Photographers reveal how they put nervous couples at ease, capture staged moments that feel 100 percent genuine, and create incredible portraits that stand the test of time.
This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Weddings, published December 2019.
We’ve all seen a wedding portrait before. The yellowing photograph of your grandparents or great-grandparents standing in front of an altar, a formula recycled for a few generations. Though they’re invaluable artifacts of a time that feels forever ago, these wedding portraits can also read a tad cliché—the smiles stiff, the poses forced.
That said, the infamous wedding portrait—and its brethren, the individual portrait—aren’t going anywhere. They’re just getting a contemporary touchup.
“Although I love being a fly on the wall and documenting real moments, portraits are an important part of the wedding day,” says Comfort Witcher of Comfort Photography. “Photographs of the bride and groom together, looking at the camera, is an important tradition that will never go out of style.”Like what you’re reading? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.
Today’s professional wedding photographers are experts at ensuring that the classic portrait’s emotional intention remains, but is infused with modern visual aesthetics and captured through the unique lens of the individual couple’s story and personality.
So when one-size-fits-all wedding portraits will not do, how do photographers do it? How do they compose a kind of photograph that’s been done a million times over and still manage to make it look like the first?
Turns out, it’s a lot like love.
Make sure the relationship works
While cost certainly matters, couples should consider more than just pricing, Witcher says. They should look at a photographer’s prior work, examples of which are typically on their website or blog, and they should be sure to meet with the photographer before hiring them.
“They should try to imagine hanging out with their potential photographer for up to 12 hours, because the photographer is the one vendor that they will have to spend the most time with,” Witcher says. “There would be no point in booking a photographer whose work you loved if you hated their personality. How does this person make you feel, and is that how you want to feel on your wedding day? Assuming that [couples] are only meeting with photographers whose work and pricing are comparative, they should look for a genuine connection with the person they decide on.”
Ben Hartley of Style & Story says a photographer should “build connection and trust with the couple as humans rather than someone who has hired you as a vendor. I listen to what they actually want to be reflected in their images, rather than tell them about ‘my style.’”
Having good chemistry with your photographer can not only make your wedding-day photographs the best they can be—it can help you find a portrait photographer for life, someone who you hire for every major milestone of your time as a couple.
Nicole Dixon of Nicole Dixon Photographic photographed a couple’s wedding in 2018, having previously flown to Seattle with them to do an engagement session, and in 2019 photographed them with their new dog. Who knows what’s to come? Regardless, she’s looking forward to photographing it, because the three of them have established such a connection.
“It’s super cool that I get to photograph their engagement, wedding, first dog,” Dixon says. “It’s an honor to document the parts and places of their life together.”
Trust your partner
Regardless of how familiar you are around a selfie stick, expect day-of jitters in front of the camera.
“Ninety-nine percent of couples get a little nervous,” Dixon says. “Everyone thinks they’re unique, feeling awkward in front of the camera, but it’s very common. I try to reassure them that we’re just having fun and going to make great pictures. I also tell them that those awkward laughs in the beginning can translate to a very cute photo.”
Witcher agrees, often letting a couple laugh it out for the first few minutes of a portrait session.
“Laughter makes everything better, so I talk to and laugh with my couples all day long,” says Witcher, who builds 20 to 30 minutes into the wedding day timelines in order to get the best portraits without feeling rushed. “For some couples that are extra nervous, I will sometimes start the session by telling them to look at each other for the first several photos, instead of looking directly into the camera. That tends to ease the nerves of having the camera pointed at them.”
During the day-of portrait session, it’s important to remember that you did your homework and trust that you picked the right person to do this job—a professional who knows your best angles, understands what you want, and has made you the day’s No. 1 priority.
“I work with [couples] on the timeline for the day to make sure they get enough time for photographs as they would like,” Hartley says. “[I also] know my craft so damn well that I don’t have to think about it during the photo shoot. I can be 100 percent present with whoever is in front of my lens.”
Indeed, a great photographer will have the physical skill, mental clarity and necessary experience to be genuine, so that genuineness will be reflected back in the photograph.
“The goal is making the couple comfortable. That really comes across as genuine,” Dixon says. “I might set up a moment for them to have but then hang back and let them continue to have those moments together. I’ll set up an instance or might have a few cues that will invite them to be themselves, to have a little convo on their own, maybe give each other a peck on the cheek.”
Love that looks authentic, a moment that feels natural even when it’s obviously posed—these are the antidotes to antiquated wedding portraits of yesteryear.
“During our time together, my goal is to evoke natural responses from the couple, so I give them prompts and suggestions to get them interacting,” Witcher says. “I also give them a few minutes to themselves, to interact however they like. I encourage them to remain close, to show each other love, and to be themselves. I want the portraits to be a true representation of who they are and how they felt on their wedding day. Also, long before the wedding, I encourage all of my couples to do an engagement session with me so that they can practice.”
Be open to new ideas
Witcher says her happiest couples always express something similar about their final portraits.
“What I hear the most is that the photographs really capture who they are. Authenticity is what matters most,” Witcher says. “For example, one of my grooms was super silly this summer and during the portrait session, I captured a photograph of him pretending to lick the bride’s forehead when he was supposed to be kissing her forehead. That might be a throwaway image to some, but I included it for them because it genuinely tells us all something about their personality and their relationship!”
These portraits can be influenced by more than you and your fiancé’s individual personalities as well.
“I’m really good at reading people and determining what type of relationship they have, either together as a couple or with their families, and I incorporate that into the photograph,” Dixon says. “Maybe it’s a more formal family. I’ll let that influence the style. Or if I know they love moments, I’ll focus more on that.”
Regardless, her in-the-moment work and decision-making is led by the conversations she’s already had with the couple.
“After doing this as long as I have, I’ve really found that I’m good at understanding what they need or want in a portrait,” Dixon says. “I also make sure I have talked to the couple about the style they want. I have them show me photographs they like, which can speak volumes to the style they’re looking for. I reaffirm those stylistic qualities. Maybe they want something more journalistic? Something more posed? Something more dramatic? We talk about what their expectations are in those types of posed photos.”
When the big day rolls around and it’s time to take the portraits, your photographer might make a decision or suggest a pose that you don’t quite understand. This is normal, and photographers are ready for questions. As for Hartley, he keeps it human. If a couple seems nervous during their portrait session, “I slow down,” he says. “I encourage them and talk through what I am doing and how amazing the results will be. I show them an image of what I created.”
It seems apropos that photographic success on something as emotional as a wedding day relies on generating positive feelings.
Hartley says the couples in his best portraits “felt like the most important people in the world. They were able to enjoy the process of creating imagery with me and were able to have complete peace of mind knowing the photographs were going to look incredible.”