Parameters for Taking Portraits

The guidelines for posing formal portrait subjects are far too numerous to delve into here, and many of them have to do with the regional and religious customs of the parties involved, as well as the physiognomy of your subjects. There are, however, a few basic rules that make photographic sense regardless of whom, when or where you are photographing.

One rule that’s all but universally agreed upon is to avoid photographing your subjects facing straight forward into the lens as if they were posing for a police mug shot. Have your subject(s) turned at a slight angle to the camera—this goes for solo portraits, couples or entire families. If the bride and groom are in the photograph, always position them front and center, slightly facing one another, with all those to the left and right of them angled inward toward the couple. Similarly, the couple can be posed in the foreground, with other members of the bridal party trailing off behind them, or perhaps placed in strategic spots in one of the “photo-op” locations you found when you scouted the location previously. It’s always a good idea to use hands and arms as bridges between the individuals in the portrait. By placing a hand on a shoulder or around one another’s waists, you form a visual connection between them that is almost always missing from the standard “line-up” portraits. Hands are very expressive and say a great deal about their owners and their relationships.

Once the men in your portrait are positioned at the optimal angle, always have each person place his weight on the rearmost foot, while pointing the foremost foot toward the camera. As for hands and arms, try to avoid stiff or dangling appendages. Instead, have at least one of your subject’s arms angled, with at least one of the hands angled with a hand in a pants pocket, thumb showing, or placed on a brother’s or buddy’s shoulder in comradely fashion. Make sure shirt sleeves are showing about an inch beyond the jacket sleeves. As for jackets buttoned or unbuttoned, this all depends on the subject’s physique and how well the suit is tailored, as well as on their sense of personal style.

Women should be angled to the camera as well, weight on the rearmost foot, their hands on the shoulders or around waists of their husbands, partners or escorts to keep them from dangling awkwardly (assuming religious practices allow members of both teams to touch; if you aren’t certain, check with the officiant of the day). Bridesmaids can keep their hands occupied with their bouquets. Check for errant strands of hair, makeup smudges, smeared lipstick or unsightly clothing drape.

Unless you’re photographing in a specific, previously agreed upon format, you should shoot full-length, half and tighter head-and-shoulder portraits of each group or individual in order to facilitate a sense of uniformity when laying out the wedding albums and prints for framing and display.

When photographing the bride, flowers are a no-brainer solution for hand posing, and even here there’s a simple rule worth following that involves using the rear-positioned hand to hold the weight of the flowers while using the forward hand as the more relaxed “posing” hand. The bride should also support her weight on the leg farther from the camera, and use her front leg to show off the dress, on which she has spent a great deal of time and money. Always keep an eye out for distracting strands of hair, make-up smears, drooping lashes, Aunt Celia’s lipstick imprint on her cheek and other details that can mar an otherwise wonderful portrait. Frame the bride’s portraits in full length, three-quarter and head-shot orientations.

Capturing a natural smile can sometimes be more difficult than you might expect.  If, when setting up a pose, your subjects are distracted by otherwise innocent bystanders, you should—in a professional, friendly, but no less business-like tone—request that those who are not part of the portrait to kindly allow those in the portrait to remain in focus.

Smiles can be fleeting, and depending on the individual(s) posing, smiles can quickly turn to strained grimaces by the time you press the shutter. This can be especially true when shooting out of doors where squinting eyes can crimp the nicest smiles. Rather than ask everyone to say an extended “cheeeese,” ask them instead to relax their faces, not smile, look away or close their eyes, and on the count of three collectively open their eyes, smile and look straight into the lens—with or without saying “cheese,” “teeth” or some other smile-inducing word. In most cases you’ll have equally fresh smiles on everyone’s face with few, if any, inevitable eye blinks. This “resting face” routine should be repeated at least two or three times, and maybe more with larger group portraits.

When shooting outdoor portraits on bright days, don’t have your subjects face the sun unless it’s late in the day when the rays are low on the horizon, warm in tone and far less likely to cause squinting. Instead, place your subjects so their backs are to the sun, or at the very least, over their shoulders. Use diffused fill flash or a soft reflector to light their faces, preferably from a three-quarter angle. You can also use a large diffuser between them and the sun to soften its midday rays. Another practice worth considering when shooting outdoor portraits is to use wider-aperture lenses in order to maintain controllable levels of selective focus. With selective focus, you are able to minimize visually distracting details in the foreground and background.

Although telephotos are more effective in terms of narrowing the range of selective focus technique, wide-angle lenses with maximum apertures of f/2 to f/1.4 can be equally effective when used at closer ranges, as long as you keep an eye out for distortions that can occur when using wide-angle lenses too close to the subject.

Just as people’s tastes in fashion change, the same is true for wedding photography, and this is best illustrated as less formal editorial or journalistic styles have overtaken the more formal look of the more traditional wedding photos of our parents and grandparents. This is an issue that should be discussed well in advance with your clients. You should have a small portfolio to show examples of each style (either printed out on fine art photo paper in a portfolio case or on a computer tablet) so the engaged couple can decide which approach they prefer.

Do you have any personal techniques for making wedding portraits that have worked for you time and again? If you’d care to share your ideas, suggestions, experiences or ask questions, please feel free to post them in the Comments section below. We’d be pleased to read and discuss any thoughts with you.

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I generally find it too complicated to remember all the 'shoulds' and 'shouldn'ts' when it comes to the bride and groom photos.  My style is more informal - I ask them to stand a certain way, perhaps, and then we just go with it. If they start laughing or moving about, so much the better.  Don't restrict yourself to the way wedding photographs 'should' be posed - let people have a good time, and you'll always get the best shots.